This had not been the kind of rock 'n' roll gig Steady Eddy prefers. But it had served as a useful reminder: a comic who suffers from cerebral palsy, and whose condition is an integral part of his act, can't always count on the sympathy factor when it comes to playing for laughs. Steady Eddy (or 'Sted' as he's often referred to in that quaint Australian way of abbreviating everything to the absolute) has grown used to criticism.
A disabled comedian who tells appallingly tasteless jokes about being disabled to mainly able-bodied audiences can expect no less than hanging judges for critics. A few nights into his Edinburgh run he received a letter from a disabled magazine in London threatening to disrupt the show. 'That's without even seeing me,' he complains. 'They're just condemning me before I walk on the stage.'
Yet Edinburgh audiences and critics have given him an enthusiastic reception. The only other disabled comic I have seen in recent years relied on material of equally poor taste, yet ran straight into a wall of silence. There's a difference between titters of embarrassed laughter and the kind of explosive reactions Steady Eddy has received. The night I saw him, a paraplegic was rocking in his chair with laughter, or, in Sted vernacular, 'pissing himself . . . literally'. It may come as upsetting reading to his detractors, but Steady Eddy is a hit.
He employs two types of disabled joke in his act. There's the out-and-out gratuitous: 'I wanted to give up smoking. I'm not scared of lung cancer. I'm just sick of burning my ear.' And then there's the hang-on-to-your-prejudices approach. 'I've been doing some TV work in Australia and it's done wonders for my career,' he slurs. 'I sell twice as many pens at the weekend.' He will as happily mock the afflicted as the use of language that afflicts them. 'The first time I saw a sign saying 'Disabled Toilet' I went off to find one that worked.' Likewise the madness of PC jargon. 'At least in America I'm not disabled . . . I'm physically challenged.' This is the kind of humour born only of bitter experience. As he says in the show after a particularly unsound gag, 'What were you expecting? A good little cripple boy?'
He was working as a Navy storeman when he saw his sister perform at Sydney's Comedy Store and thought he'd try the open- mike spot himself. 'It was very shaky,' he remembers. 'But I got more confident as my material became more outrageous.' Daytime- TV slots thrust him into the limelight and, three and a half years after his first gig, he's a national phenomenon. Aged just 25, he is currently in possession of Australia's awards for Best New Wave Comic, Best Stand-Up Performer and Best Comedy Album.
He may be at pains to be seen as a taboo-breaker, but he is just as intensely aware of his marketability. Ask him why his material concentrates almost exclusively on his disability and you receive two replies. First, 'The comedy's got to come from your own personal experience; if it doesn't, it's not you, it's manufactured.' But then, more revealingly, 'I've got a ready-made market, so it would be stupid for me not to use it.' And to sate that market he now has a team of gag writers who write - some might say 'manufacture' - most of his TV material.
But the live show, he insists, is mostly written by himself. He also refutes accusations that he is nothing more than a one-gag wonder. In Australia he now includes more straightforward material in his act. He also plans at some stage to record a blues album and to do some acting. But he'll only stop making jokes about disability, he says, 'when they find a cure'. Laugh or barf, there's no dismissing him.
He recalls his childhood: 'My teachers told me I had to be inconspicuous to fit into the mainstream of society . . . yet every morning a bus would pick me up with 'Spastic Centre' written down the side.' Instead of berating him, perhaps we should just recognise that this is one brave disabled man's attempt to stand up and be counted.
'Quantum Limp Tour': Gilded Balloon (venue 38), 233 Cowgate (031-226 2151). 8.45pm. To 3 Sept; then on tour to 25 Sept
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