Just because Stephen Hawking – a famously disabled spastic – created black holes while sitting in his wheelchair, it doesn't mean you will be able to." These were the opening lines in Campus, the improvised sitcom pilot by Green Wing creator Victoria Pile that began Channel 4's new Comedy Showcase season earlier this month. They were delivered to a disabled student by the vice chancellor of Campus's fictional (it would have to be) Kirke University, and were supposed to establish the character as a thoroughly un-PC mix of David Brent and Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It. They were also presumably intended to shock the audience. But did they?
I watched Campus at a preview screening for Comedy Showcase, a show-reel of snippets from the six comedies in the season, and I was only shocked at the unoriginality of the gag. These days every new comic monster has to test his mettle with the disabled, it seems, a rite of sitcom passage established when David Brent and co-worker Gareth carried Brenda, the wheelchair user in The Office, to a stairwell during a fire-drill, and left her there. To be wrong-headed, insensitive, prejudiced or downright rude to disabled characters has almost become a default mode for a certain type of post-Alan Partridge sitcom character – from David Brent to Larry David. Indeed just last week, there was a very funny Curb Your Enthusiasm episode in which Larry discovered the advantages of dating the disabled.
But more of that later, because sitting in the same audience watching Campus, as well as his company's own Comedy Showcase entry, The Amazing Dermot (which features a running gag about a deaf nurse), was Ash Atalla – not only a wheelchair user himself after a bout of childhood polio, but also the man who famously produced The Office. "It's interesting when you watch certain comedies back to back you can see certain themes," he says when we catch up later. "It does feel like there's probably quite a lot of that around at the moment, doesn't it?"
Log on to YouTube and type in "David Brent's thoughts on the disabled" if you want to understand what Atalla is referring to by "that". "At least the little handicapped fella is able-minded," opines Brent. "Unless he's not. It's difficult to tell with wheelchair ones, so just give generously to all of them." Also on YouTube is Ricky Gervais's 2004 Comedy Awards acceptance speech, in which Gervais remarked, pointing out Atalla in the audience, "Stephen Hawking... probably had his little nose put out of joint (which, to be honest, is the least of his problems) because he's usually the best one in the room." That Stephen Hawking gag again.
The comedy lies in saying the unsayable. But how unsaid is it anymore? "I think you have to look at the timing of all this... The Office was probably six or seven years ago," says Atalla. "In the intervening years it's just become sort of... " Lazy? Repetitive? Less funny each time? "Well, disability is one of those areas that are a stock way to get laughs. But of late, there does seem to have been a spate of... it does seem more and more prevalent."
The comedy here is the modish comedy of embarrassment, and disability provides plenty of scope for characters to tie themselves into well-meaning knots, as well as to leak their subconscious prejudices and ignorance. "People would often get themselves tied up in knots with me," says Atalla. "It was always a strange mix of people not wishing to cause offence to the extent of not saying anything, not even mentioning the wheelchair... they could hardly bring themselves to say the word. And then there are people who are extremely blatant and sometimes rude. Although Brent was ultimately rude, he probably fell into the former category".
Now, however, a blackly funny new Channel 4 drama, Cast Offs, looks at disability not from the point of view of able-bodied sensitivities, but from the point of view of the disabled. Cast Offs is a satire of the Survivor-type reality TV shows, in which six disabled people are marooned on a remote island. Dubbed by one of the characters as "Spastic Island", the show features April (played by Victoria Wright), a research scientist with cherubism (the genetic disorder which causes the lower half of the face to swell out of proportion); Carrie (Kiruna Stamell), an unemployed Australian with Dwarfism; Dan (Peter Mitchell), a 26-year-old paraplegic; Gabby (Sophie Woolley), a deaf mother-to-be; Tom (Tim Gebbels), a blind actor, and Will, a Thalidomide-affected political activist. The latter is played by Mat Fraser, who starred in a similarly groundbreaking TV drama in 2004, Lizzie Mickery's excellent Every Time You Look at Me, in which a "Flid" (Fraser) falls in love with a woman with dwarfism.
The cast illustrates the wide scope of the term "disability", but what is unusual about Cast Offs is that the drama is being played by actors with the same disabilities as their characters. Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man may have won Oscars for their depictions of cerebral palsy and autism, but the movement now is towards disabled actors playing disabled people. Or, as Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae, the disabled-led theatre company, once put it: "Crippling up is the blacking up of the 21st century."
"I've come round to that way of thinking in the last few years," says Atalla. "There was quite a strong argument that it was almost impossible to find disabled actors who can do the job. But, as the years have gone on, you can find the right disabled actors to do your part."
Atalla says he had difficulties casting the deaf nurse in his upcoming Comedy Showcase, The Amazing Dermot, which stars the New Zealand actor Rhys Darby (Bret and Jemaine's hapless agent, Murray, in Flight of the Conchords) as the eponymous magician, a fairly typical post-Brentian comic monster. And this despite there being "one or two deaf actresses who are cleaning up all the work... they are rather good." In the end, Atalla's personal assistant suggested a deaf friend from university with no acting experience, Genevieve Barr.
Atalla says he has never cast an able-bodied actor, or an "AB" as they are known, as a disabled person – Julie Fernandez, who played Brenda in The Office, being a real wheelchair user. "That's partly to do with my personal circumstances," he says. "People might say to me, 'You of all people ought to know better'. But I'm coming round to the point of view that it's simply hard to defend anyway."
Meanwhile, each twice-weekly episode of Cast Offs will tell the individual stories of the contestants on its faux reality TV show, starting with Dan, a promising rugby player who was involved in a car crash and now concentrates his energies on wheelchair basketball. There is a tender scene where Dan is picked up by a woman in a pub, and the complexities, emotional and physical, of having sex in such circumstances is treated with great sensitivity. Less sensitive was Larry David's hilarious handling of the same subject in last week's Curb Your Enthusiasm – David's full-on tackling of the issue was jaw-dropping, as he tried to have sex with "Denise Handicap", as he had the wheelchair-user listed in his BlackBerry.
But isn't that the joy of comedy – that it can ride roughshod over taboo subjects that otherwise fill people with embarrassment? Or is all this broad, knockabout stuff concerning the disabled simply coarsening sensibilities and confirming prejudices rather than confronting them? Joel Wilson, producer of Cast Offs, hopes his show "will do for disabled people what Queer as Folk did for gay people: make people see that disabled people are no more and no less fucked up than anyone else." Victoria Wright, who plays April, the research scientist with cherubism, says: "This is not something that's really been seen before, showing us as adults who drink, swear and have sex. I am sure there are going to be a lot of people saying, 'My goodness, I didn't know disabled people could do that'."
Some things never change, though, and Cast Offs goes out after 11pm. Why doesn't Channel 4 put its scheduling where its mouth is, and screen this at 9pm? Meanwhile Cast Offs co-creator Jack Thorne recently wrote about the dangers of comedically targeting the disabled. Thorne, who is disabled (or is it impaired?) with a heat-allergic skin condition called chronic cholinergic urticaria, has said, "I do think disablism is one of the last great prejudices still permissible in modern liberal society. On Jay Leno's talk show earlier this year, President Obama said of his White House bowling score 'It's like – it was like Special Olympics or something.' He got a big laugh. He subsequently apologised, but I think if Obama had made that comment about a racial group he may well have been impeached and there would probably have been riots."
Cast Offs begins on Channel 4 on Tuesday 24 November; Comedy Showcase: The Amazing Dermot is on Friday 4 December.