“I really find it quite uncomfortable being around people with Tourette’s,” confessed comedian Gerard Harris. “I don’t like them, they set me off.”
This is not the preamble to some bad taste joke: it is Harris’s genuine view and one that he is well qualified to explain. Like an estimated 1% of the population, Harris, 47, who has been doing standup since his early 30s, has Tourette’s syndrome.
“My shows are hour-long therapy sessions, but I am over the vast majority of my shit,” Harris said. “I’m doing it because I’ve got to work and I like making other people laugh.”
Harris who has OCD, ADHD and experienced childhood trauma, describes Tourette’s as “by far the most shameful affliction that I have”.
“It impacts on your life physically and psychologically in every way,” he explained.
Making the decision to be a comedian took a leap of courage. “It’s bloody hard to do comedy, but even harder when you are used to hiding your own damn self in public. The last thing you want to do is draw attention to yourself more.”
Now, along with other comedians around the world who have Tourette’s, Harris is taking part in a groundbreaking project to destigmatise a syndrome that remains the butt of jokes even today.
At last year’s Edinburgh fringe, controversy surrounded the “funniest joke” award presented to comedian Olaf Falafel.
His joke – “I keep randomly shouting out ‘broccoli’ and ‘cauliflower’. I think I might have florets” – drew criticism from many within the Tourette’s community for the stereotypes it helped to perpetuate about a hereditary, neurological condition characterised by “tics” – sudden, uncontrollable movements or sounds that can be painful and very debilitating. Contrary to popular belief, very few people who have Tourette’s swear involuntarily, but comedy has helped perpetuate this view.
“Coprolalia is the most extreme example,” Harris said. “I say it’s the only bit of Tourette’s I don’t have. I just swear a lot because I’m British.”
The collaboration between Harris and his fellow comedians with researchers from the universities of Bath and Oxford will help inform a forthcoming book, Tourette Syndrome, Stigma and Society, which will include chapters examining the relationship between the syndrome and humour.
It builds on earlier qualitative work by the research teams, which examined the stigma and social exclusion many with the syndrome have experienced when growing up.
“I was hidden in the cupboards and the rooms,” one person with the syndrome told the researchers. “I was never taken out in public. I was even kept away from my own family, except from my grandparents.”
“Many of our participants with Tourette’s reported that they rely on their partners or family members for support as they would be too ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help for a ‘swearing disease’,” explained lead researcher, Dr Melina Malli from the University of Oxford. “Many talked about the loneliness linked to having a condition that renders them a joke, while others highlighted the lack of reasonable adjustment their employers were willing to make for them. These are all aspects of Tourette’s that have not been talked about, as the condition has been trivialised through humour and jokes.”
Professor Rachel Forrester-Jones, director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Policy at the University of Bath, explained: “Over the years jokes about Tourette’s have resonated and have shaped what people think about the condition, yet in a very narrow and specific way. This matters and has tangible impact on people’s lives because, partly as a consequence, we’ve too often downplayed the severity of Tourette’s and the support people need.”
Forrester-Jones has herself done standup, performing at venues in Margate and Canterbury. She said: “This new work is a recognition that comedy is a powerful tool. But by turning this issue on its head and by interviewing comedians who themselves have Tourette’s, we want to give them ownership of the issue, empowering them to shape the debates and discourse which influence attitudes towards Tourette’s.”
The researchers are keen to interview as many comedians with the syndrome as they can find. Participants have already been found in the Netherlands and Iceland.
“Studies suggest that people with Tourette’s are generally very creative and engage in different artforms, for example, comedy, music and theatre,” Malli said. “It is though interesting to understand why so many have focused on standup comedy. Some of the comedians I talked to said they liked the fact they could use comedy to make people laugh with them, rather than at them.”
So what did Harris think when he heard a Tourette’s joke had won the award at the Edinburgh fringe?