Rosie Jones on reclaiming the disability narrative and (not) being the voice for a community
Comedian Rosie Jones speaks to Cathy Reay ahead of her Channel 4 documentary, Rosie Jones: Am I a R*tard?
“I need to warn you now, I’ve literally come straight from my therapy session, so you’re gonna get whatever you want out of me!” Comedian Rosie Jones throws her head back with laughter then looks me square in the eyes with a huge grin. However bad a day you’re having, it’s absolutely impossible not to smile when you’re around Rosie Jones.
Jones, a self-described Triple Threat – “I’m gay, I’m disabled, and I’m a p***k”, is talking to us at one of the busiest times in her calendar year. “June and July are my months, because June is gay pride and July is disability pride. So, I spend all of June going ‘I’m gay, I’m so gay, I’m GAY!’ and now, ‘I’m DISABLED, baby!’”, she laughs, whooping and throwing her arms in the air.
She joins us fresh from Brighton Comedy Festival, where she performed alongside peers and friends including Brett Goldstein and Nish Kumar. “It was five really fun, really great acts,” she says cheerily, before suddenly adding in a hushed tone: “Can I tell you a secret?”
She brandishes her phone and shows me the background photo: a stunning shot of Goldstein’s Ted Lasso co-star, Hannah Waddingham. “My phone was on the table, Brett picked it up and was like, ‘Whose phone is this? Who’s got Hannah as their background?’ and then Nish was like, ‘of course it’s gonna be Pervert Jones,’ so Brett actually videocalled Hannah right there! Nish and Brett said they’d never seen me so coy!” We both begin laughing raucously, again.
“Brighton, Sunday, was probably the best day of my life,” she concludes proudly with a glint in her eye.
Within just a few short minutes, Rosie Jones has made me laugh more than I usually do in a week. It’s so refreshing seeing a disabled comedian, when we’re all too often the butt of everyone else’s jokes. Is comedy her way of taking back control and reclaiming the narrative around disability? “Yes, absolutely,” she nods.
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“I’ve been disabled all my life. I can’t really explain it, but it’s odd knowing you’re different before you can even talk or walk.”
We both learned to walk when we were four, by which time we were already well aware of how hostile the world can be towards disability.
“Instead, I grew my social ability,” Jones says. “I remember the joy it gave me when I realised that I could make people laugh. My first day at school I did a speech and I stood in front of my class and said, 'Hello, I’m Rosie, I’m disabled. [I have] cerebral palsy, it means that I talk a bit funny, and I fall over a lot, A LOT.' And now I joke and say that was my first stand-up gig.”
She tells me she fell over on Sunday in Brighton and it really hurt – but, being Rosie Jones, she made a joke out of it.
“I didn’t cry, and I didn’t get annoyed, because even when I fall over, even when I’m injured, my first thought is I don’t want everyone else to feel awkward or uncomfortable. I want to own this. I am not the victim, I am the comedian on the floor, making everyone else happy," she says.
As well as performing stand-up this summer, Jones is also on the promotional trail for two television programmes – the second series of Rosie Jones’s Disability Comedy Extravaganza, airing on UKTV in August, and the Channel 4 documentary Rosie Jones: Am I A R*tard?, out tonight.
There has been a lot of attention around the documentary, as it was recently revealed a number of disabled interviewees retracted their filmed contributions over concerns about the inclusion of a harmful slur in the title. Many disabled people took to social media to air their views, some of which – as you might imagine – were not so complimentary.
In the documentary, the comedian details her personal experiences being on the receiving end of online abuse as a disabled woman in the public eye. She wants it to open up a wider conversation about how, societally, we don’t take ableist insults seriously – and how that’s not good enough.
I ask Rosie how she handles not being able to please an entire community of people and being OK with knowing you’re going to p**s some of them off. “You should’ve been in my therapy Zoom 10 minutes ago! My god, you can write an article about that,” she laughs, then her face suddenly falls serious. “It is s**t, it’s been a s**t week. But I am never gonna please everyone.
“This has highlighted that the disabled community isn’t one monolith, there isn’t one person with the same opinion, it’s so rich and wide.”
Often shocking people and disrupting the status quo can be more effective than trying to play nice. Jones nods: “This little doc, this title, is hard-hitting, it’s grabbing someone and going ‘How do you like this?’ but we’re talking. Did I like how much I was getting criticised on social media? No! But I have never seen such a huge debate and discussion about language, ableism and slurs. So, actually, we need that.”
Rosie Jones might be sharing her experiences, but she isn’t the voice for the disabled community, nor does she want to be. “When I found myself having a voice and a platform, it was incredibly important to me to bring people up with me,” she says.
“It’s getting less and less now, but when it comes to minorities, in any career field, I feel like there’s a panic of thinking, 'Ooh there’s only one space and I need to hold that space and I need to pull the ladder up with me', and I do not think that’s the case at all.”
That’s partly why she created Rosie Jones’s Disability Comedy Extravaganza, which platforms up-and-coming disabled comedians. Stars from the first series of the Extravaganza have gone on to appear on Mock the Week and a host of other shows. “In stand-up, on line-ups, on panel shows, I should never be the only disabled person flying that flag. Disability Comedy Extravaganza is my way to go ‘right, stop looking at me, I’m doing OK, let’s shine a light on all the other brilliant disabled comedians out there’.”
Rosie Jones: Am I a R*tard? airs 10pm, Thursday 20th July on Channel 4. The second series of Rosie Jones’s Disability Comedy Extravaganza airs on UKTV Play in August.