Ep 8: Activism Through Comedy with Madeleine Stewart

In this episode, Manisha Amin speaks with professional funny person Madeleine Stewart. Madeleine is an award-winning comedian, writer, producer, life-long disability advocate and creator behind Crips and Creeps: Sydney’s first accessible comedy club.


Manisha: There’s a quote which says “A good laugh heals a lot of hurts.” There’s another by the poet Byron that says, “Always laugh when you can. It’s a cheap medicine.” Welcome to With Not For, a podcast from the Centre for Inclusive Design, where we look at how we can make our world more inclusive through natural, built and personal experiences.

My name is Manisha Amin, speaking to you today from the lands of the Cammeraygal people here in North Sydney, Australia. Joining us here today is comedian, producer, and lifelong disability advocate, Madeleine Stewart, who has a show coming up at the Melbourne and Sydney comedy festivals from April, called Brave. It’s so lovely to meet you. And thank you so much for being here today.

Madeleine: Thank you so much for having me. I’m very happy to be here.

Manisha: Look, it’s a real pleasure. And I think that the world needs more comedians, right?

Madeleine: Sure. I mean, certainly more interesting comedians, I think we’ve done with all the straight white men, they’ve had their say. And I think now it’s time for some different comedians.

Manisha: And some diversity.

Madeleine: Yes, some diversity.

Manisha: Absolutely. So tell us about yourself.

Madeleine: Oh, I am a – oh, how do I even begin? I’m a comedian. I started stand up comedy when I was 16, and now I’m 28. So it’s been a long ride. And I am a person with disability, I’m missing my left forearm underneath my elbow. So it makes me look like a Paralympian without actually doing any of the hard work. And I’m very happy about that.

Manisha: That’s hilarious. That’s really interesting, especially that last comment about Paralympians. Do you think that there is a judgement around what people with disabilities should and shouldn’t be doing, in terms of the public space and what people are interested in?

Madeleine: Absolutely, I think you just hit the nail on the head. There is absolutely this preconceived idea that either people with disability are an object of pity, or an object of inspiration. And there’s like no in between, there’s no space for real human beings and real lived experiences. And I mean, not that it’s bad to be a Paralympian, they’re fantastic, aren’t they? And they’re just inspirational in the sense that they are athletes, and they train so hard. But I think once we get into the world of you’re inspiring for buying a coffee in the morning, or remembering your name, that is, that’s pity, that’s not inspiration, you just have lowered expectations of me.

Manisha: As a comedian, then, you started comedy when you were 16. Why comedy? What was your interest in this area?

Madeleine: So this story started with, like my little journey to comedy started with one evening, my brother and I went to Campbelltown Arts Centre, which is where I’m from, Campbelltown. And we saw Adam Hills. And as you know, Adam Hills is missing his right foot. And he is very, very funny. And throughout the show, I saw my peers in this community, I saw the Mayor, I saw all these like MPs and you know, the people in the community that meant something, they were looking at Adam with this kind of awe, and they just loved him. And they didn’t see him as a person with disability. And they didn’t see him or look at him the way that I had been looked at. And I saw that as something of power.

And I really wanted to explore that. And I really wanted people to look at me the way that they looked at Adam. And I thought comedy was the way in. And that’s certainly how I started my journey with comedy, to try and get a voice and try and get – I wanted people to see me differently. But as I’ve gone, only my comedy journey is kind of transformed into something else, which is more activism through comedy.

Manisha: And how did you end up in an activist space? Because when we’ve spoken in the past, you’ve mentioned that when you were young, activists, activism was really part of your language.

Madeleine: No. So growing up, I didn’t really see anyone like me – I was, I think I maybe met two other people with disability in Campbelltown. The only time I saw kids like me was at the Children’s Hospital, and it was all very macabre and sad. And I just didn’t feel connected to the community in any way. And I kind of like rejected disability, like it was a bad thing or something to be shameful of. And I just wanted to be accepted and normal just like every other teenager. It’s a very boring, ordinary story of a teenage girl wanting to be, you know –

Manisha: The same.

Madeleine: – invisible and the same. But unfortunately, like when you have a physical disability, you’re always going to be looked at. And I think the more control, and the more control I had over the way that people looked at me, the better I felt. But now I’m older, and I guess I can’t control the way people look at me. I don’t know, I’ve given up on that.

Manisha: And so then in terms of your politics, they came when you really went to shopfront, right?

Madeleine: Yes. So after university, and I trained to be an actor, because I thought, that’s my way forward, I’ll study theatre. And I joined a company called Harness, and that’s a shopfront theatre in Carlton. And it was a group of people with different disability all working together to make theatre. And that was the first time I saw people like me, and had a connection and a friendship. And we started to talk about “Oh, this is what it was like for me growing up. And this is what this is like for me, this is what dating’s like for me, this is what transport’s like for me”. And I’m like, oh, my gosh, I have this wonderful community. And we all share the really similar experiences. And it felt like home. I don’t know how to describe it in any other way, then, like been wandering around for years, and then finally meeting these people who just, you look at each other, and you know that you have the same lived experience, and –

Manisha: You don’t have to mask yourself, or mask what you are.

Madeleine: No. You don’t have to be shy as well. I think for the first time, I wore like little singlet tops and wasn’t shy about having one arm, which was such a relief. And I didn’t realise there was so much tension, constantly wanting to hide, constantly wearing little cardigans, even in summer, to hide that I had one arm, and then suddenly I’m surrounded by people who just don’t care. And so I’m like, oh, I can be free. It was just like breathing out. And like, finally, finally, I could be myself.

Manisha: And so why do you think sometimes that people feel uncomfortable with disability?

Madeleine: That is a very interesting question. It’s something I think about a lot. And I think there is a lot of different layers to it. But I personally think – and this has to be taken with a grain of salt – I personally think people look at disability and recognise that at any point in time, they could be disabled. Like you slip and you fall down the stairs, and you could be disabled, anything, anything could happen. And I think that frightens people. I think there’s a fear where they know that people with disability aren’t being supported in our community. And they also have this fear and knowledge of joining that community. But then there’s also this ableism that is just within everything that is in our society, it’s in the media, it’s in like any sort of representation that we have, like disabled people in film are either like the Bond villain, or just a sad Hunchback of Notre Dame trying to find love.

Manisha: There’s some real stereotypes and stigmatisation around this, isn’t there?

Madeleine: Absolutely. And it doesn’t help, like there’s that film, which I think we all know which one I’m referring to, where it’s like, “I have a disability. I’m just going to die now”, that is like the end point for a character. A character arc, when it comes to disability, should have more than “I’ve got a disability and I’ve overcome it”, or “I’ve got a disability, and now, I’m so sad, I’ll die”. Like I think there should be real representation.

Manisha: Absolutely. And there’s some real nuance that comes with that representation that I think is sometimes really hard for people to convey, especially if they haven’t been with or around people with disability before.

Madeleine: Yeah.

Manisha: But the work that you do with comedy is really interesting, because in some ways, I feel that comedy allows us to have the conversation that people are scared to have otherwise.

Madeleine: Comedy is – it just, it’s like a nice white sauce. It just covers a multitude of sins, doesn’t it? You could talk about anything when you’re funny or in comedy. And I often say that my material is activism through comedy. And so I use comedy as a medium to educate people through shared laughter. Not that I need to educate people. I often start my shows with like a base level of assumed knowledge. And if you don’t have that, you just have to catch up as we go along. And I think it’s important that people talk about the real lived experience of disability, and humour’s the best way, I always think.

Manisha: Absolutely. And it is that how you started Cripsy Creeps?

Madeleine: It’s Crips & Creeps.

Manisha: It’s a bit of a tongue twister there for me.

Madeleine: It is.

Manisha: But is that how that started?

Madeleine: Yes. So Crips & Creeps is an accessible comedy show, and it’s a monthly show held at the 107 Projects in Redfern. And I started that comedy club because there was just not any accessibility in Sydney for people with disability. And I think there’s also another element of that, in which, if you have preconceived have ideas of what stand up comedy is like to be a woman, or anyone who’s marginalised in any way, like there’s this idea that stand up comedy isn’t the nicest or safest place to be right?

Manisha: Because it’s not always appropriate.

Madeleine: Yeah. And I would have to agree and be like, yes, whatever you think stand up comedy is like to be a woman or anyone marginalised, it’s that, and worse. I think it can be a really dangerous and awful place to work. And we don’t have HR, and people get away with anything in comedy. And I don’t think we should. And I think there needs to be places where people can come and perform, and feel safe as a performer, but then also a place where audience members can come and feel safe and supported as well. And so that’s what really brought Crips & Creeps together, the need for safety, the need for access and inclusivity.

Manisha: And so people feel comfortable there?

Madeleine: Yes. So what we do is, I only employ marginalised artists. There will never be a straight white man on our stage ever, except Rove McManus. He was an ally, and I crumbled, we all love Rove. He’s the only exception. But I only employ people who are marginalised, and I have Auslan interpreting, it’s wheelchair accessible. Next we would really love to get audio description, but that, we’re trying to get funding for that currently. And it’s really a space where audience can come and know that there’s not going to be like some awkward joke that’s going to make them feel uncomfortable, or there’s not going to be some rowdy audience member that makes them feel gross.

Manisha: What’s your view on what we can joke about, what we can’t joke about, and who can joke about what?

Madeleine: Oh, this is such a big question.

Manisha: Sorry.

Madeleine: We could make a whole podcast episode just on this. I think that when it comes to political correctness, my rule is, if you have it, you can talk about it. If you have a personal connection to that, you can speak about it. And I think I’m going to be controversial and say you can joke about anything, as long as you do it well and respectfully. If the humour is on the victim, that’s probably not a very tasteful joke. And you probably shouldn’t do that joke. But if the humour is on you, and you’re in your shortcomings or something, or your inability to understand, I think that would be OK, because you’re making jokes about your own lived experience.

Manisha: Yeah.

Madeleine: I think the question you should always ask yourself when you’re making jokes is, why is this funny? Like, why is this funny? What is making this joke funny? If the joke is, it’s funny because I’m putting someone else down. Or it’s funny because we’re making fun of someone’s face, or the way they look, that’s probably not very funny. But if it’s funny because it’s a play on words, or if it’s funny because it shows you and what a silly duffer you are. That I think would be OK.

Manisha: So then when we think about that, and even your work that you have done as an accessibility coordinator with the Sydney Fringe Festival, how easy or hard is it to work in this space, not only on the stage, but also behind in the backgrounds?

Madeleine: I think it can be challenging. I think it’s much easier to be on stage and tell a few jokes. I think it’s my natural space. I love it there.

Manisha: But that’s just because you’re good at it, let me say. I don’t think I could stand up on a stage and tell a few jokes.

Madeleine: Oh, but I love it. I’m an attention seeker. I enjoy the attention. But sometimes when I transition, I start doing work behind the scenes, either as a producer for Crips & Creeps, or as a coordinator for Sydney Fringe, I felt a lot of pressure on my shoulders. Because really, I’m chipping away at this huge iceberg, which is like inaccessible, Sydney. And ableism, and these preconceived ideas, I really had to build a foundation up. Because Sydney Fringe hadn’t had an access coordinator before. And so I went in there and had to, from the ground up, educate the entire company being like – well of course, they all had like a certain level of education. They’re pretty woke at Sydney Fringe. But yeah, I had to build this whole level of understanding, and the fact that access is involved in all areas. It’s not just the physical accessibility of a venue, but it’s also in your marketing. It’s in the connections you make, it’s in who you’re talking to, who you’re inviting to your shows, how you’re promoting. It’s in everything.

Manisha: So for some people listening to this podcast, words like ableism, or how inaccessible or accessible something is, might be new. And when you say that Sydney as a big city is inaccessible from an event perspective, what are some of the things that you’re talking about, that some of us who haven’t experienced those things might just be blindsided by them?

Madeleine: Ableism is like sexism or racism, but with people with disability. And inaccessibility of venues in Sydney, I think one of the biggest issues that we have is a lack of physical access. There’s stairs. There’s no ramps. There’s no elevators. There are a lot of heritage buildings in Sydney, and you cannot change the infrastructure. You can’t get anything altered in those places. And so it’s a difficult thing, like what are you going to value, the heritage of the building, or people’s ability to come in and enjoy the space? It takes a lot of negotiating and a lot of campaigning to try and get more places accessible.

Manisha: Crips & Creeps is about entertainment as much as it is about advocacy.

Madeleine: Yes.

Manisha: Do you think that what you have done could be replicated in other communities or in other spaces?

Madeleine: Oh, I hope so. I really hope that people see Crips & Creeps as a blueprint moving forwards, that accessibility and inclusivity is fairly easy to do. And it isn’t as complicated or as expensive as other people think it is. I started Crips & Creeps with no money, it was my first time producing, and I was just like, I’m going to make an accessible comedy show. And I didn’t have money for Auslan interpreters. But I had a friend, Sean Sweeney from Sweeney Interpreting. And he said, “Why don’t you get some student interpreters? It can be part of their learning, we’ll film it, it will be their assignment”. And so then we had Auslan interpreters, students, that were – like I was helping that community. So it’s all about making connections. And there might be a problem in like you don’t have money here. And so you find a way to coordinate with someone else, and see how – there’s always a way around things, is what I’m trying to say.

Manisha: What I find really interesting about what you’re saying is actually that if you don’t have money, you need to be resilient.

Madeleine: Yeah.

Manisha: And I think that’s something that really we can take from what you’re doing here, and that can be used in other organisations and other places. I’m not saying people shouldn’t pay people for their services.

Madeleine: No, by all means, please pay for Auslan interpreting, and pay correctly.

Manisha: Exactly. But I think there is something here about being resilient and creative and innovative in the way that we solve problems.

Madeleine: Yeah, and a lot of access doesn’t cost money. It’s just forethought and organisation.

Manisha: When you started Crips & Creeps, and you went, “Right, I’m going to make this accessible”, some of the people that you were going to have in that space, some of the people, either audience members or performers, would have come from communities that are very different to yours, tribes that were really different to the one you’d been in. How did you make sure that their views were actually being heard? And was that a difficult process for you?

Madeleine: I don’t think it was particularly difficult. I just, I gathered a lot of people I knew together and asked their advice. I think that’s what everyone should do. If you’re not from that group, or that tribe, as you say, you should contact people from that group, and ask their advice on things. And also encourage feedback as well.

Manisha: And sometimes people I think, find that hard, especially if that group is a group that they don’t know much about. I think sometimes we might feel a bit awkward, or we don’t want to say or do the wrong thing. What would you say to someone who felt like that?

Madeleine: Well, I think speaking from my own lived experience, if you’re nervous about saying or doing the wrong thing, if someone says something silly to me around disability, I’ll very subtly correct. Like if someone says “Disabled people”, I’ll be “Oh, people with disability” something like that. Or “It’s wheelchair user” or something, I’ll just slip it in. But I think when it comes to terms and language, which is usually where people get a bit flustered, I think often people will just tell you what they prefer. And it’s not a big deal. There are a lot of resources online that you could Google and look up if you’re nervous.

But I find mostly people are very generous and very kind. And as long as you’re not saying something completely terrible to me, I will understand that you’re trying to be – you have an intention of being inclusive, and especially if you come to me and you say “I really want to be inclusive, I really want to make my event more accessible to people with disability”, or whatever.

Manisha: So it’s being upfront about what we know what we don’t know.

Madeleine: Yeah, be upfront. And I think if you get feedback, don’t be resistant to that feedback. Don’t be kind of like, “Oh, I wasn’t”, you know, just accept it. And thank the person for giving you feedback.

Manisha: Are there many comedians with disability, knowing that disability can be visible and invisible, that you feel are able to be role models for the next generation, or for other people coming up, just like Adam was for you?

Madeleine: Yeah, I think that there are a few artists with disabilities, a few comedians. But I think again, there is a real lack of access, when it comes to stand up comedy. A lot of clubs, people can’t physically get into. So if we’re discussing physical disabilities, there aren’t a lot of us. And it’s literally just the physical barriers; we can’t get on stage. I have a friend of mine who is a wheelchair user, and he will just dump his wheelchair at the bottom of the stairs, and just crawl up the stairs, and people have to lift him onto stages. Like I once –

Manisha: It’s deeply embarrassing before you start a show.

Madeleine: You shouldn’t have to give up your dignity for a gig.

Manisha: Yeah.

Madeleine: And so I think there are those barriers that are preventing comedians. But then having said that, as you mentioned, there are comedians with nonvisible disabilities. And there are quite a few of us. But I think there is a real – not many people speak about disability in their comedy. And I think more people should, or maybe the people with nonphysical disabilities, whether it be mental health conditions, or chronic illness, don’t really know where they fit in the disability world.

Certainly I found with my friends that I’ve worked with in Sydney, they are a bit confused. They see disability as physical, they see disability like we see it on television, and they don’t realise that they’re part of that community, and they can be involved. And so I’m trying personally, firsthand in the comedy clubs, trying to get people to talk more about these experiences.

Because even talking about, like a friend of mine, she has Crohn’s, and she started writing all this comedy about how her doctors are just ridiculous, and the silly things they say to her before they put her under, for surgery and things. And it’s just so funny, and just so interesting and different. I don’t know why comedians wouldn’t want to talk about these things that make you so individual.

Manisha: And I think the interesting thing there is also perhaps the idea that people don’t want to hear these things, or that it’s too serious.

Madeleine: Yeah.

Manisha: When actually, having seen – and I highly recommend that people watch some of Madeleine’s work, and also go see her. But it’s really funny. Like, it’s seriously funny.

Madeleine: I think it’s because it’s different. There’s not many people talking about it. I think I’m the only physically disabled female comedian in Sydney. And so I have quite a lot of range of things to do. It’s like free picking for me to just rip apart Dominic Perrottet, or whoever I want to talk about, or talk about physical access in comedy. And there are such bizarre little situations that happen to me, whether someone wants to pray for me on the street, or if someone says something weird to me on a first date. Once I went on a date with a guy who just looked at me, and instantly, the first thing he said to me on this date was, “One arm.” Just that, just “One arm.” Which was, I think, ridiculously funny.

Manisha: So can I just ask you, what was your response to that?

Madeleine: I just said, “Thank you.” I mean, I don’t know what to say to things like that. People are just funny and silly and weird when it comes to disability. And it’s hilarious. I think when you have comedy like that, not only are you talking about things that are different that your audience hasn’t heard of before, or heard talked about by comedians before. But you also have audience members who have that lived experience, or a similar experience, nodding and being like, finally, someone’s like making jokes about this, and they can hear their stories and see someone like them on stage. And it’s really, it’s really fun and really lovely.

Manisha: What comes up for me is at the beginning of this, you were talking about how you found your tribe when you found people with lived experience, and they had very similar interests to you, or experiences to you. And it seems to me that through your comedy, what you’re doing is broadening that tribe. Because people who might not have had that lived experience themselves are suddenly starting to hear that experience through the work you’re doing in your practice.

Madeleine: Yeah, yeah, I think it’s really important that you involve as many people as possible. For example, at Crips & Creeps, we have people from all different diverse backgrounds, whether it’s people from the LGBTQI+ community, or people from culturally diverse backgrounds, and I think it’s really important that we all share our stories in one little space. Because you notice that a lot of the experiences are really similar.

Manisha: As a designer, then, who has lived experience in one area, but you’re bringing together a very diverse group of people, what’s something that you learnt that you weren’t expecting to learn?

Madeleine: Well, something I really, that really startled me when I started doing Crips & Creeps, is that people would come into the show. And these are like young people in their 20s, and they’ve come to see a comedy night, and then they’ll say to me afterwards, “I have never met someone with disability before.” And this was a very first time meeting someone with disability, or hearing what they’ve had to say. And if that introduction is in a place where the person with disability has agency of their own voice, and their own way of telling their stories, how incredible is that, that this person is being introduced to disability in such a wonderful way, rather than in a way that maybe is not as genuine?

Manisha: Or fits into those two categories you spoke about at the –

Madeleine: Yeah, pity or inspiration.

Manisha: Pity or inspiration.

Madeleine: Yeah.

Manisha: Or anger.

Madeleine: Yes.

Manisha: Which is kind of the third one that kind of sits there sometimes that people are scared of.

Madeleine: Yeah. The Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump, where he’s just angry and yelling in the rain.

Manisha: Yes, that’s exactly right. So what’s the mismatch between you and the world that you’d really just like to have fixed?

Madeleine: I have a problem. I can’t open bottled water.

Manisha: Yeah, right.

Madeleine: Because I don’t – you need two hands. And I know you think you don’t need two hands, but you need two hands. And that is my pet peeve of the world. That, and the taps you have to hold down for the water to come out. Because I’m constantly like pushing it down trying to catch the water in my only hand. It’s a mess. Whoever designed those taps, special type of hell for that person.

Manisha: So thank you so much for your time here today, Madeleine, it’s been such a joy and a pleasure to speak to you.

Madeleine: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Manisha: And thank you for listening and being with us here on With Not For. If you’d like to learn more about how you can make your world more inclusive, contact us on www.cfid.org.au, or see the show notes. Until next time, this is Manisha Amin, from the Centre for Inclusive Design.