This Comedian Can't Speak, But He's Making Audiences Laugh at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe | Playbill

Playbill Goes Fringe This Comedian Can't Speak, But He's Making Audiences Laugh at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

After a rare neurological condition caused Alex Gibbon to lose his ability to speak, he decided to turn to comedy.

Alex Gibbon at Falmouth Pride

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, with nearly 3,500 shows. This year, Playbill is in Edinburgh for the entire month in August for the festival and we’re taking you with us. Follow along as we cover every single aspect of the Fringe, aka our real-life Brigadoon!

A comedian lives or dies based on their ability to deliver a joke. Comedy experts say it's all about tone, timing, knowing how to gauge an audience before landing the punchline. Alex Gibbon is a comedian, but he cannot deliver a joke. Literally. Gibbon lost his ability to speak in 2018 due to a rare neurological condition called Functional Neurological Disorder. Or as he tells Playbill, over email, "From what my doctors have told me, my brain is structurally fine, but it's sending the wrong signals to my body of its own accord. So effectively I'm like a Windows update with a pulse."

Gibbon's comedy show is called Fat, Femme and Crippled, currently running at the Fringe August 10–15 as part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival. With the help of the robo-voice on his phone (which is a British woman), and his mobility scooter he's named Miss Carriage, Gibbon has been making audiences laugh since 2021. When asked how he communicates with the audience, he responds, "Never underestimate the power of a wide range of facial expressions."

And Gibbon is expressive. When he met with Playbill, he had lipstick and a wide smile—his eyes lit up when his phone delivered a funny line. He admits that when he fully lost his ability to speak, and the use of some of his limbs, "I lost the will to live entirely," he explains. "My dream was to become a vocal coach. I loved the science behind the voice so much and I wanted to spread that skill and that joy. I worked tirelessly to attain this dream, even being accepted into a masters for the pedagogy of speech and singing." He credits his father and his friends for encouraging him to go to physical therapy and speech therapy. 

And he also credits comedy for helping save his life. In 2021, Gibbon made his stage debut at Cornwall Pride in his hometown—he is now a trustee at Cornwall Pride and DisAbility Cornwall. Now, Gibbon has made it his artistic mission to destigmatize being both disabled and gay, using the power of laughter. 

"Far too often, the stigma is suffocating. I've felt either too disabled to be in queer spaces, or too queer to be in disabled spaces," he admits. "This is often backed up by the fact that a lot of queer spaces like gay bars and pubs aren't accessible, the staff aren't friendly. And it creates an atmosphere that excludes people like me. I want to tear that stigma down and start getting queer spaces to anknowledge and celebrate their disabled community just as much as they do for any others."

Below, Gibbon walks us through his journey to the Edinburgh Fringe, and how it included Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Alex Gibbon

Why did you want to create a show?
Alex Gibbon: 
When I lost my ability to speak, my love for that field of theatre kind of died with it for quite a long time. Then when I found my naturally dark sense of humour surrounding my circumstances basically saved my life and what was left of my sanity, I turned to loving comedy, and from there I found out I had a knack for writing and just kept going. For me, I wanted to write this show as a way of healing from a lot of the emotional scars this condition leaves me with, be it the debilitating symptoms or the way society has treated me since becoming disabled. 

Turning that pain into something that brings joy changed my outlook on life, made things easier to accept and move on from. Also, I've noticed since doing comedy that people learn a lot more about what it's like being non-verbal and physically disabled through laughter than many have through years of lecture. In presenting my perspective on this life through the lens of comedy, I'm hoping to normalize—rather than tokenize, fear, or even fetishize—the way society interacts with disabled people. 

Because you are non-verbal, how do you communicate with the audience during your show?
So for my show, what I do is pre-record all my jokes (takes several hours per set but worth it) as I type them up, six at a time before turning them into MP3 files to press play and pause on whilst on stage. For communication during my shows, never underestimate the power of a wide range of facial expressions. Like even in real life, I've found people can quickly figure out the gist of what I'm about to say before I even start typing.

But it's quite hard for me to go off script in general so I try to avoid it where I can, as live communication with me takes more time than most. When many spots on comedy shows are under a strict time limit, it doesn't leave time to stop the track. But the good thing with this show is that I actually have time to do just that if I want and actually be able to work more with the audience. 

During shows, the main time I stop is for hecklers, mainly because I downloaded famous TV meme type soundbites that many people will know by ear. I can choose whichever suits best to the heckle at the time, which both shuts them up and gets them laughed at.

What assumptions do people have about disabled performers that you want to demolish with your show?
I think for me personally, my biggest assumption I want to demolish is the inspiration-porn aspect disabled performers get for even so much as just breathing. Because it's incredibly annoying when people shower you with unintentional patronizing praise for performing with a disability, rather than genuine enjoyment based on the artistic quality of your work. 

Another one which I love to take down in my show is the assumptions that we are somehow immune to bad life choices, incapable of depicting anything sexual, or need protecting due to our disabilities. Noooooo, we are just as capable and determined of being delightfully messed-up human beings the same as everyone else. It's from that kind of chaos that the best art is made.

Why did you want to present your show at the Edinburgh Fringe?
I wanted to bring my show to Edinburgh Fringe because this is easily the best platform in the world for emerging artists of any kind to get noticed, to get a genuine kick start in their career path. I've wanted for an incredibly long time to perform here, for my voice to be heard here and for my story and stories like mine to be told to as many people as possible. I want to become a successful comedian and build a proper career. And I believe the most likely way to make it happen is to be seen by as many people as possible.

What are you hoping to get out of your Fringe experience?
I'm really hoping that following my time here, I can gain a bigger audience, use the reviews I get to really launch my platform and gain more frequent work in as many places as possible. I want to turn comedy into what I do full time for a living and get to travel as I really just love it so much. I also want to keep growing as a writer and the best way to do that in my experience is to keep getting as much stage time as possible in order to learn.

What was your journey to getting to the Fringe? How did you find a venue and funding?
It's been a pretty crazy one. This time last year, I had only recently to take the plunge and launch myself full time as a comedian and start building my platform. I had already been writing for a fair while by that point but lacked the confidence to get on stage and do it. My dad was still alive at this time and he really drove the point home to me that there really isn't any time to waste with how short our lives are. If I wanted this, I should just go for it.

And so from there I started getting into more gigs just by applying on as many social media forums as I could find. I was incredibly lucky just from asking the Free Festival on a whim over Facebook if they would be interested in seeing my content in one of their Fringe venues. They got back to me really quick saying yes. 

From there I looked up all the costs to put on a show here. After nearly dying from the shock, I decided to take a gamble on myself. So I cheekily looked at my credit score whilst having "Why" by Bronski Beat playing in my head, bit the bullet, and paid all the registration and hire fees the very next day.

When I got offered The Garden Room at Bar 50, I was really happy because from looking it up, it was actually really accessible. Before all of this, I didn't know Edinburgh very well at all so was really lucky to be so well supported by the Free Festival adapting to my needs.

Then I had an insanely good piece of luck back in March. I decided to apply for the Phoebe Waller Bridge Keep it Fringe fund [which provides each selected recipient with £2,000], thinking I wouldn't get it in a million years. But when the worst that can happen is the word "no," then why not try?

So when I got the email saying my show had been accepted to receive funding, I was overjoyed, utterly gobsmacked—and for once, thumbless (my version of speechless these days). I was actually finally able to afford accommodation and get my transport up here and back. I was finally able to buy proper recording equipment for my sets. Before then, all I was ever able to do was hold my phone up to the microphone on my Macbook.

Since then, I was also able to Crowdfund an incredible £1000 over a period of 6 weeks during June and July, thanks to the incredible support of my local community in Cornwall who have just been so phenomenal in supporting my journey with everything I've set out to do. Although there were often times the workload leading up to this had a real impact on my fatigue and health, it was just so worth it for me because I knew the results of the work will be worth it.

Despite everything I've had to go through to get to this point in life, I still consider myself incredibly lucky to have landed on my feet the way I have, and I hope it's made me a stronger person as a result.

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