Joe Wells is a UK-based autistic comedian. He first began his work with his book, Touch and Go Joe, published when he was 17. Since then he has performed at multiple Edinburgh Fringe Festivals, with shows such as 10 Things I Hate About UKIP and I Hope I Die Before I Vote Conservative. Despite originally only advocating about OCD, Joe would later be diagnosed autistic which he incorporated into his comedy. He will be performing his latest show ‘I Am Autistic,’ at the Edinburgh Fringe this August, which focuses explicitly on neurodiversity. We were able to get Joe to sit down and discuss how he starting performing and his experience of co-occurring conditions.
When did you first start doing comedy?
I think I was about 18 when I did my first stand up gig, but was quite interested it beforehand. I’ve always been sort of a classic example of a comedian at school: you find it hard to make friends but then if you can make a joke then you can be the sort of funny one and that can be your place in the sort of social group.
I’d write little funny essays and things and sometimes the teacher would let me like read them out at the end of the class. So there’d be sort of funny essays about what we’re learning it. I remember I wrote one about trigonometry. When I was 15, I wrote a book about having OCD and started doing talks to promote it. The OCD was very debilitating from the age of 9 to 14 but then I had some good CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) that helped a lot and I wrote about my experiences. When I did talks I’d do a few jokes and quote funny bits from the book.
For stand-up, when I was a teenager without a formal autism diagnosis I saw Mark Thomas and I think I just really related that sort of angry rallying stuff. I was quite an angsty, passionate teenager and I thought, oh, that’s quite exciting: Someone shouting about politics!
So your focus was more on OCD initially?
It’s interesting because there’s stuff in the book where in the first book where where I look back and go “oh, that was autistic stuff.” I talk about struggling with making friends, eye contact and socialising. And I sort of attributed a lot of that into the experience of being quite isolated. When I had OCD it was so time consuming. I didn’t have the official autism diagnosis till I was in my late 20s. I didn’t know this, but it had been suggested when I was going through therapy to my mum that I’d meet the criteria for what would have then been Asperger’s diagnosis. So I sort of had this informal diagnosis. I didn’t know about when I was a child. But yeah, the OCD was the main concern especially during my early teen years and those were a hard few years.
It’s hard to condense down quickly, I’d get intrusive thoughts that something terrible was going to happen unless I tapped this table five times. It began as five times, but then it became increasingly complicated patterns, so I’m. Eventually it became five-seven-five. I’d have to tap ten patterns of five-seven-five on each surface of the table. But because of how the tables were made, I’d have to tap the table 440 times before I left the classroom. I hope to give an idea of how time consuming it was but I became very good at covering up so people didn’t see me doing it. I could do the taping very, very discreetly so I wasn’t distracting anyone or making a scene, I was just sort of kept myself and did a did my tapping.
And having got the diagnosis for both now, which label would you identify with more?
I think it’s really hard to take diagnostic terms apart from how autistic people currently live. If we grow up in a sort of post-neurodiversity utopia, what would it mean to be autistic? Because it probably means something very different to what we’re experiencing currently. So I think it’s hard to take apart what are autistic traits and what are compensatory behaviours, aspects of the stress of trying to fit into a neurotypical world. And then there’s mental health conditions. Some people have mental health conditions for the same reason other people have physical health conditions, so I think it’s difficult to separate those things and to work out where what is happening.
I always think it for me. It’s important to draw a distinction between mental illness, which is what I felt OCD was and being neurodivergent. When the 2nd edition of my book came out, there was some advice about not using the phrase ‘suffering from OCD,’ which I found very surprising. I very much view viewed it in that way, that that I was suffering from it. It affected everything you know, even when I slept at night, I’d still have OCD in my dreams. So it was really pervasive and debilitating.
It was horrible but it largely doesn’t bother me anymore and I’m very glad that it’s gone away. On the other hand I would see being autistic as neurodivergence. It’s not something that I want to get rid of. It’s tricky because the definition of neurodivergent is that your brain works in a way that society doesn’t expect it to. And OCD does meet that criteria, but I think that we’re sort of developing the language. I reckon one of the things which will develop over the next few years will be more of a distinction between mental illness and neurodivergence, as sort of a diversity thing.
Was there any anxiety going up in front of audiences for the first time?
Yeah, I think when you first started doing was quite nerve wracking, but then I eventually realized
nothing bad can happen really. It’s unlikely someone going to be violent towards you. And if they are violent, there’s a load of witnesses! So, you know you’re probably safer on stage than know, going to some bars. Yeah, you know, I think it’s like it’s just breaking through that. I imagine it’s like doing skydiving or whatever when you first do it.
I worried everyone could think I’m rubbish and it be really humiliating. Eventually you realize a room full of strangers you’re never going to see again thinking you’re rubbish isn’t the end of the world and doesn’t hurt you. I’ve always I’m always confident as soon as I’m on stage. I think when I first started I was nervous before I walked up. But as soon as I got up there I realised it’s quite manageable.
You used to do a lot of material about political satire. This can be controversial with certain audiences and I’m curious whether it’s similar with autism.
Not really. I think often people aren’t on board politically, they just don’t laugh. No one believes this but it is true that people will laugh at stuff that they politically agree. A lot of people like to think they could just take their politics out of it and laugh at anything, but actually I don’t think that’s true.
It’s different with autism material. It’s not like people have like an entrenched position on it. You know, I think it’s one of those topics which people maybe don’t know a lot about
It’s why I think I’m doing less political stuff now? I feel like I can sort of sneak opinions through in a way that’s not as on the nose. With autism people maybe don’t know a lot about it and don’t have very strong views outside of a minority of groups. I did a show where there was a much older audience and a guy in his 70s came up and honestly asked autism was. When it comes to the history of neurodiversity things have moved very quickly. You know Temple Grandin’s books were so radical only 30 years ago and since it’s expanded so much with other advocates like Donna Williams.
Any specific words of guidance for parents who are kind of going through the whole process of learning about diagnosis posts?
I’d really recommend a book by Jim Sinclair called Don’t Mourn for Us which lays out some important points. I think mostly you should look at your own value system and how much you value normality. A lot of parents with good intentions value being normal and fitting in because that’s part of what it is to be neurotypical. I don’t think it’s in a malicious way, but I think a lot of neurotypical parents think if my child is going to get on, they need to fit in. It’s a sort of subconscious bias a lot of people have but it’s important for parents to challenge that as a value. Really think about it and ask yourself in each situation ‘is my child struggling and suffering or are they weird and different?’ because I think weird and different is okay.
Is this covered in any way in your next book Wired Differently?
Yeah in Wired Differently I wanted to show that these neurodivergent people throughout history. I wanted to show that the things they’ve achieved, they’ve done because of and not in spite of being different. A really common narrative is the idea that this person overcame autism in order to do this. I want to show that people didn’t overcome autism, ADHD or whatever, their neurodivergence was a difference that helped them to succeed. I interviewed them or read their work to get a sense of this.
For example, I talked to DJ Ninja about being dyspraxic and she talked about how it sort of the way she learned maths differently gave her like a deeper understanding of numbers. That ended up helping with the sort of creative work that she does.
A lot of the dyslexic people I spoke to talked a lot about how their brains would run faster than their hands could write. But that when they were given the opportunity to do sort of public speaking or creative things where they could catch up with their brain that they excelled in those things
I want to show the benefits of embracing it instead of covering it up trying to be normal? Because I find autistic people are really rubbish at being neurotypical and we when you see autistic people trying to fit in trying to conform as your only representation it doesn’t give the full picture.
As an artform, comedy can often focus on social embarrassment whereas a lot of autistic people fear this exact situation. How do you approach that in your work?
I would never do autistic comedy which comes from a place of like talking about things I’ve said wrong, or things that I’ve said where I look stupid specifically because of autism. It’s an obvious route to go down is talking about a socially inappropriate thing I said because cause I didn’t understand something, but I try to really steer clear from that. I’m happy to do stuff where I’m the butt of the joke for different reasons, where I’m choosing to be rude, or why I’m choosing to be selfish or anywhere. That’s the angle, but I don’t want to come to do stuff that presents autistic traits as a sort of shortcoming, because I think that’s the mainstream narrative.
I don’t be to sound too high minded about comedy, but I think that when it’s good it can be something which really like subverts. It is the art form where you have sort of complete free speech. There’s no one controlling what you say when you go out in a club. I try to subvert the sort of mainstream narrative around autism which backs up this idea of autistic people always getting things wrong. If you’ve seen Nanette, Hannah Gadsby has this discussion of comedy that’s self deprecating to sort of like and obviously she’s coming from the angle as a gender nonconforming gay woman. I don’t want to reinforce stigma around autism but I’m happy to do jokes about being selfish and lazy and you know all those sort of other flaws.
If there was any autistic young people who are thinking of getting into comedy performance, or I suppose just creative work, what advice would you offer?
I think that good comedy is when people are true to themselves and I think sometimes when you see like uh, I’m sure you’ve seen it as well. When I see a new comedian doing an unfunny routine, often at the core of what they’re doing wrong is they’ve got an idea of what comedy is and they’re trying to fit into that. I see new comics trying controversial material which is fine but it’s often them not being true to themselves. That’s not their worldview, but they’ve just got an idea of this as the kind of comedy that works. Someone said to me when you start comedy you say what you want, then you say what people want to hear and then you say what you want in a way that people want to hear.
When you’re very new to doing creative things, you often do things completely based on what you want to do. But then a sort of anxiety makes you go ‘I’ve got to do a certain type of comedy or a certain type of creative thing because cause that’s what people want.’ That never really works.
All the successful comedians are being themselves. Even if they’re doing a sort of character or something like that they’re still speaking to some sense of self, or some sense of what they find funny. The trick is making what you find funny in your sense of self, sort of.
Another comedian, Andrew O’Neill once said to me that comedy is saying “we’re different let’s connect.” When I was doing political stuff I got better when I realised how to make my politics connect with people who maybe had different politics. The key is being yourself, understanding how you’re different to the audience, but finding a way to connect your worldview and your experience in your sense of humour with that audience.
Joe’s show will be on every day at 12pm in the Banshee Labyrinth, Niddry Street in Edinburgh for the month of August. As a PBH Free Fringe show, entry is free and the audience can pay what they want afterwards. For more interviews about autistic comedy, check our interview with Hannah Gadsby!