Mrs Brown’s Boys writer on why laughter is the best medicine

‘Have you done stand up before?” the young man asked.

Mrs Brown's Boys
Mrs Brown's Boys

“Not really,” I said. “I’ve written comedy – The Vicar of Dibley, episodes of Mrs Brown’s Boys – and I’ve given talks, but this is sort of my stand up debut. Are there many in?”

“About three and a half thousand,” he said, and thrust me on to the stage of London’s Royal Albert Hall.

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The event was a fund-raiser for Parkinson’s UK and the charity was keen to involve someone funny who actually had Parkinson’s. Billy Connolly wasn’t available and I was the only other name on the list.

“According to Parkinson’s UK,” I began, “every hour, someone in this country is told they have Parkinson’s. That’s pretty serious.” I could sense the audience appreciating the seriousness.

“That means some of us are being told at three o’ clock in the morning.”

I will never forget the laugh. It was a laugh of relief as much as anything, from an audience – many of whom had Parkinson’s – who realised with delight that I wasn’t going to go on about how grim living with Parkinson’s is – they already knew that. No. I was going to go on about how funny it is.

Sometimes it’s funny because of the things people say. Like the friend who first told me I was ill. “I don’t want to worry you, Paul, but I think you might have Parkinson’s.” What would he have said if he HAD wanted to worry me, I wondered? Or the charity worker who said sweetly: “We want to use you in lots of fund-raising. We want to get the most out of you while we still can.”

Sometimes, the fun lies in the fact that people don’t know what Parkinson’s is. When I told my friends I had it, three of them invited us to come and stay. We had three super holidays in Devon, the Lake District and France, and it was only when each couple took Julie to one side and whispered “how long has he actually got?” that we realised why they were so eager to see us.

Parkinson’s isn’t actually terminal: It isn’t the end of the line. It’s like reaching Edinburgh Waverley and being told the only onward services are slow trains with frequent signalling problems. You can either get angry or decide to enjoy the scenery.

It occurs when the brain stops producing dopamine which is the chemical the brain uses to transmit messages to the rest of the body. The shortage can manifest itself in any number of ways: loss of balance, garbled speech, loss of the sense of smell, freezing or temporary paralysis, uncontrollable drooling, tremor and constipation to name but a few.

Some aren’t too bad – given my constipation I regard the loss of my sense of smell as a positive bonus – and there are drugs which can alleviate the symptoms. “The problem is,” as my neurologist told us, “some of the drugs come with side-effects such as hyper-sexuality.” My wife asked if I could start on those straight away.

I try not to take my symptoms too seriously and one way I do this is to think of them in terms of the seven dwarves: There’s Shaky and Freezy; there’s Mumbly and Dribbly; there’s the one that finds marijuana a help – Hashful; there’s the hyper-sexual Gropy; and finally there’s Doc, looking for a cure.

There is of course no cure, but comedy is part of my medication. When I write a joke I feel better, when I tell my jokes to audiences they tell me they feel better, and when they laugh I feel better all over again. I see comedy as life-enhancing.

Which is why I am mystified by the vocabulary we use to describe comedy. The aim of the comedian is to “MAKE people laugh” as though it is an act of coercion. If the comedian fails to make people laugh then the comedian is said to die. If the comedian succeeds then the audience split their sides or laugh their heads off. Basically an evening of comedy is a killing field where at least one person will wind up a corpse.

By contrast, I’ve always seen comedy and laughter as a form of therapy. A woman once thanked me for saving her life. She’d been so deeply depressed after her husband died that she had decided to end it all. Then an episode of The Vicar of Dibley came on and she’d laughed so much she’d decided life, after all, was worth living.

When she told me this, two thoughts went through my mind. One was that this was a very humbling moment, and the second was thank goodness it was one of the funnier episodes because otherwise she’d have been a goner.

I’m also mystified by those who say occasionally “you shouldn’t do jokes about serious illness.” I grew up in a home where one of the other occupants was cancer, and laughter very rarely entered the building so I know only too well how important comedy and laughter are.

It is why I write pieces for Maggie’s, the wonderful cancer support centres which began in Scotland.

Richard Curtis and I had the honour of opening the Maggie’s Centre in Oxford and they asked us to write a funny poem for the occasion. Richard pointed out that only an insane idiot would try writing a funny poem about cancer, and then added “but luckily Paul is an insane idiot so he’s had a go.”

I now read the poem as part of my one-man show Incurable Optimist which I will be performing at the Oran Mor theatre in Glasgow on 26 March and the Assembly Roxy in Edinburgh on 27 March.

Meanwhile here are a few other ways I’ve managed to find the funny side of Parkinson’s. A few months ago I got stuck in the bath. For ten minutes I struggled to get out. Then suddenly I thought to myself, “What are you doing? You love having a bath.” So I topped up the water and spent another two hours in there. Lovely.

A member of my Oxford group showed me a model church. “Tim made this for his model railway.”

“It’s beautiful,” I said.

“It is,” she said, “and yet he’s so clumsy I’ve had to ban him from washing up. Don’t you think that’s weird?” Judging from the little smile on Tim’s face I didn’t think it weird at all.

My wife and I went to a party and it wasn’t our sort of event so we needed an excuse to leave early. Time for good old Parkinson’s. I found a quiet corner where I could fall without hurting myself and quietly toppled over. “He’s had a fall. I’d better take him home.” “Of course. The poor man.”

We are all familiar with the saying “laughter is the best medicine” and obviously it’s nonsense because in my case Sinemet is the best medicine. But laughter definitely helps.

I’m delighted to say I am still laughing, and in fact I’m going to have one heck of a laugh tomorrow morning at 3am when I wake someone up and tell them they’ve got Parkinson’s.