Stand-up comedian Jaik Campbell introduces the new book he has co-authored: Shining a Light on Stuttering: How one man used comedy to turn his impairment into applause. It is both a biography (Jaik’s) and a student textbook on stammering.
In January 2012, I was contacted by a Speech Language Pathology graduate student from Florida Atlantic University whose supervisor, Professor Dale Williams, wanted to produce a unique book on stuttering for students that was written “as both a textbook and a biography”. (Stuttering is generally more used in the US and stammering used in Britain).
Professor Williams was ideally looking for an international celebrity (or someone in a high profile position) who had a stammer and was willing to share their story. My reply was that I would be interested in the project as I had been thinking for some time of writing an autobiography of being a stammering comedian. I thought it would make interesting reading both for people who stammer (PWS) and non-stammerers. I did accept, though, that the “international celebrity/ high profile” bit was a little out of my league! However, we both agreed the stand-up comedy bias potentially made for an interesting angle, feared by PWS and non-stammerers alike, and it enabled the book to address more effectively topics such as attitudes, dealing with listener reactions, emotions, etc.
Most of the correspondence was done via email with the odd Skype call here and there. The final product was a complete textbook, suitable for graduate courses around the world.
Structure of the book
The odd-numbered chapters of the book are a first-person account of my life, written by me. The even-numbered ones, as well as the “Questions for Discussion” at the end of every chapter, were written by Dale Williams.
Because of this unique organisation, stammering topics do not follow any conventional order but, rather, were addressed as we raised them. The Questions after each Chapter are designed to provoke thought in readers and inspire conversation among clients, support group attendees, and students. The Chapter headings are:
- Chapter 1: Stand Up Britain
- Chapter 2: Introducing Stuttering
- Chapter 3: Early Memories of Stuttering
- Chapter 4: Parents, Stress, & Confidence
- Chapter 5: Speech Behaviours and Therapy
- Chapter 6: Assessment and Management
- Chapter 7: Why I Became a Comedian
- Chapter 8: Attitudes, Risk, and Relationships
- Chapter 9: How I Became a Comedian
- Chapter 10: Listeners, Humour, Jobs, and Advantages of Stuttering
- Chapter 11: The London Comedy Circuit
- Chapter 12: Finding and Maintaining Employment
- Chapter 13: The Edinburgh Fringe Festivals 2001-2008
- Chapter 14: Recovery, Correlates, & Suicide
- Chapter 15: Was It Worth It/ Any Regrets?! Moving On. What Next?
- Chapter 16: Life
Early memories, and starting work
My stammer started gradually, when I was about six. My parents weren’t overly concerned at first, especially as it is a family trait. However, because it became more severe my parents took me to the GP who referred me for speech therapy which I began when I was eight. (I now understand the importance of early intervention, of children getting help sooner rather than later.)
After doing a geography degree, I got my first proper job in London. Here I encountered so many new situations and people, that my confidence in everything, including my ability to speak, drained away. It was so bad I avoided using the phone and it was hard to hold a fluent conversation with friends, let alone work meetings. I was losing contact with my old friends and struggling to make new ones. I kept thinking “how am I going to be able to pass a job interview or handle life like this?” I started using avoidance behaviours to avoid letting on to others that I had stammer. I stopped phoning people and avoided talking in groups whilst out with friends. I even ended a relationship with a girlfriend who I really liked at the time because I lost hope of ever having any prospects.
I even ended a relationship with a girlfriend because I lost hope of ever having any prospects.
Chapter 5 of the book examines the different types of speech therapy I had whilst aged 8, 19 and in my twenties in London. I was certainly helped by techniques such as block modification, which teaches you to ease into the words you normally become stuck on. Instead of trying to force a problem word out like “Jaik” I was taught to say the first letter of the word gently, and then let the rest of the word flow more easily.
Also the desensitisation I did taught me to care less about what other people thought about my stammer, and to actively tell people that I had a stammer. This definitely helped. One of the desensitisation exercises we had to do was to go out into the street, go up to a stranger and ask for directions but first saying ‘Hello, I’ve got a stammer’. This was something I had been hiding up for years, almost ashamed that I had one. I realised that telling the whole world that ‘I had a stammer’ could potentially make me be less uptight about it, and the listener would be more relaxed about it. That principle became the basis of being a comedian. The process also boosted my self-esteem and reduced the shame associated with having a stammer. I became almost proud of having one!
Telling the whole world that ‘I had a stammer’ could make me be less uptight and the listener more relaxed. That became the basis of being a comedian.
Becoming a comedian
Dale wanted me to explore the reasons why I wanted to become a comedian, which was interesting and personally revealing to write (Chapter 7). I remember seeing another stand-up comedian with a stammer called Daniel Kitson at a club in 2000, whilst I was working in London, and this was highly inspirational. At the time, Daniel had a comedy routine partly related to his stammer and the effect it had on the audience was overwhelming. I accept there’s a fine line between laughing at someone with a stammer, and laughing with them, but overall what he was doing was close to genius. He literally had people rolling in the aisles with laughter, and then totally sympathising with his predicaments and shortcomings.
I also enjoyed writing Chapter 9 about how I made the step to being a comedian. At the time I used to struggle with each sentence so it probably seemed like a crazy thing to do to my friends, but a stand-up comedy course in 2000 to 2001 lead by Michael Knighton gave me the foundations and was very inspiring. The course ended with a seven minute showcase spot in front of a live audience. When I heard the audience laughing and clapping at the end I thought: "Wow, I can actually do this".
When I heard the audience laughing and clapping at the end I thought: "Wow, I can actually do this".
After doing hundreds of shows on the open mike circuit, I eventually did my first 5 minute and later 10 minute spots at the Comedy Store in London in front of 350 people, which were particularly memorable nights. But the highlight so far for me was being on TV in the final of the comedy competition Stand up Britain in 2002, which Chapter 1: Stand Up Britain relates to. Having practised the script at other comedy clubs, I wasn’t that nervous when I walked on stage. Overall, I slowly found that it was also improving my stammer.
I realised I was not the only performer to have found that speech problems improve on stage. I read that many actors such as Rowan Atkinson, Marilyn Monroe and Bruce Willis managed to overcome their stammers on the stage. Willis had to have speech therapy at college, but he said of his early career: “When I was an actor, I didn’t stammer. That was a miracle in itself.” I also did an acting course in 2000 and was given parts in a few small student films. I miraculously didn’t stammer once during the audition or the filming. Using a different accent helped. I think acting makes you feel more confident, and less exposed and insecure as a person. Maybe performing allows PWS to escape from their image of themselves as a person who stammers.
However I was now obsessed with the idea of stand-up. Performing comedy is more stressful than having a strict script and did not remedy the stammer as instantly as acting. In the early days my comedy career almost stalled as in order to reduce the risk of stammering, I slowed my speech down. However to keep an audience laughing I found I usually had to deliver my lines as quickly as possible, especially in the larger clubs. Hecklers sometimes used to shout “hurry up” rather than “get off!”, and this motivated me to speed up my speech. Before a show I used to spend days memorising my jokes for two or more hours a day. I learnt my lines well and I found that doing that really helped my stammer on stage and off as I was practicing how to speak.
Hecklers sometimes used to shout "hurry up" rather than "get off!"
Was it worth It?
Chapter 15 delves into the pros and cons of trying to be a stammering comedian, and examines my current life in Suffolk with a partner and 2 children. While my speech is much improved compared to my university days, I still have a stammer, especially when I’m tired or haven’t slept well. But generally I am now able to converse without too much difficulty.
Although looking back at the past isn’t always healthy to do, writing the book with Dale was a very therapeutic journey and it was good to relive some of the exciting and challenging moments whilst trying to get noticed on the London comedy circuit and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festivals (Chapters 11 and 13).
The book shows that if you want something badly enough, then a stammer shouldn’t stop you from going for it. The stammer is actually not that much of a barrier, but requires self-discipline, patience and stamina to practice speaking, and push comfort zones. Hiding away from life isn’t the answer.
My advice to any PWS is to practice talking and maintain self-confidence, especially via doing regular exercise. So many speech therapists in the past told me to practice, but I never practiced talking enough, until I started doing stand-up comedy. However, you don’t need to be on a comedy stage to do this but talking out loud, especially on your own, is potentially a big help.
You can read a Sample: Chapters 1 and 2 (pdf).