At first, the laughs are, perhaps understandably, nervous. But then Lee Ridley is far from a conventional stand-up comic.
For a start, he doesn’t utter a single word on stage.
Lee, who has cerebral palsy, cannot speak so he uses a text-to-speech iPad app to deliver his lines. During his show, Lost Voice Guy, lines are delivered in the synthetic tones of a computer-generated male voice.
“When I realized I’d never be able to talk again, I was speechless,” he jokes, to chuckles from the audience.
In a recent stunt at the UK’s X Factor auditions, he used an iPad to deliver a rendition of R Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”. Unfortunately, the judges didn’t see the funny side, and he was cut short after a few verses.
Still, the experience has made ripe material for his act: “I used to be in a disabled Steps tribute band. We were called Ramps. We faced an uphill struggle.” At this, the audience erupts with laughter.
Over the weekend, Lee was in London for a gig in Covent Garden. Our interview is conducted via a specialized computer called a Lightwriter rather than the iPad app, which is “more fun for the show but harder to type on – this is what I use in everyday life”, says Lee.
The Lightwriter is portable and has two screens so I can see the words as Lee writes them. I ask a question and after a few taps of the keypad, the computer voice replies.
He says: “I’ve always loved stand-up but I never thought about trying it myself until friends suggested that it might work and that I’d be unique.
“I’m comfortable making fun of myself. People don’t expect it and there’s that awkward feeling in the room initially when I get on stage. But when I’m funny that goes away.”
Lee’s first gig was at a friend’s comedy night in Sunderland in February and he has been overwhelmed at the positive response so far – he recently supported Ross Noble on tour while “Little Britain” star Matt Lucas is a fan. Now he is planning a tour of his own next year.
“I was very nervous. I thought no one would understand me,” explains Lee. “After a few minutes of it going well, I started to enjoy it. It was a massive buzz knowing people were laughing at stuff I’d written. I managed only two hours’ sleep afterward because I was on such a high.”
Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term covering a range of neurological conditions that affect movement, coordination and speech. It is caused by damage to the brain that can happen during pregnancy, birth or soon after.
Aged six months, Lee contracted the brain infection encephalitis – triggered by a cold sore – which put him in a coma for two weeks. It left him with hemiplegia, a common type of cerebral palsy.
Lee’s right side is much weaker than his left, which means he walks with a limp. He finds it hard to swallow and the muscles in his mouth and tongue are too weak for him to speak – despite years of working with a speech therapist in early childhood.
About three-quarters of people with cerebral palsy suffer from some sort of speech difficulty. Lee, who grew up in Co Durham in England, attended a specialist primary school where he learned sign language.
Aged 12, he was given his purpose-built Lightwriter. Despite its American accented voice, you can still detect a hint of Geordie in his syntax and with words such as Mam, which he spells phonetically.
“I take the Lightwriter for granted now but it changed my life and made me a lot more independent,’ says Lee, who works at Newcastle City Council’s press office.
“It’s frustrating that I can’t just instantly say something, that I have to type it out first – although if I’m angry that can be a good thing.”
Despite his disability, teachers at his primary school realized Lee was very bright and needed to be challenged. When he was old enough, he was able to attend many lessons at a mainstream secondary school and he went on to gain a place at the University of Central Lancashire to study journalism.
“Luckily I had a really good English teacher who pushed me to my limits. I’ve always loved writing and English and until now journalism was all I ever wanted to do,’ says Lee, who has had stints as a sports reporter for his local newspaper and the BBC. “I always seem to choose strange careers for someone who can’t speak.”
He is able to do most of his research via email but uses his Lightwriter device to conduct interviews over the phone.
“Some people just assume I’m an answering machine or get impatient but I’m used to it and it’s turned into great comedy material,’ he says.