This is what it looks like when we’re joyful: On Fern Brady’s Taskmaster run, improv & autistic representation

This is translated from a German essay I originally published in 2022.

After a session of my first improv class, my teacher took me aside. We had talked about stage fright in class and I had mentioned that, as an autistic person, I find everyday interactions more challenging than performing in front of an audience. After the session, he told me that the autistic tendency to say »the quiet part out loud« was a valuable quality in improv: an effective way to bring scenes to a satisfying conclusion, and something the audience loved.

I’ve thought about this advice a lot since, not only when I’ve been performing myself, but also when watching comedy I enjoy. I was particularly reminded of it during the 14th season of Taskmaster. Taskmaster, for those who don’t know it, is a British panel/game show in which a group of comedians compete against each other in absurd tasks devised by comedian Alex Horne. »Conceal this pineapple on your person«, »Make this coconut look like a businessman« — that kind of thing. The tasks are pre-recorded and then played in studio shows to an audience and »taskmaster« Greg Davies, who has the final say on the scores.

Season 14 was a special one for me because Scottish comedian Fern Brady was the first openly autistic contestant to take part. I had never heard of Brady before the season, but when I googled the season’s contestants and read the title of her current program — »Autistic Bikini Queen« — it was immediate cause for anticipation: Taskmaster tasks are designed to reward — if not in points, then in entertainment value — unusual, out-of-the-box ways of thinking, and what is autism if not an unusual, out-of-the-box way of thinking?

Brady, along with the also very entertaining John Kearns, ended up in last place for the season. But she was a crowd favorite, and while it may not have been apparent to the average viewer — the word autistic” was never said — it was obvious to those who knew what to look for that Brady’s autistic perspective influenced how she approached the tasks, and how she defended her performances in the studio to Davies. As Brady herself wrote in a recent Instagram post:

It’s in the ridiculous way I solved my final task, in my openly stimming on camera while I concentrated on my next task, in my screaming at the birds to shut up because I hear all noises at the same volume, in my tendency to anthropomorphize every inanimate object on set.

Brady writes that she read the Taskmaster subreddit beforehand and realized how many autistic people watch the show, and then made a decision about how she wanted to approach the show:

I realized that by being my unmasked self while having fun I’d reach them way better than by doing some serious on-the-nose documentary about how shit my life had been when I was undiagnosed[.]

»Autistic representation« in media and pop culture is still mostly a representation of autistic suffering. Attempts at »positive« representation of autistic people often fall into the old narrative pattern of characters who overcome their autism, who »function« despite their autism. Whether in fiction or non-fiction, the narrative that a »successful« life for autistic people means standing out as autistic as little as possible is everywhere. Even in the few representations that assign value to an autistic perspective — say, Abed in Community — that value often lies in speaking up specifically about uncomfortable things, saying what needs to be said, even if it’s painful for the listener. And that’s all well and good, but what we too rarely see is that an autistic view of the world can be a source of joy, for autistic people themselves and those with whom we share our perspective.

That’s what makes Brady’s Taskmaster participation so special. Her approach is naturally rewarded in Taskmaster, she takes obvious joy in the show and spreads joy with her recognizably autistic perspective and behavior. Her enthusiasm for the show and the tasks was palpable from her first interview with Alex Horne, and she regularly gets Horne to break his deadpan persona simply by, for example, describing an everyday item, or explaining her peculiar but entirely coherent logic in solving a task, or, yes, saying »the quiet part out loud«, as when, when Davies goes to try an Asian soup she’s brought, she blurts out, »You seem like you just eat roasts« . Brady produces such quotable phrases with no discernible effort and says them as if they are self-evident, because to her, they probably are: they are the sort of thoughts that an autistic view of the world produces, but that most of us learn not to say out loud. Brady further writes in her Instagram post:

I knew a big part of doing well on Taskmaster was being yourself but if you’re autistic you’re so frequently punished for being yourself that it was a scary move.

Autistic people have a reputation for being »humorless« and this is usually attributed to our tendency to take things literally and therefore misunderstand or overhear rhetorical subtleties such as irony and sarcasm. And like many clichés, there is some truth to this, but I think another reason for our apparent lack of humor is that quite a few of us associate laughter and wit with trauma. In everyday life, especially in childhood and adolescence, people are more likely to laugh at us and make jokes about us than they are to find our own observations and thoughts funny. What we think is an interesting observation or simply an obvious truth, on the other hand, is punished for being »inappropriate«.

Learning and performing improv comedy has become a central part of my life over the last couple of years, and it’s honestly disorienting — in a good way, for the most part — how much I’ve had to recalibrate what’s desirable and what’s not. What the audience findsfunniest, what I get the most praise for, is usually something that just seemed like the most obvious, natural reaction for me — it’s not sentences I laboriously, actively think up, but the most obvious thoughts, just my first, authentic reaction that, for once, I actually allow myself to say out loud. This is much more difficult than it sounds: I’ve learned over nearly three decades to suppress or hide these instinctive reactions. »Saying the quiet part out loud« is rarely welcome in everyday communication with neurotypical people. Being in an environment where these very instincts that I have internalized as »wrong« are rewarded, where they are cause for joy, forces me to question fundamental assumptions about myself. It takes effort to allow that to happen, and I’m far from being able to do it reliably on stage.

Watching Brady in Taskmaster has shown me a horizon to work towards. I want to allow myself, if not in everyday life, then at least on stage, to reliably respond as authentically and unfiltered as Brady did in the show. And, something I’m even further away from: I also want to embrace the weaknesses that come with my autism, such as my rather below average body coordination, as enthusiastically as Brady did — like in a task where she has to perform synchronized choreography with a recording of herself and fails absolutely gloriously. I’m not there yet, and I might never be, but it feels good to be able to point to a representation of autistic joy and humor on screen and say: I want to be myself just as much, as scary as that is.

January 7, 2024