The BBC 3 sitcom Jerk, stars Tim Renkow as an anti-hero who exploits his cerebral palsy to get away with bad behaviour. Widely acknowledged to be ground-breaking in its representation of disability, the series is a radical departure from the narrative conventions that situate disabled characters as either victim or saint. With a clear kinship between Renkow’s somewhat sociopathic character and Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, academic Wieland Schwanebeck suggests both might be classified as ‘cringe comics’; arguing that each ‘acts as a vigilante who challenges the uncertain regimes of political correctness’. Oblivious able-bodied men have long been the chief proponents of cringe (Larry David, David Brent, Alan Partridge), so Renkow’s disability offers a fresh take on the genre and, in doubling down on the ableist discomfort that surrounds disability, a further intensification of the awkwardness.
As Schwanebeck points out, the ‘purposeful ambiguity’ of cringe comedy ‘often betrays a very strong social conscience’, and in a radio interview, Renkow suggests that the sustained discomfort has a clear purpose: “My theory is that if I can keep you uncomfortable you’ll get sick of it”, with the aim to position disability as “kind of meaningless from a social standpoint.” Our social conditioning has led to something of a stand-off: we are taught not to stare, but this has had the ambivalent effect of causing a ‘turning away from difference’ (Wegner). So, if the able-bodied can be exposed to physical difference and exposed to the discomfort of that difference then perhaps disability will stop being so difficult to address. The flipside of invisibility is excessive visibility, and exaggerated concern, too little and then too much: something Renkow’s character continually experiences: the over-conscientious, and somewhat hostile lollypop lady for example, who can’t bring herself to let him cross the road. Or conversely, the passersby intent on forcefully helping Renkow to cross the road despite his protestations.
In many respects Renkow’s disability itself is incidental, and it’s the ableist reactions that are the primary focus of the humour. The charity activist who uses Tim to develop his profile; Bobby, the aggressively woke student hungry for righteousness; the teacher who wants Tim as a teaching aid and to enhance his career prospects; the ambitious evangelical preacher who wants a miracle; the relentlessly positive Paralympian gym owner who wants Tim to further her brand. Each character proves to be blinkered by ambition and self-interest, and it’s partly this that makes them easy for Tim to exploit, and for us to laugh at. And in most cases, it is liberal attitudes that are the focus of the satire, uncovering the hypocrisy or self-deceit that is concealed or even facilitated by the ‘uncertain regimes of political correctness’. And while reactionary ableist attitudes to disability are addressed by the show – the fundamentalist perspective which sees disability as a reflection of moral evil, for example, and Nazism or eugenics which demands extermination for the purity of the race, more frequently it is contemporary liberal attitudes and the self-serving use of disability (as teachable moment, or as social capital or currency for example) that are the focus.
Tim’s good-hearted friend Idris (Rob Madin) and his endless attempts to avoid offense are another aspect of the show’s challenge to political correctness – whether he’s terrified of accidentally ‘mansplaining’ or frantically searching for the right word when referring to two mothers at the school gate: ‘these ladies – these women – these mums’. ‘Ladies’ is wrong, ‘women’ – might be wrong, and then finally a place of relative linguistic safety with ‘mums’.
Joanne Gilbert talks of the benefits of marginality for comics ‘as a license for social criticism’ (18) and there’s no doubt that the show delights in exploiting the freedom of Tim’s position, with multiple potentially offensive scenarios and jokes. Tim’s decision to identify as able-bodied for example, which provokes an ardent apology from Bobby, and a commitment to ‘re-educating’ herself. Tim’s nemesis, Kiefer (played by Lee Ridley, aka Lost Voice Guy, whose cerebral palsy requires him to speak through a computer) and his decision to identify as Jamaican, despite being white. Ridley’s use of the computer is both a comic tool and a way of mediating offense: “Tttttt” the computer intones. “I’m sucking my teeth” Kiefer explains. Tim’s time at Anarchy Hamster, a novelty cards outfit, amounts to one long showcase of offence as he experiments with the license he’s been given as ‘a token hire’: opening people’s pay slips and revealing that a male colleague earns more than his female counterpart for instance: “I think it’s because he’s a man – although it could be because she’s shit”. When he does finally get sacked, it’s due to a joke about breastfeeding at the expense of one of the senior staff, a ‘new mum’ who bores the rest of the company to tears with her myopic obsession with card designs for – ‘new mums’.
Schwanebeck’s somewhat paradoxical description of ‘the uncertain regimes of political correctness’ is apt: because, while it is a system and it does have an authoritarian quality, that authority is uncertain. There are various reasons for this: the ‘slippage between ‘identity politics’ and niche markets’ (the ‘pink pound’, the ‘grey dollar’) described by Marie Moran, as well as ‘the emergence of a strangely libertarian version of identity politics which focuses on the individual rights held by the self-conscious bearers of certain ‘identities’ over any sense of group solidarity and power’ (Moran 39). The idea that ‘identity operates primarily to facilitate consumption’ (40) is perhaps slyly gestured to in Jerk by the novelty cards storyline and Anarchy Hamster’s ‘new mums’ range, a theme which also suggests the risks of myopia in the celebration of specific identity positions, a potentially competitive and insular approach. Sarah Garnham argues that while ‘becoming more personally invested in identity can be a positive’ in raising ‘political consciousness’, ‘insofar as it allows people to go on an inner journey of self-discovery, or as a means to advance individual careers, it has no role to play in the fight against oppression’. And it’s precisely this kind of self-interest and ambition that Jerk delights in satirising.
Garnham, Sarah, ‘The failure of identity politics: A Marxist analysis’, Marxist Left Review, No.22, Winter 2021, https://marxistleftreview.org/?issue-number=22
Gilbert, Joanne R. Performing Marginality, Humor, Gender and Cultural Critique. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004.
Moran, Marie, ‘Identity and Identity Politics: A Cultural-Materialist History’, Historical Materialism 26.2 (2018) 21–45
Renkow, Tim, ‘Kathleen Marshall and Sutton Foster, Tim Renkow, Scarlett Johansson suing Disney’ Front Row, https://uk-podcasts.co.uk/podcast/front-row/kathleen-marshall-and-sutton-foster-tim-renkow-sca
Schwanebeck,Wieland, ‘Introduction to Painful Laughter: Media and Politics in the
Age of Cringe’, Humanities 10: 123. 2021. https://doi.org/10.3390/h10040123
Wegner, Gesine “Kill the Puppies!”: Cringe Comedy and Disability Humor in the Live Performances of Laurence Clark, Humanities 10: 105. 2021 https://
© Emma Sullivan 2022.