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Punchlines & Paperwork, Highlighting Life On Centrelink With Comedian Madeleine Stewart

In this episode, comedian and disability advocate Madeleine Stewart joins Peta to discuss her journey in stand-up comedy, the challenges of navigating Centrelink, and the importance of representation and community in the arts. Madeleine shares her experiences with disability, the inspiration behind her comedy, and her efforts to create inclusive spaces for marginalised performers.

Connect with Madeleine:

Watch Madeleine's Centrelink video:

Connect with Peta:

Instagram: @petahooke


Episode Transcript:


Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to the I Can't Stand Podcast, the podcast answering your questions about what life is like when you have a disability. My name's Peta. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host. This week I have Madeline Stewart. Madeline is a stand up comedian, disability advocate, writer, and performer. You probably gathered from the title that we go to some places that a lot of disabled people are too scared to talk about publicly, but we did it. We spoke at Centrelink, but Madeline is so much more than her advocacy around Centrelink. I really enjoyed this episode and I hope you do too. So without any further ado, let's get into it.


Madeline [00:00:58] Oh. Hello, everybody, I'm Madeline Stewart. I am a stand up comedian. I am a disability advocate. I sometimes dabble in film. I'm a bit of a jack of all trades. I'm a person with disability. I'm missing my left hand and forearm. And for those of you at home, I might do a little visual description. How do you feel about that Peta?


Peta [00:01:19]  Do it. Love it.


Madeline [00:01:20] Okay, great. So I'm a petite white woman. I'm tiny. I could fit inside someone's purse. You know, like. Like a little Chihuahua in a handbag.


Peta [00:01:31] You look like a Polly Pocket.


Madeline [00:01:33] I do look a bit like a Polly Pocket. I have pink hair and a fringe. And I'm wearing this, like, green and black striped jacket, jacket, jumper. Today.


Peta [00:01:44] As you said, you're a comedian and you're a woman of many talents. But I want to start with comedian first. So do you think you would be funny if you didn't have a disability? Because I know disabled people are pretty funny, right? If you don't laugh, you cry.


Madeline [00:02:01] I don't know I don't know if I'd be funny. I don't know if I'd be this funny. I don't think I would do comedy. I think a lot of humour comes from trying to fit in and trying to make friends and to kind of, you know, deal with disability and difference in society. So I'm not sure if I'd be this funny. Maybe I'd have a little sense of humour, but it's certainly not the skill that I have today.


Peta [00:02:26] When you're a kid, did you often use humour for people to be comfortable with your disability, or is that just myself projecting?


Madeline [00:02:34] Humour definitely played a part with me. Making friends with people, accepting me. Like I don't know where this concept came from, but I think thought like, if I'm funny, if I'm friendly, people will be more likely to want to be my friend despite my disability. But thank goodness that's changed.


Peta [00:02:54] Does your disability today influence your comedic style?


Madeline [00:02:59] I think it does. When I started comedy, I didn't. I started comedy when I was 16, and I had little to no connection with community. I grew up out west in Sydney, I grew up in Campbelltown, and there wasn't a lot of representation. There wasn't a lot of people with disability that I knew knew nothing about social and medical models, all these wonderful things. And I did comedy because I thought that people would like me and respect me. If I did comedy, I did it so that I could feel validated as a human being. And then slowly, over the years, as I've connected with communities, I've met people as my own mind has changed, as I've understood myself better. I use comedy more now as a tool for advocacy, rather than something for me to feel good about myself. I mean, it still makes me feel good about myself, but not in that way. You know, I think as a teenager I just want to be seen as a person and valued. But now I know that I'm valued and I value myself from the inside, and I use my art differently. And I notice that the change in the quality of my work and the quality of my writing, it was it was incredible. I'm glad I made that decision.


Peta [00:04:20] It's quite a brave decision to go up and grab a mic and say, you know what? I'm going to get people to listen to me at the age of 16. You might like that must just be in you. You've always had that confidence.


Madeline [00:04:32] Well, I've always been a bit of a show off. I'm sure I'm the youngest child. And I think that has a big part of it. I've always been a bit of a loud mouth.


Peta [00:04:43] So talk to me about writing and performing a set. Do you feel you need to explain your disability every time you go on stage?


Madeline [00:04:52] Yes, yes. I definitely need to mention disability. I've tried doing comedy sets where you don't mention it at all, and the audience is just so uncomfortable. Honestly, people are so curious. If you walk up with one arm on stage, they're going to want to know. They're going to want you to at least acknowledge it. It's like if someone walked up on stage in a chicken suit and not mention it like you have to, you have to mention it. And it's so frustrating because, you know, sometimes, especially when I was starting out, I only had like five minutes on stage and all of it was used on me making people feel comfortable about me having one arm. I cannot wait until I'm well. Honestly, it would be lovely, I would. I want to be so well known that I don't have to mention the disability. That's the goal. You know, I want to be like an Adam Hills where everyone knows is disabled. He doesn't have to mention it.


Peta [00:05:51] Talk to me about how you go about writing a set. How do you start? What is it like an idea that sparks in your head and you think, oh, that's a really good theme. Are there certain themes that you gravitate to? Like, talk to me about the whole process.


Madeline [00:06:06] I think, first of all, I'd say there's a difference between a small little ten minute set that you do in a club. That's just little jokes you put together. But when you get to write a whole hour comedy show, oh, it's like a playground, you know, you can talk about anything you want and you have a whole hour and you can go really in-depth with things. And so that's what really excites me, writing these hour shows. And they usually take me a couple of years to write. I always write from my own personal experience, and I think I've been lately been pushing the boundaries of what it is that I want to share. And then I've also been quite political. I'm very drawn to political things, and it definitely gets me into, hot water sometimes. Last year I did well, it's not in hour show, but last year I did a video for the ABC about marriage equality and so many people with disability messaged me saying, oh my gosh, I can't believe you went after to Centrelink publicly. They're going to come after you. And I didn't even think about that.


Peta [00:07:09] Really!


Madeline [00:07:10] I didn't think about it. I was just like, whatever. Like I already live in fear. All of us live in terrible fear of being audited in for a penny. In for a pound. Peta. I thought, why not? We didn't realise that the ABC, but it was funded by. Not Centrelink but the government services. And they played back my video and I was and they sat and they watched it and they they said they liked it. They said they enjoyed it.


Peta [00:07:40] Surely then they can say that there's an issue there and like, oh, let you explain to the audience what you were highlighting as far as the injustice of being a disabled person and being on Centrelink.


Madeline [00:07:54] Oh yeah. Sorry, I should have mentioned that before. For those of you at home who haven't watched that little video, go and give it a little watch. You can find it on my Instagram or on ABC Instagram, whatever. But it's a great little 90 second video, and it's about how if you're a person with disability receiving the disability support pension and you are dating or living with somebody who doesn't, who isn't, who's non-disabled, who works if they earn past a certain amount of money, which is honestly at the bottom, it's the very, very small amount of money. Your pension is cut off. Therefore you lose essentially your whole financial autonomy. And you therefore are reliant on your partner, which can be quite dangerous when we consider, you know, the horrible statistics around abuse and financial abuse and a lot of domestic things that can go awry and, you know, and it has there are plenty of reports on it in non-disabled relationships. If you're living with your partner, you have two years and then you declare that you're a de facto relationship. However, if you're a person with disability, you have two weeks to declare.


Peta [00:09:13] Two weeks is just so fast. My God.


Madeline [00:09:17] I know, I know, I know. And in this economy, you've got to kind of live with someone.


Peta [00:09:23] Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So you said that, and I know I don't want to get you in any hot water. I'm very respectful, whatever you want to say. But when you said that, Services Australia saw the video, other than finding it funny and engaging and well-made, was there anything positive as far as making this change and making an action?


Madeline [00:09:47] I mean, I don't. I don't know these people. I wasn't there when they saw the video. I was just told it was passed along the gripe line through the ABC that, oh, we forgot to mention, we were actually funded by, you know, and I was like, oh, okay. But even as I was writing it, I was saying, I don't know if there should be a call to action. Like, I don't know what to say. I don't know what to do. Like I'm just too. I'm just a comedian with a small grant from ABC to make some videos. Before that video. I've just kind of been doing comedy. Gentle docos like Inspire Me, which we'll talk about in a bit, but, I never kind of full on did a kind of what I call a John Oliver, where I just take my beef out on, you know, whatever angry thing I want to talk about. And it was really I really enjoyed myself. I thought it was really fun, and I think there was an appetite for it as well. So, you know, we never know. There might be some more videos. You don't we don't know in the future.


Peta [00:10:52] You obviously a great disability advocate, but you also advocate for disabled comics. So talk to me about your work around that.


Madeline [00:11:02] I started a comedy club called Crips and Creeps. And crips as in cripple. Obviously I'm not in a gang. No one has to worry. I started that because there was no safe space for marginalised people. Crips and Creeps are for all marginalised people. And so it started off as just like a little monthly gig in Redfern, and a lot of the audience were, you know, non-disabled or straight, and they'd come up to me afterwards and say, oh, I've never met a disabled person before. And I was like, well, welcome, I hope you enjoyed the show. Or they said, I've never met a trans person before. And, you know, what we're doing is providing a stage and autonomy for these, artists. And these people are coming to enjoy the show, but are also being educated and learning, and empathy is growing and understanding is growing. And I think it is powerful to have, you know, those diverse line-ups but run in a safe way, not just, oh, we're diverse. It's no you, we're diverse. And here's how I support you, audience and performers alike. And that kind of spread into, show that I'm touring this year called Are You Pulling My Leg? And this is a collaboration with Accessible Arts, which is like Odd Access Victoria, but in Sydney. And so we're touring all across Australia, all in these little regional towns and some not so regional. We're going to Brisbane and the like. And we not only have a full disabled Line-Up, all disabled comedians, which I cannot believe I have enough comedians to fill the whole Line-Up. It's incredible. Like considering the first couple of years I was the only one. And so we have disabled artists and I've booked everyone from beginners to established comedians, and we have so many of them. And I just kind of shuffle them around so that everybody gets a slice of the pie. And we also train the venues we go to in access. So that way they can they can keep working with people with disability in the future, and they're trained in this more sustainable. And yeah, I'm just really passionate right now about disabled community in comedy. Because it's so small. And I really think that if we all work together as a community rather than thinking, and this is what happens a lot in comedy, with a any kind of marginalised group, we're seen as like, oh, there's only one spot for an Asian comedian on television. There's only one spot for a disabled comedian, which is true. Like, they very much have, like we have our one token disabled person, but I think it kind of generates this awful vibe in the community where we are constantly versing each other and pitted against each other, and I don't think that's healthy. And so I think hopefully through this tour, through working together on this tour and getting a real community together, we can kind of push forward and say a win for one is a win for all, and we keep pulling each other up.


Peta [00:14:18] You mentioned before that you wrote and you're part of an amazing film called Inspire Me. How did that opportunity come about for you?


Madeline [00:14:27] So Inspire Me was my first ever film. I had two friends from Story Mill who had the producer and director, then non-disabled people. They said, we got we saw this opportunity for screen ability, and they're doing this grant for $30,000, and you can make a short film, a do you want to do it? And I was like, yeah, sure, let's do it. We wanted to make it kind of a documentary, but a mockumentary, but no one knows it's a mockumentary. So I play a version of myself where I'm a bit clueless and maybe me. Before I've met community, Madeleine past Madeleine where I say that people with disability, are  either viewed as objects of inspiration or objects of pity, and I don't want to be pitied. So I'm on this journey to be the most inspirational person ever, which obviously means being a Paralympian.


Peta [00:15:28] Of course.


Madeline [00:15:28] But the issue is, I'm very bad at sport. I'm terrible at sport.


Peta [00:15:33] Makes two of us.


Madeline [00:15:34] It's it's horrific. I've never been laughed at by a Paralympian so much in my life. I kind of explore that idea of inspiration and in the end, spoilers. I come to the conclusion that I'm fine. I'm just me, and that is fine. And, you can watch this on SBS. It's there currently Inspire Me f you want to watch. It's like nine minutes. It's not very long. Looking back, I would have preferred to work with more disabled filmmakers. I think it was slightly uneven with representation when it came to like, who's in charge of and makes the decisions of things. I think that's my only, regret of it, that I didn't work with more disabled people.


Peta [00:16:20] As far as what's next for you? And like, I know we were talking about you exploring more issues that the disability community face. But what inspires you day to day?


Madeline [00:16:33] Currently I'm, I'm working on a show about about Centrelink, because I'm determined to be kicked out.


Peta [00:16:42] [Giggles].


Madeline [00:16:42] No I'm writing a show about Centrelink where I'm on hold with Centrelink for the entire show. And I think anyone who's been on hold to Centrelink knows you always start out so gentle, so kind. Of course you can have my number. Here it is. Yes, that's my full name and by the end you're so aggressive and angry and you? I don't know about you guys, but I always cry. I'm always crying. I don't go into the store, the store, the the office, you know, the in-person office. I can't do it because I hate lining up. I hate looking them in the eyes. I hate them talking to me face to face. Like I always cry. And then they get confused and they're like, madam, why are you crying? You seem emotional. You need to step outside. And I'm like, I'm not leaving. Just give me my information. I get very aggressive. But we've all been there. We've all been weirdly aggressive with Centrelink employees and it's not their fault. It's the system they're working in. And I really want to make fun of that. Because I find it as much as I'm angry, but I am also so amused by it. You can be really angry and really amused at the same time.


Peta [00:17:57] Yeah, it's funny, I just get really, really annoyed and that shows in me crying. Like I can't remember the last time I haven't cried after dealing with Centrelink. Like it's just such. It makes you. It makes me feel like I'm a liar. Like, you know, I'm just pretending to be disabled. But guess what? Cerebral palsy can't be cured.


Madeline [00:18:20] Yeah, and they also make these systems that are so ridiculously difficult to understand that you are terrified. We spoke about this before. We're so. I'm petrified. I wake up in anxious sweats at night thinking I'm going to be audited. And when they audit me, I'm not going to have any money. And you know, I won't be able to live anywhere. I won't be able to eat food and enjoy my life. So it is so anxiety inducing. It is so ridiculous. They use such big language. It's, you know, for for a group of people who are supposed to support people with disability, they purposely make it so inaccessible. I haven't been called into Centrelink for a while to declare that I'm still disabled, but I have a fear. Like a lot of people do, that I'm doing Centrelink wrong.


Peta [00:19:07] Me too.


Madeline [00:19:08] I don't think I'm doing it right like I, I especially when it comes to being a freelance artist, there isn't really good ways to declare income and things like that. It's not very straightforward. And then I get scared to ask because then what if they find out I hadn't declared something? And, I just it's ridiculous. It is anxiety inducing to the extreme.


Peta [00:19:30] Well, I share your fear, so I let's just say if anything happens to either of us, I'll move in with you, or you can move in with me.


Madeline [00:19:37] Perfect. Sounds great.


Peta [00:19:38] You just have to make sure that they don't think we're a couple. Otherwise, we're both stuffed


Madeline [00:19:44] We must not share domestic duties Peta


Peta [00:19:48] So to end this beautiful conversation that has really brightened my day. Thank you.


Madeline [00:19:53] No worries.


Peta [00:19:54] I'd love to know what you wish people better understood about living with a disability. If there was one thing.


Madeline [00:20:01] I think I'm always baffled by the fact that because I was born without my left forearm and my left hand, that it means that I'm a lesser human than other people. I mean, I don't believe this society systems according to the law. Things like that. I mean, I just baffles me that people on the street will look at me and think I'm lesser then and think that I'm a charity case or an inspiration or whatever. They think all these things attach to us just because I haven't got a hand and it doesn't even make sense. I can do everything everyone else can except for clap and maybe the chicken dance at a wedding. It's just it's it's wild that our value is on what our body looks like or the way that our brain functions or it's it's this is wild. I just can't get I just can't get that in my head. I've never understood it. Even. Even if we look at art representation, we look through like and we say, Frida Kahlo, Vincent van Gogh. All these incredible disabled artists have created such a wonderful world. The world wouldn't be the same without these wonderful disabled artists. And now we look at disabled artists in society, and we're not given as much like our art is separated or, you know, it's disabled art or it's, you know, it's it's separated. I don't know why we're so separated.


Peta [00:21:28] Thank you for listening to this week's episode. I hope you enjoyed it. And Centrelink, if you're listening. Hello. If you did enjoy this episode, can I encourage you to leave a rating and review on Apple or Spotify? Share the show with a friend or follow the podcast so it downloads automatically into your feed. That's it for this week. Have a good one, guys. Bye. I would like to respectfully acknowledge Wurundjeri people and Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation, of which I record the podcast today. And I pay my respects to both elders, past and present, along with and especially to those in the First Nations communities who are disabled themselves.



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