I should be at peace now. I should be free. I could be, if not for the desire to be loved and thought of as incredibly special. It’s the reason I’m not content. It’s the reason I’m in this funny magazine.
At the end of last year, I was promoting my stand-up special, Numb, on The Radio 1 Breakfast Show. It happened to be the morning of Nelson Mandela’s death. Which, of course, was very sad and shocking news. Even though he was 95. And human.
I was asked not to make any jokes about it, which confused and upset me. I’m not an insensitive lunatic; I’m a brilliant, vulnerable clown.
On the way to the studio, I walked past the urban music station, 1Xtra, where I saw black people in a booth (this is not their jingle). Then I arrived at the Radio 1 studio, which is exclusively white people in a booth.
Nelson Mandela had just died. Black people in one booth, white people in a separate, nicer booth. And I thought, “Don’t mention that.”
The host of the show told me he hadn’t written any questions for me, so he opened with a story about a cheese sandwich that he’d eaten. And not even that morning. He was trying to engage me in this inane small talk so I could come across like a normal, likeable guy, but that’s not what I’m goingfor. I want people to hear me on the radio and say, “Shhh, we must listen for the wisdom,” especially on a morning when people are looking for a new spiritual leader.
I was now desperately trying to find something to say to transcend this mundanity — something thoughtful, inspiring, funny. Then I heard him say “BBC” and beyond my control, I found myself screaming, “What’s going on at the BBC? There are a lot of white people in here!”
I felt I hadn’t made my point that clearly, so I continued with, “Next door there are only black people and I don’t think Mandela would approve.” Silence.
I really needed laughter. Laughter would have meant that everything was OK, that I’d taken a risk and it had paid off. But what I said wasn’t actually properly funny. I just panicked. I don’t know what Mandela would have thought about 1Xtra. He was alive when the station was created, he didn’t do anything about it then.
The host was forced to read an apology “to anyone who found what Simon said offensive”. Off air, the producer told me off. And it’s very rare that anyone tells me off these days because I’m such a delight. I had said something inappropriate. It wasn’t funny.
A while ago, I visited a school that teaches children who are autistic. They have no interest in being appropriate. I spoke to the head teacher: “I don’t really know anything, but it feels to me like the child who is autistic doesn’t have autism. What they have is a kind of freedom from all this nonsense that we have to put up with. And if they’re under any stress or anxiety, isn’t that from us, trying to make them the same as everyone else?” She replied, “Well that’s a nice idea, but sometimes they want to masturbate in public.”
I accepted the need for conformity at the time, but now I wonder, would it be so bad? Rather than insisting parents shout at their children and make them feel confused and ashamed, wouldn’t it be better if the parent was able to say, “People of the bus, my child, who I love, is expressing joy. Gather.”
As I was leaving the school, a very sweet looking 10-year-old boy walked towards me. He looked up and shouted, “Prick!” I felt connected, inspired, less alone in the world. It wasn’t an attempt to offend; it was a desperate, joyful cry of freedom.