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Comedian Liam Withnail’s chronic disease forms basis of new stand-up show

Comedian Liam Withnail’s chronic disease forms basis of new stand-up show
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One of the things that often tends to work well in live comedy is the ability to elicit laughter from serious, life-changing subjects.

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Numerous stand-ups have done it over the years and now it’s the turn of Scottish Comedy Award-winner Liam Withnail to use what in his case has been his experience with a chronic illness to make audiences laugh.

Liam Withnail. Picture: Rebecca Need-Menear

At the start of 2022, the Edinburgh-based comic believed himself to be healthy. He lived a ‘normal’ life, ate whatever he wanted, and was even training for a marathon.

Then he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis – a type of inflammatory bowel disease – and in October that same year, a ‘flare-up’ saw him spend nearly two weeks in hospital.

Described as “extraordinary” by The Independent and “vividly funny” by Chortle, his latest comedy show is titled Chronic Boom and it was one of the best-reviewed shows of 2023.

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Speaking to the Cambridge Independent from his home in the Scottish capital, Liam, who has had more than 10 million TikTok and Instagram views, reveals that he was able to get the last flight back to Edinburgh from Birmingham the previous night, after having performed in England’s second city opening for fellow stand-up Vittorio Angelone.

“It was all very, very tight but I managed to do it,” he says, “so woke up in my own bed so absolutely delighted. I’m in a great mood.

“It was either stay over and get the first train back at 6am, or run from [Birmingham venue] The Glee to the airport at 8.30 and get the last flight, and just about managed it.”

Coming to terms with his ulcerative colitis diagnosis and the fact that he could suddenly be hospitalised at any time – which would mean cancelling work-in-progress gigs – Liam knew he would have to find a new way of testing his new material.

Planning for the worst-case scenario, he set about creating a show made up of 10 distinct five-minute routines (one for each day of that first hospital stay) which could be fine-tuned at new-material nights.

How is Liam doing at the moment, health-wise?

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“It’s up and down,” he admits, “I’m not completely unwell, which has been pretty good, generally.

“The thing is is that any medicine that I go on, we can’t really see the results – it takes about six months or so each time to figure out whether or not it’s really properly working…

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“The medicine I’m on is kind of working okayish – not as much as it should be but I’m able to live my life pretty normally at the moment.

“It’s better than it has been, certainly, I’m not having a flare-up, I’m not in hospital but it’s not 100 per cent how it should be at the moment.”

Liam Withnail. Picture: Rebecca Need-Menear

Liam reveals that while in hospital, he came close to having the bowel removal surgery that would have left him with a stoma.

“So the story of my over 10 days in hospital is the show,” he explains. “The show is one story; it’s split up into days of what happened on each day, and there’s a line throughout the whole thing about living with colitis and being in hospital and all that stuff…

“So yeah, it was a pretty tough time, but I got a show out of it so that’s the trade-off!”

I suggest that ‘darker’ events and experiences can often lead to good comic material.

“100 per cent,” agrees Liam, who comedy-wise expresses a fondness for the likes of Alan Partridge, The Office, Chris Morris, The League of Gentlemen, Adam Buxton, Carl Donnelly, Josie Long, John Mulaney, Ross Noble, and Christopher Macarthur-Boyd.

“It did take a while, though, because – and this is something I talk about a bit in the show – when this happened, it wasn’t funny.

“It was really scary, and I really didn’t think I was going to be able to find humour in this, just because it was so personal and quite traumatic.

“But it’s that old Mark Twain thing, isn’t it, about comedy is time plus tragedy – and as time went on, I started to be able to see the funny side of things.

“I also realised that in an hour of comedy, you can have some serious moments, especially when talking about something so serious, and there are points in the show where there isn’t a joke and it is just something that needs to be said about how we treat people who are living with chronic illnesses or disabilities, or our friends or family members when they’re in hospital.

“So there is actually bit of pathos in there, and I think it’s important to get that balance.”

Liam says he discovered recently that ulcerative colitis is actually more common than Crohn’s disease, despite the latter probably being more well known.

Noting that many people are still embarrassed to talk about these debilitating conditions, he adds: “I can’t believe how many people I’ve spoken to who have the condition [ulcerative colitis], and how many people with IBD [inflammatory bowel disease] have come to the show and spoken to me afterwards.

“It is a lot of people, and I feel like maybe doing this show is in some ways helping some people speak about it a little bit more.”

Liam Withnail. Picture: Rebecca Need-Menear

Originally from Dagenham, Liam moved to Scotland 15 years ago at the age of 18 to study at Queen Margaret University, just outside Edinburgh.

He started performing stand-up shortly afterwards, having always enjoyed acting.

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He will be performing Chronic Boom at the Cambridge Junction (J3) on Friday, 19 April. Tickets, priced £18, are available from junction.co.uk. For more on Liam, go to facebook.com/Liamwithnail comedy/?locale=en_GB.



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