Risking laugh and limb pays off

ADMITTEDLY, discussions such as how an armless swimmer gets out of the pool or whether people who don't look disabled should participate in the Paralympic Games aren't ones that we would usually associate with TV. A comedy club, perhaps, but not a medium modulated to not offend people who are considering their next car purchase or how to keep their kitchens germ-free.

But when Adam Hills heard the captain of the American wheelchair rugby team ask the question about the armless swimmer, he realised two things: that curiosity wasn't restricted to the able-bodied and that disabled people don't mind talking about disability.

Hills should know. His artificial foot has been part of his comedy routine from the start. But when he turned up on British TV in 2012 talking to another legless man about the awkward matter of removing their prosthetics to have sex, the discussion became less about tiptoeing across subjects that people might consider offensive and more about inclusion.

Hills was approached by Channel 4 to host a nightly highlights show for the 2012 London Paralympic Games. But after Channel 4's decision-makers saw him do a stand-up routine about Paralympians at a media launch, they began thinking instead of a comedy show.

British comic Josh Widdicombe was in line to be his sparring partner but when he became unavailable to film the pilot, 26-year-old sports journalist Alex Brooker stepped up to the plate and soon found himself part of the ensemble with Hills and Widdicombe.

Like Hills, Brooker has an artificial foot, as well as hand deformities. But it was a game of paper, rock, scissors that clinched the deal, Hills believes.

''He beat me in a game of paper, rock, scissors, because whatever he does with his hand he can pretend it's a paper or a rock or a scissor and no one's the wiser,'' Hills says.

Unexpectedly, the riskily titled The Last Leg became the surprise hit of Channel 4's Paralympics coverage, earning plaudits from mainstream TV critics and Clive James and all the way to Prime Minister David Cameron, who apparently told the TV presenter and former Paralympian Ade Adepitan that the discussion about prosthetics and sex was one of his favourite bits of the show.

Each night the show would open on Hills and Brooker talking about what it's like to have an artificial foot. ''Josh became the outsider,'' Hills recalls. ''He even said, 'I've never felt so excluded because I have all my limbs.'''

Following the success of The Last Leg, Channel 4 was keen to see if the trio could pull off a comedy show that had no reference to the Paralympics. Even before The Last Leg of the Year was broadcast, Channel 4 was ready to sign them up for another run of shows, sporting events replaced with current affairs. What was intended to be a seven-episode run in Britain has already been extended to nine episodes, with the ABC broadcasting the show on its main channel 10 days later. And there is already talk of it being recommissioned as a Friday-night destination show in Britain. ''I think they see even more potential in the show than we do,'' Hills says.

''The joy of doing [The Last Leg] during the Paralympics was we weren't trying to be recommissioned,'' Hills says. ''We never thought it could be recommissioned, so we just made the show we wanted to make.''

Hills believes the show's success can be sheeted to the chemistry between himself, Brooker and Widdicombe and being live.

''When we were deciding to sign on for the new series … I sat down with Alex and Josh at lunch and we cracked each other up for one hour and I remember saying to them, 'There's something really good that happens when the three of us get around a table. The last time I saw that happen was on Spicks and Specks. This feeling doesn't happen with everyone you work with and it doesn't happen all the time on TV. If for no other reason than we crack each other up … maybe we should do the show.''

One of the most popular - if also risque - segments of the original show was ''Is It OK?'', in which punters on Twitter ask potentially awkward questions about living with a disability. ''We wanted to make the point that people will say the wrong things and that people really don't know what goes on and it's OK to ask and get it out of your system because you'll never get an answer if you don't ask questions like that,'' Hills says.

Not surprisingly, humour plays a large part in the segment, which, needless to say, was preserved for the new show. In the Paralympics office one day, Hills overheard an athlete wondering if the horse rather than the rider should be disabled in Paralympics Equestrian events. Another question, which Hills admits did ignite an uproar, was whether it's OK to punch someone in a wheelchair if they're behaving like a knob. (''Our answer was you should treat disabled people like everyone else and no it's not right to punch someone generally, but if you think your friend's being a massive knob you can hit them,'' Hills says.)

Hills believes the 2012 Paralympics had a positive effect on how society views disability.

''I think generally what's gone on is people are taking offence at comedy and jokes, at everything that's printed or on TV. There's that underlying tension anyway. Then the Paralympics came along and because Channel 4 did such a great job at covering it, nine to 10 hours of coverage a day, it looked fantastic … and it fired people's imaginations. Whenever you go to the Paralympics or are surrounded by disabled people [you wonder], 'What can I say?' We knew this was going to happen, so once the questions started coming in we thought let's just make everyone feel OK about it.''

The celebrities who have appeared on The Last Leg so far include actors Idris Elba and Dominic West, comedians Danny Bhoy and Alan Carr, as well as several Paralympians. Hills is probably not joking when he says he hopes Prime Minister Cameron will accept an invitation.

Hills insists that having celebrities on the show isn't just to lend the show some marquee value. ''Part of what we wanted was to get celebrities to experience the Paralympics … and become converts like the rest of us.''

Despite rumours to the contrary, the ABC has recommissioned Adam Hills in Gordon St Tonight (under a new title, Adam Hills Tonight), though it's been shunted to mid-2013 to allow for Hills' commitments in Britain. Between now and then, he will also undertake a national tour.

He is unperturbed about the lower ratings the show earned in 2012 compared with its maiden outing in 2011.

''We were perplexed [at the 2012 ratings], we thought we were putting out a good if not better show than the first series. The joy of being at the ABC is you don't live or die on the back of ratings.''

And while Hills has ruled himself out of participating in the re-berthed Spicks and Specks, he remains supportive of the project. ''I thought all along they should [redo it]. I can see why they gave it a rest, because the comparisons would have been easy to make. I wanted our last episode to be a bit like Dr Who where Alan [Brough], Myf [Warhurst] and I melted and generated into whoever the new hosts were going to be. I hope it works, I really do. I've spoken to the people casting it and the most important thing for them is to find three people with the right chemistry because that's what Alan, Myf and I had.''

The Last Leg with Adam Hills is on ABC1 on Wednesday at 9.30pm.

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