Originally from Canada, Tanyalee Davis has been making audiences around the world laugh for over 27 years. Tanyalee has a rare form of dwarfism called diastrophic dysplasia and uses her experiences of life as a 3ft 6ins person to inform her comedy. Now, the stand up comedian is touring her latest show Actual Size around the country. I met up with her at the Frog and Bucket Comedy Club in Manchester before her show to discuss the show, her life as a disabled artist and her public transport woes that have plunged her into the world of activism.
“Comedy is therapy, I firmly believe all comedians are messed up!”
Tanyalee always wanted to be a performer but it wasn’t until a visit to an open mic night at a comedy club that she even began to consider a
career in comedy:
“I always wanted to be a performer from a young age – I just have it in my bones – but I didn’t know about comedy or stand up. I grew up on American sitcoms and I thought I just wanted to be an actress. I met a guy who did open mic at a comedy club and he said come and see me. I went down and he was terrible!” Tanyalee laughs. “I was just like wow
you just get up and perform – that’s amazing!”
Not long after, Tanyalee performed her first stand up which went incredibly well however she remembers her second time wasn’t quite smooth: “I died a slow and painful death! My Mum showed up with the neighbour and the cousins and I heard a familiar laugh, and everything just went out of the window! A couple of months later I was getting paid and 27 years later… here we are!”
Tanyalee’s hilarious stories have taken her around the world but now, she touring up and down the UK. Something she describes as amazing:
“I see small villages I would never get to other than the fact somebody had set up a comedy venue in this tiny village! I feel very fortunate I have this line of work.”
Tanyalee describes her current show, Actual Size as very autobiographical:
“My entire life people have underestimated me. Literally from the moment my head crowned, the doctors were like ‘she’s not going to amount to much and have a productive life’ and I’ve been pretty much proving people wrong, so the show is all about the funny situations I get myself into… and when you’re 3ft 6ins it lends itself to a lot of comedy gold!” She laughs, “This show is storytelling with my life
It’s obvious that Tanyalee uses her comedy to challenge the status quo
but can comedy also be an antidote or used to challenge things?
“Comedy is therapy, I firmly believe all comedians are messed up!” She laughs, “Some horrible situation I’ve been in, I’ve ended up turning around into comedy and that’s my way with dealing with things. It’s needed and it’s cheaper than a psychologist!
“You can cover almost any topic but the main thing is just to make things funny.”
While she now plays a mix of prestigious comedy clubs and stunning theatres, in the past she’s had to play some interesting gigs and when I ask her what the funniest thing is that’s happened to her, she references what she describes as her craziest show:
“A friend of mine set up a comedy show at a psychiatric ward at the hospital which she was working at. I was performing to people tied down to chairs and tables. When they got excited or liked a joke
they’d bang their heads on the tables and I was like ‘oh my god, this is
the weirdest thing ever! I don’t want to make you laugh, you’re hurting
Tanylee might have moved on, one of the biggest challenges she and her fans face is venues with access. I wondered how difficult she’d found it to break into comedy as a disabled artist?
“There are many venues where I have to be carried upstairs or downstairs. I’ve had people kicking off on Twitter because they want to
come to my show but things aren’t accessible.” Tanyalee sighs: “Now, I’m only going to do accessible venues as I want to be inclusive, that’s part of my show and I want everybody to be represented. That is difficult. Venues absolutely need to do more.
“A couple of venues have one step up in to the building, one step! Come on; tell me you can’t get a portable ramp! But then it’s ok, people can get in but then they don’t have a disabled toilet.”
However it isn’t just her venues where Tanyalee is fighting for accessibility. She’s also fighting for accessibility on British transport after suffering from numerous instances of discrimination on trains, planes and buses. She made headlines in July of this year after posting an emotional video following a train guard threatening to call the police if she didn’t move from a disabled space for a pram. Tanyalee’s #ScooterGirlCampaign rose to prominence – a hash tag she had started in 2010:
“Being a foreigner and working in this country for 15 years, I never really thought I had a leg (or wheel) to stand on, I didn’t think people
would take me seriously. I started the #ScooterGirlCampagin after issued with the Lothian Buses refusing to take me and my mobility scooter on board at the Edinburgh Festival. I tried to generate some
publicity then and got a letter from Boris Johnson saying ‘you’re allowed on our London buses’ but that didn’t get much traction.
“In mid-July it all really kicked off. I think the train guard trying to move me for a pram thought because I have a Canadian accent and my partner is American, ‘what are they going do about it?’ Well the power of an unedited video showing him having an absolute meltdown and my real life feelings at the time – I just put it out there not realising it would blow up. I feel empowered by it all and I’m now networking with a bunch of train companies to improve their policies on
mobility scooters and their booking apps for disabled people because we have to book 24 hours in advance – and half the time they don’t show up anyway so you waste your time!”
And while it’s frustrating, Tanylee is amazed at the positive that can come out of a negative situation.
“You can either let it defeat you or you can capitalise it to empower change. #Scootergirlcampagin is for any disabled person – visible or invisible, it’s a place to have support, share stories and to give people a voice.”
For a full list of tour dates visit tanyaleedavis.com