'That's my life': How Courtney Gilmour approaches disability and comedy, and beyond

Gilmour, a Toronto comedian talks about her career and experiences in the industry as an amputee, and her two-part Comedy and Disability class that she teaches.

'The thing about the larger narrative about disability is that a lot of our prejudices towards it are latent.'

If you feel uncomfortable about Courtney Gilmour's jokes, tough luck, because she'll call you out on it and make you laugh too.

Gilmour, a Toronto comedian who was born without both forearms and her right leg above the knee, boasts a long comedy resumé: highlights include being the winner of the Just for Laughs Homegrown Competition in 2017, becoming the first female comic to do so in the 19-year existence of the event, appearing on CBC's The Debaters, the Winnipeg and Halifax comedy festivals and contributing to The Beaverton.

If that's not enough, she was featured in FASHION Magazine and says she got a glimpse of what life is like at a certain level of success. "It was very different in that I basically spent most of the day in a make-up chair and hair and then posing — it just felt like a day of being pampered," says Gilmour.

Now, she is passing on her experience in a two-part Stand-up Comedy and Disability program where she teaches the basics of joke writing and how to use humour to talk difference and explore your disability experience. 

Unconventionally funny

On the phone earlier this week, Courtney Gilmour provided some insight on how she started her career in comedy and the experiences she's had.

She's always felt like she is funny, but in an unconventional way, and though she's never been the gregarious life of the party, GIlmour says she's a more introverted and quiet type, while being funny in her personal interactions and her writing.

"I think that a lot of my family and friends were a little bit surprised to find out that I was pursuing stand up comedy just because it was so opposite my personality."

Gilmour was born in Sarnia and raised in Waterloo but her love of stand-up first sparked while at the University of Windsor. "I don't actually know what prompted me to try stand-up, other than I always felt that I had something performative inside of me that I had never expressed before."

"So I just went to an open-mic, I did a fundraiser show that I did a little bit of stand-up at and from there it just kind of snowballed," she adds. After a few stand-up gigs in Windsor, Gilmour moved to Toronto and decided to sincerely pursue comedy.

Initially, her parents were uneasy about her venture into the entertainment industry. 

"They didn't know whether I was funny enough to actually make it or not, no one knew — I didn't even know. There was probably a little bit of apprehension there," says Gilmour.

But after seeing her perform at Just for Laughs, Gilmour says at that point her parents were on board and no longer concerned about her financial well-being.

The industry is in the middle of a huge shift

Gilmour agrees that the industry, in terms of representation and inclusivity, is changing and culturally getting to a better place.

"I think that we are seeing so much more representation and in such a bulk amount, in such high volumes." 

"There's a huge shift in the comedy scene within North America but especially within Canada and Toronto," she says — recounting that when she first started, the industry was scattered, not only culturally and in disability but gender-wise, too. 

A lot of the time, it wasn't so much the fact that I was performing comedy with a disability, it was still the fact that I was performing comedy as a woman.​- Courtney Gilmour

And when asked about ever encountering microaggressions, she said: "People don't really fully understand they're ignorant toward disability until it's shown to them through someone who has one. They often don't realize that they are ableist with judgements or misconceptions about someone like me."

"And that's the thing about the larger narrative about disability is that a lot of our prejudices towards it are latent."

"They [people and colleagues] would make comments that, I think, were well-intentioned but the subtext behind their comments sort of implied that they thought that it might be easy for me to write jokes as a person with a disability because it just seemed like there's so much material there, therefore, I probably just have the whole thing on a silver platter — that I pretty much have a career carved out because of my uniqueness, which was not true," she adds. 

The contentious topic of accessibility in performance venues has many comedians with physical disabilities often feeling unaccommodated. For Gilmour, it's a slightly different situation.

"I do have an assistive device that helps me hold the microphone and it's not mandatory but it's preferred because of the way I prefer to perform. And it only works for a standard corded microphone, it doesn't work with the wireless one," she says. 

"I've had some frustrations with where I've gone out of my way to book a gig and tell the people in advance, 'Hey, when you're booking your tech., make sure that there's this kind of microphone for me', and they don't do it so, you know, there's that."

"The one positive spin from that is that we actually have so many more comedians with disabilities getting into stand-up in the past couple of years. So now, there's way more of a demand for accessibility, which there always should have been, but you know if it takes this to move that forward, I think that's good because a lot of producers don't even take that into consideration."

For this reason, other comedians — who might not be as comfortable talking about their disability on stage as Gilmour is —still do it, knowing how important it is to use the platform to raise awareness. 

"I am very comfortable on stage but I think that speaks to how comfortable I just am in general. It's not an act. It's part of my act because it's so visible — it's a visible difference," she says.

"I enjoyed talking about my life and my being an amputee and missing hands and a leg because it's not like a taboo subject to me, it's part of my life. I get on stage and I don't have hands, I get off it and I don't have hands. That's my life, it's not like I turn it on for the microphone."

"I do my best to write material that's original and reflective of my personality and not easy, you know, hack material."

It's clear that she's never been reluctant or afraid to address the elephant in the room — often starting with a joke about how she can tell that people realize she doesn't have hands based on the sound of her voice.

But now, Gilmour says, she's come so far in her career that she's earned the freedom to make a personal choice to focus more on starting over from scratch with brand new material — jokes that have nothing to do with her disability. 

"Toronto audiences know me by and large and so I feel like I'm at that point where I can do that."

Dealing with anxiety

While a lot of artists struggle with anxiety and having to deal with so much scattered activity, for Gilmour, meditation was a game changer. The comedian says it has absolutely changed her life. 

"Meditation is like entering a state of heightened awareness that can just completely set the tone of your day and change the way you interact with everything throughout my day. I try to start every day with at least ten to twenty minutes of meditation and I almost no longer deal with anxiety — or when I do, it's in very short intervals. It allows me to be very present."

And even on those days when she doesn't feel like going on stage, Gilmour tries to stay centered and positive. She says the best way to address it is by acknowledging the feeling and not suppressing it. 

It's OK to let go of it for a short time and try to have as much fun as possible.​​


We were let in on a little secret, too. 

"OK, they won't tell you this but comedians always secretly wish that the show will be cancelled. Because we have so much social anxiety and stuff," she laughs, "It takes a lot of mental energy to put yourself on stage for anywhere between 10 and 40 minutes every night and you have to do it no matter what happened the previous nine hours."

Someone to look up to

Representation in terms of having a role model to look up to was not in the cards for Gilmour, but comedic titans like Sarah Silverman and Maria Bamford made an immense impact. Now, Gilmour herself has become a role model that she never had. 

Realizing that her work makes a positive impact is what touches her the most. 

"I'm honoured to be able to say that if I can make any influence on people at all, that's amazing to me because I definitely didn't really have anyone myself."

Paying it forward

A great way to give back to the community is through wisdom and knowledge which Gilmour is passing on in her two-part Stand-up Comedy and Disability program she teaches at The Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.

"What I think is different about this course — which is geared toward people with disabilities — is it's an introduction to approaching comedy from a very specific angle." 

"As a person with a disability, your job is to go with the idea that's less obvious and so I talk about the mechanics of joke writing, the traditional structure of stand-up comedy — premise, set-up, punchline," continues Gilmour.

Part one of the program consists of how to come up with creative ideas — the brainstorming process, the writing process and what makes a joke funny — and in part two, the course more exclusively dives into the lead up to and the performance of it.

"I talk about the different styles of comedy and try to find which style fits your sense of humour the best and the performance of it. How to quiet your anxiety, the physicality of it, the confidence of sitting or standing in front of an audience and addressing them."

Gilmour tries to help her students find an approach to their disability that is welcoming to the audience and comfortable for themselves — something that doesn't have to be self-deprecating but can be in a thoughtful way because that informs how the audience will receive jokes and whether they pull back or stay engaged. 

"It's important to let the audience know that it's OK to laugh with them."

As a bonus, students are connected with producers in the city who make it an effort to curate shows with diverse line-ups. 

"I provide that as well so that people know which rooms in the city are the most accessible for them." 

"The best part of it as a whole is that now I have so much interest from people who want to get into stand-up who have disabilities and that means more visibility for them. More representation within the scene."

Secret sauce to success

It's been a while since one of her jokes bombed, but Gilmour says that there were a few times they just didn't land because she either went into them too early or it was the wrong audience. But she's figured out a way to turn it into a win.

"The best way that I've dealt with it is to call it on the spot and just like tell them that they are being babies. If I wrote a joke and I'm cool with it, what are you doing, like why are you weird about it? That's usually enough to make them laugh."

Reading a room can be helpful at times. 

"For me, that means watching them [the audience] when they come in, watching them respond to the house, watching them respond to the act that just went up before me. Just kind of gauging what their last metrics were like — not to get too mathematical about it but sometimes in your head you're doing some calibrations." 

If you're a comedian that has a disability — whether it's visible or non, whether it's physical or mental — don't hold back go right into it. Just test out jokes see what works and definitely don't feel bad about your main jokes being about your disability. It's something to not be ashamed of.

She herself had to accept that for a while her first five minutes was going to be about her not having hands, "because that's the max amount of time that you're allowed to have when you're a beginner and it's an introduction of yourself to an audience," she says. 

"There's nothing wrong with that."

Gilmour is currently working on a book she's making out of her Fringe show called Congratulations. The date of the release is not set yet but in the meantime, you can find more info on her website You can also catch her, and you should, performing at Yuk Yuk's and Comedy Bar or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.