âOur humour gets very dark, very fastâ: The Last Leg presenters on busting disability taboos
âO ur catchphrase was, âWhat are they going to do, sack us?ââ says Adam Hills. âWe were only meant to be on air for 10 days, so we were happy to push boundaries. Little did we suspect weâd still be here nine years later.â
The Last Leg started life as a Paralympics spin-off to highlight Channel 4âs coverage of the 2012 London games. Host Hills called it âThree guys with four legs discussing the dayâ â he was born without a right foot, while sidekick Alex Brooker had his twisted right leg amputated when he was a baby.
The experiment was meant to end when the Paralympic flame was extinguished. But 23 series and 270 episodes later, itâs still going strong. Not even David âWeirwolfâ Weir has this much stamina.
Now, The Last Leg is back airing nightly for the duration of the Tokyo Paralympics. Each live episode will feature the now-familiar mix of sporting action, freewheeling chat and flat-out tomfoolery.
The presenting trio of Australian comic Hills, Croydon-born sports journalist Brooker and Devonian standup Josh Widdicombe (âthe token able-bodied white maleâ) might be older and beardier, but theyâre little wiser, retaining the anarchic spirit which first made The Last Leg a word-of-mouth hit.
âWeâre a dysfunctional family,â says Brooker. âAdamâs the dad, providing for me and Josh while we piss about like annoying toddlers.â
âI was only in it for free sports tickets,â says Widdicombe. âI never imagined anyone would actually watch it. I suspected we were on to something when athletes started coming on the show. Itâs easy to book comedians â theyâll do anything for the right fee â but the athletes felt like a vote of confidence.â
âTwo shows in, we got an email from the US wheelchair rugby team,â says Hills. âWe realised the show was being broadcast throughout the Paralympic Village and they were all tuning in every night.â
As the showâs remit broadened to include all things topical, ratings grew from 1.2 million to nudging 2 million â impressive for the 10pm slot. The Last Leg has won four RTS awards and been nominated for six Baftas. By stealth, it has become not just one of Britainâs most beloved late-night shows but is home to some of the spikiest satire.
In 2018, Hills hit the headlines after a rant about the âcult of Corbynâ. The previous year, they riffed on Ed Milibandâs notorious pic by staging a photoshoot where the former Labour leader donned leathers, shades and sat smoulderingly on a motorbike while holding a bacon sandwich.
âGod bless Ed Miliband,â says Hills. âHe was still in our green room at 3am with Alex asleep on his shoulder. We get a different kind of political interview, partly thanks to the audience. Our studio is like a cauldron, so youâre surrounded by laughter. Itâs intoxicating. Politicians let their guard down â and sometimes drop themselves in the shit. I remember Al Gore saying he didnât want to be on set when the dancing Trumps and naked Putins came out.â
In 2015, Brooker was acclaimed for his âno bullshit guaranteedâ grilling of the then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. His opening question was âBoris Johnson: statesman or twat?â âBit more the latter,â replied Clegg. Whenever Brooker detected obfuscation, he pressed a red buzzer.
âThat can be credited to Alastair Campbell,â admits Hills. âHeâd been on the week before and said, âIf he starts talking rubbish, just hit the Bullshit Button.ââ
The show made waves again last year when nearly 500 viewers complained after guest Miriam Margolyes said she wanted Boris Johnson to die of coronavirus. On the whole, though, its political material is refreshingly hopeful. Righteous rage usually ends on a note of optimism. The âRe-United Kingdomâ special on the anniversary of MP Jo Coxâs murder was genuinely uplifting.
Thereâs serendipity wherever you look on The Last Leg. This week it returns to the studio in Londonâs Olympic Village where the show began. Pre-2012, Brooker was a PA Media sports journalist who applied to a Channel 4 advert seeking new disabled talent.
âI was hired as a trainee reporter and covered the opening ceremony trackside,â he says. âSuddenly somebody went: âLetâs take this guy whoâs never done comedy before and stick him on a talkshow.â When I was called into a meeting about changing my duties, I genuinely said âWhat have I done wrong?ââ
Comedian Rosie Jones, who was on the production team five years ago, now joins the lineup as a roving reporter in Tokyo. âIf youâd told me Iâd be a presenter by the next Games, Iâd have said you were off your rocker,â says Jones. âItâs a shame there wonât be any spectators, but I plan on making enough noise to fill an entire stadium.â Coverage worldwide will have this crazy comedian with cerebral palsy shouting in the background,â grins Hills.
The Last Leg has had a major impact on disability representation in its near-decade on-air. Channel 4âs Tokyo coverage boasts the largest number of disabled presenters ever seen on British TV, comprising 70% of on-camera personnel. âWeâre the majority now,â smiles Brooker. âTheyâve chucked in a few able-bodied people to tick boxes.â
From its title downwards, The Last Leg busts taboos with its irreverent humour. âWhen people with disabilities get together, the humour gets very dark, very fast,â says Jones. âNothing is off limits.â Hills agrees: âItâs getting hard to come up with disability jokes which are edgy enough. Paralympians are way more inappropriate than we could ever be.â
As Widdicombe says: âThe show talked about disability in a way that was shocking, exciting and totally needed. Adam and Alex deserve so much credit for that. On the flipside, Iâm constantly bullied and belittled, all because I was born with two feet. Iâm consistently given hotel rooms with accessible baths. The third predicted word when you Google my name is âdisabled.ââ
Since its debut, The Last Leg has also tackled viewersâ questions about disability using Twitter hashtag #isitok. âThe idea was to be like an MPâs surgery, where you could ask anything,â says Hills. It remains a popular section of each show and became part of Scope UKâs campaign to âend the awkwardâ.
âThose conversations hadnât been had on TV before,â says Brooker. âWeâd discuss the etiquette of handshakes or hard-hitting stuff like Pip assessments. Me and Adam compared prosthetics as if we were discussing cars. Iâd never joked about my disability like that before. Itâs been like nine years of therapy. Itâs made me much more comfortable with myself. I just wish The Last Leg had been around when I was a kid. I never saw people like me on TV, let alone talking so honestly.â
The teamâs excitement at the Gamesâ belated arrival is palpable. âThereâs no cynicism,â says Hills, âjust sheer joy and inspiring stories.â âIâm looking forward to seeing what new legs have come out since 2016,â adds Brooker. âI treat it like London fashion week. Itâs Pinterest for prosthetics.â
Their work wonât be done when the Paralympians fly home. The Last Legâs regular Friday night show returns in September, looking at the weekâs news with a twinkle in its eye and a risque gag rarely far away.
What is The Last Legâs greatest legacy? Widdicombe gives it deep thought, before deadpanning: âWell, Alex has bought a big house in Huddersfield.â âItâs not that big,â says Brooker. âAlthough it has got a pool table. I canât even play.â
âIâm most proud of what itâs done for the Paralympic movement,â says Hills. âItâs the Games which really change perceptions. This isnât disability sport to be patronised, itâs elite competition between athletes whoâve spent years busting their arse to get here. The Last Leg is us shining a spotlight on them. Theyâre the stars here.â
âItâs made disability cool,â concludes Jones. âBefore The Last Leg, lots of people thought disabled people were victims and should be pitied. Itâs proved that a person is so much more than their disability or how many limbs they have.â
The Last Leg of Tokyo 2020 starts on 24 August, 10pm on Channel 4.