Along with 300,000 other British children and adults, stand up comedian Jess Thom has Tourette's syndrome, a neurological condition that results in involuntary 'tics'. Rather than suppressing these uncontrollable outbursts, she embraces them, using them as surreal, chaotic fuel during her stand-up shows.
As a result, every Jess Thom performance is unique – as she says, “I'm neurologically incapable of staying on-script!”
Taking the Biscuit
Jess was inspired to take up comedy following an upsetting incident at a comedy gig in 2011. While watching the show as a paying punter, Jess' Tourette's resulted in her letting fly with involuntary exclamations of “Biscuit!” – a word she can find herself saying up to 16,000 times a day.
Made to feel uncomfortable by the audience and venue staff, she vowed to turn that negative into a positive. “I thought to myself, where's the one seat in the house I'm not going to be asked to leave?”
Soon she was wowing Edinburgh Festival with a hilarious show entitled Backstage In Biscuit Land – named after the very same tic that'd forced her to leave that comedy gig months earlier.
Touring with Tourette's
This year, Jess is embarking on her most ambitious tour yet. Setting off in mid-March and continuing for much of the rest of the year, she'll be swooping into towns and cities across the UK, raising awareness of Tourette's and disability in a positive and funny way. And when eBay learned she was lacking transport for her epic mirth-mission, they decided to step in and provide her with a vehicle worthy of caped, tic-tastic crusader Touretteshero.
“We thought a superhero-themed van would be a fun way for her to travel,” says Matt Golding, who's overseeing the project. “The team contacted her, we met up to discuss the idea, and she was excited by it.”
Customize My Campervan: Touretteshero Takes Shape
An intensive four weeks in the making – involving much clanging, welding and tweaking in a Bristol workshop – the end result is a minor masterpiece of outside-the-box thinking and skilled engineering.
“The campervan has been customised in what's known as the 'vanning' style,” says Matt. “It's the kind of van customisation that was popular in the US in the 1970s – think the A-Team van, basically.”
The project is a glorious mongrel. “It uses parts from all kinds of vehicles, so we really had to use eBay to the max,” says Matt. “The van itself is long-wheel-base VW T4; the back spoiler comes off a Honda CR-V; the seats have come out of a Mercedes Vito, and they clip in and out – they can be reorientated or even taken out, if they're at a festival or whatever and want to sit in the sun.”
The attention to detail is pretty incredible. “We've done custom panelling inside that has the Touretteshero logo on it. We've adapted the seats so that they match Jess' Touretteshero costume – they were grey, but they've got blue inserts in them now.
The wheels are imported from Spain; the tyres are custom-made. It's had some skirts and things added, we've put windows in the back, and we've put a Touretteshero badge on the front. Every single one of the parts were bought on eBay – it's been a lot of work putting them all together in one vehicle!”
Fortunately, the fact that a VW campervan was the foundation meant that Matt and his team always had a global network of eager-to-help experts on hand. “Obviously, there's a huge community surrounding VWs, with a great breadth of knowledge,” says Matt.
“There are so many passionate VW fans who understand how these vehicles are put together, so a VW camper was a great base to customize from. We could ask, 'Can you fit a wing to the back of a VW camper?' and we'd get loads of responses. The community are really engaged.”
Look Out for the Tourettesmobile!
The end result is a van that's dazzling to look at, fun to drive and adaptable to the needs of everyone who travels in it. “Jess is in a wheelchair,” says Matt, “so the van is designed around with her in mind, and any other wheelchair users who might be travelling with her. It'll comfortably carry six people, plus there's plenty of room in the back for all the props that Jess needs for her shows.”
The chances are that Jess, her crew and her eye-popping Tourettesmobile will be rolling into your town at some point over the summer – and if you like your comedy truly unpredictable, you need to go and check her out. And rest assured, if you have Tourette's yourself, any involuntary heckling will be welcomed.