Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Where did you learn that? - Stand Up Comedy Courses, a look from the inside

Written by: Midds

It has often been a debate amongst comedians and those in the comedy industry as to whether or not you can teach someone to be funny. Therefore, Stand Up comedy courses naturally fall under scrutiny from some. An article on Chortle titled ‘You Can’t Teach Funny’ seems to sum up the scepticism that most have with the idea of a comedy course - e.g. you can’t teach someone to be funny, you can simply teach them how to deliver tired material in a decent way or create an artificial character onstage that, whilst getting you one or two laughs, isn’t natural or born in an organic way from the performer.

Naturally, the first thing to establish here is that all courses will be different and whilst I haven’t been to that many graduation showcases I can say that I have not seen many that simply churn out ‘wannabe’ Al Murray’s or Lee Nelsons’. The author of the previously mentioned Chortle article states ‘These comics appear in droves; talking about their ethnicity, their hometown or playing a song.’ ( – one thing I would say in response to this quote is that we must remember these comics are first time performers and will not necessarily be producing ground breaking Stewart Lee-esque material, but will probably stick to talking about more conventional topics in order to practise the techniques they have been taught on their course(s).

So what are these comedy courses actually like? Is it simply one persons opinion of what’s funny and what’s not, preaching to budding comics in a room, or is there more to the whole idea of teaching laughter? As mentioned before I cannot offer a detailed examination of all comedy courses available however I will offer an inside view into The Laughing Horse Two Day Stand-Up Comedy Course.
The Laughing Horse is a comedy chain with many clubs across the UK; it is also organiser of the Free Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival and this course in particular is responsible for household comedy names such as Imran Yusuf and Daniel Sloss to name a couple. Naturally, the courses alumni had me very excited to undertake the same schooling.

I make my way to Covent Garden laden with my notes and a fresh pair of boxers just in case. We meet at a pub on Drury Lane, our new classroom for the next two afternoons and to this day I am still grateful for the readily available booze should I have needed it. Our tutor is a working comic by the name of Jay Sodagar, a very funny and more importantly experienced man - not a preaching lunatic or slightly tipsy has-been, huzzah! After initial introductions are made we get down to the funny business.

The first exercises we embark upon are performance based, for example to talk for an extensive period of time about a topic that you have a strong opinion on. Another exercise includes answering questions from other students, responding with the first thing that comes into your head - following impulses and not refining answers, the responses you give will naturally be humorous. The theory behind these exercises developed by giggle guru Jay is that you tap into your subconscious which is dragged up and latched onto a strong emotion you’re performing which naturally manifests itself as something funny or witty. Alongside this a person will automatically deliver his or her own sense of humour (that gift we are all born with). These exercises are designed to help you generate material or ideas for your set; ideally you go back and refine your exercises and develop them into gags and stories worthy of performance.

The rest of the day consists of watching professional comedians DVD’s and deconstructing their routines, looking at their material and the techniques they employ in order to draw laughter from their audience. We explore Eddie Izzard’s journey of surprise with a broken computer/printer, Bill Hicks’ mocking of local traffic works plus Jack Dee’s sarcasm on Hammersmith. All of which informing us of one of the most important rules in comedy: connection with the audience. It is of paramount importance that a comic connects with the audience we are told, and without this you cannot expect to have a good gig. A theory I whole-heartedly agree with. The examples demonstrated on the DVD’s were very helpful - another clever idea of titter teacher Jay.

The first day ends on a high. The teaching so far is (thankfully) helpful, clever, and supportive and far from the clichéd image of a washed up old hack that the idea of a comedy course conjures. The second day brings even more comedy happiness. This time it is focussed on our 5 minute sets that we have drafted the previous evening. The day consists of reading/performing our unedited material to each other, thus giving us an idea of how good our jokes are (Jay thankfully laughs his way through all of the sets as do most of the other students). The next stages taught to us are the performance process and the editing process. The two stages are worked on separately but inform each other indefinitely. The performance process came first and this is where I keep my eye out for possible infiltration of and putting a ‘Jay-Sodogar-twist’ on students’ material. I am delighted to find no such action as Jay simply asks what inflection/attitude students would like to deliver their jokes with and nurtures their performances to a heightened enough attitude to warrant laughter; alongside this comes theories on direction/misdirection and comic timing.

The editing process is the final stage of teaching before we embark on our first ever stand up gig in Covent Garden, and nerves are beginning to set in. Jay tells us the three stages of editing and demonstrates the uses in editing by telling both an edited and unedited joke; naturally the finished product has us in stitches with the razor sharp wit! Techniques on learning your final edited script are also offered alongside a method to work out if your material has enough punch lines. I’ll admit, my bowels contracted a little with both nerves of performing a stand up gig combined with the idea of simple maths. 

The teaching comes to an end and we are left to edit our material and learn the final product in two hours before the gig. This marks perhaps the only qualm I have about the whole course: the amount of time we are left with to edit and learn our final routine. Nevertheless I make my way to the venue with my freshly trimmed material and the techniques/wisdom Jay has given with a certain determination at heart.  

So how did it go? ... I’ll upload a YouTube video soon (if you’re lucky).

How useful then was this comedy course? I can say with much sincerity that this was extremely beneficial - the techniques taught by laughter master Jay were beyond helpful, most notably the theories on connecting with the audience and editing processes etc. I will whole heartedly recommend The Laughing Horse’s two day stand up course taught by Jay Sodagar. The lovely surprise was indeed the lack of preaching or forcing of their own ideas as to what constitutes ‘funny’ by the tutor and an impressive supportive and nurturing environment for us budding comics.

Perhaps you cannot teach funny, but as demonstrated by The Laughing Horse’s course you can give a certain confidence to your students - enabling them to embark upon their journey as a new comic and provide a relatively safe environment for that first step. I hesitate to talk about money, as ultimately this should be about the training you receive rather than how much you pay for it, but the fact that it costs less than £100 (cheaper for students) is another brilliant selling point. I certainly didn’t leave with a long face. 

1 comment:

jerry said...

nice blog...keep this..minicabs london