Monday, 5 March 2012

Stand-up comedy courses in London - Good or bad idea?

Stand-up comedy has seen an explosion in popularity both as a potential career and as an extreme passtime in recent years, it has been heralded as the new rock and roll, with our top comics selling out sports stadia nationwide and their DVD & autobiography sales in the hundreds of thousands, the potential for rock star earnings has been noted, a growing number of hopefuls desire a piece of that cake

The wonderful 2007 movie The Bucket List seem to have inspired a generation of people with lists of challenging THINGS TO DO BEFORE I DIE a lot of these are extreme adrenaline rides like bungee jumping, paraglidng, mountaineering etc. Public speaking and indeed stand-up comedy are regularly listed in the TOP TEN MOST TERRIFYING things to try, subsequently, box ticking bucket listers and comfort zone pushing adrenaline junkies seem to make up a large percentage of folks who pay for a comedy course because they just want to give stand-up a single try, more than 60% of stand up comedy course graduates complete the showcase performance at the end of their few weeks course, tick the box on their list and never desire that solitary space in the spotlight again, a further 20 odd percent do a handful of open-mic gigs and then quit, but the remainder who get the bug go on to make up the bulk of new acts on London's burgeoning open-mic stand-up comedy scene, a community of approximately 300 regularly performing new acts seeking fame and fortune being funny

Should I just start gigging or do I need to go on a course?

Another one of those frequently recurring questions amongst newbies on the London open mic scene is "should I go on a stand up comedy course?" or indeed "which stand up comedy course should I go on?"

Like many of the most important questions the simple answer is "what do you think you need?" it really is horses for courses (no intentional pun I promise) and only you can be the judge of what you need

Over the past couple of years I've done more than one of the "beginners" or "introduction to" stand up comedy courses in London and indeed have gone on to do an advanced course on writing for stand up too, from my own perspective I'm sure that going on these courses has been helpful over all, mainly because I'm the man of many voices and countless characters I have problems trying to find my own voice as me, I also have a tendency to over intellectualise, my first stand-up course was envisioned as a remedy to a mental block I had, you see, I first attempted stand-up as an 18 year old kid in a working mens club in a post-industrial Northern town, in the late 1980's club comics told traditional "Jokes" these were often shared amongst comics who rarely wrote their own, this makes me sound dated but I recall seeing a regular JOKES LIST being passed around on Telex paper! I gigged at a few variety nights, ran out of jokes they'd not already heard, did a few impressions, the gigs were tough, confrontational, often violent but with the benefit of hindsight an incredible experience, after being hit in the face by countless flying ashtrays I soon quit and over the following decade took more of an interest in character comedy, sketches, voice acting & impressions

So 22 years after being ushered out of the back door of the Tivoli by the bouncer and saved from a mob of 200 redundant mine workers I wanted to return to stand-up, a completely different world to the one I left behind in Rotherham in 1987, now a 40 year old in a huge, cosmopolitain and politically correct city my challenge was firstly to stop defaulting to the character comedy I had so comfortably dabbled in for the previous decade, I wanted to do straight stand up, as me and not some whacky character, I wanted to do "alternative comedy" not gags, puns or traditional jokes, I wanted to notice things and tell stories, go off on surreal flights of fancy, riff with audience members in jolly banter, bring them the gift of laughter and be loved and appreciated by my adoring public

Why do you want to do stand up comedy?

My first comedy lesson was part of a 6 week course with The London Comedy Course, I was one of 12 potentially funny people all with different stories, our tutor Harry Denford is a working comedian who is also into serious acting, it was reasonably priced at under £200, most of lesson one was spent fumbling with microphones and mic stands learning "Mic technique" this turned out to be quite frustrating, I always want to be behind a mic stand and have two hands free to gesticulate, most courses teach you to immediately move it to one side of the stage and take the mic in your hand, in any event the main thing I got out of lesson one was quite a profound series of questions Harry asked us, they were along the lines of


Your answers to these three key questions will be the guiding light on you comedy journey, determining your motives and drive will help you focus and understand what you're playing at, it may help you chose the type of material you write the stage persona and delivery style you adopt, I would heartily recommend this kind of soul searching to anyone starting a comedy journey

We had homework, we were given a random item out of a catalogue, earrings in my case, then sent off to write material on that subject, tough! I wrote a heap of drivel, most fellow students didn't laugh much, I later tried some material about divorce that just came out as an angry rant, I remember delivering it with irate passion to a sea of worried faces, then once I'd finished Harry asking "was anyone else a bit disturbed by that?" another valuable lesson I learned was "This is not therapy" an eye-opening statement that got a sigh of wistful disappointment from a couple of the other students who'd envisaged using comedic rants to exercise some demons, vent their frustrations and get certain things off their chests

How do you generate new material?

Lessons two & three introduced us to the comedy fundamentals like set-up / punch, callback and running gags, they gave us a brief couple of methods of brainstorming ideas for material, by now we were told exactly what was expected of us over the next 3 weeks before the showcase at comedy Mecca "Up The Creek" a hallowed stage in Greenwich that at the time had no open-mic way to access it

We were being tutored to have a tight 5 minute set of tested material that we knew would get laughs, precisely what you'd need to hit the ground running on the London open mic stand-up comedy scene, the next 3 weeks were pretty much pure rehearsals, we were tutored on performance skills which most of us found very useful yet our potty mouthed group only seemed to laugh at gags about wanking, jism and dogging, subsequently most of us ditched our ideals about preaching valuable & insightful messages and knuckled down to write populist filth,

The night of the showcase performance came, I hadn't got over my mental block or risen to my own challenge, I'd defaulted back to character comedy, I performed a 6 minute set as a pervert with dyslexia in a dirty raincoat talking about breasts, bdsm & bukkake, I hated it, in my own head I had failed, I have the showcase video, it's not easy for me to watch but you can at least count a handful of solid laughs throughout the set from the invited audience of 150 supportive punters, and WOW what a buzz to have stood on my favourite comedy stage in a legendary comedy club and entertained a packed house. The pervert character never saw the spotlight again, incidentally my mother passed away the following day, as a youngster she frequently told me I should be on the stage, I was able to rush down to her hospice on the south coast and tell her I'd been back on stage before she finally slipped off, I'd like to think that if she had a bucket list perhaps getting her son back on stage might have been on it

Was it value for money? in fairness I'd have to say it was yes, half the people on the course evangelised about it afterwards, the other half felt some degree of personal failure like I did, but in the final analysis for the money we paid I don't think many of us could complain, incidentally 4 of these 12 students are well established acts now, one runs her own comedy night and a couple are lucky / good enough to be occasionally doing it for money, that I guess is the acid test and in this regard Harry Denford has much to be proud of, the ones who got the most from this course already had a good idea of their material, style and stage persona, they made an effort to get on well with Harry because 12 attention seeking students can't all benefit from his direct, personal attention all the time, the course helped to tighten their gags and crank their laughs per minute up, it showed them the fundamentals of how to perform gags instead of just telling them, for many this was enough of a confidence boost to provide the launch pad their comedy journey required, lets have a reality check here, stand-up comedians typically take 6 to 10 years of dedicated writing and performing to become "Professionals" so don't expect to be Richard Pryor hilarious after just 6 weeks

Is FUNNY an inherent condition or can you teach it to anyone? whilst everyone has the potential to come out with funny things a comedy course won't necessarily make you funny, what it will do is give you some structure, some practice and some tools to deliver what your typical audience wants to hear, in brief it's an insurance policy against the one thing that all budding stand-ups dread the most, humiliating themselves in front of a stony faced, silent audience or "dying on your arse" as it's more popularly known.

How many comedy courses does it take to change a lightbulb?

During my first London comedy course we had an outing to the Cavendish Arms Stockwell, home of the (now twice) weekly "comedy virgins" open mic night with a prize for the audiences favourite performer, I got chatting to an act who was about to go on stage for the first time in his life, smart city fellah with an upper class accent, he rocked the show and got into the "clap off" finishing second on the night to regular winner and excellent comic Tim Shishodia, he told me all about the 10 week course he was still attending with comedy tutor Chris Head it was about the same price but a few weeks longer, an extra 10 weeks to try different things out and safely fail, just what I thought I needed to accomplish my personal mission.

Chris has been involved in many forms of comedy, he's an active writer and producer / director and has been a regular at Edinburgh fringe, whilst not currently a performing stand-up himself, Chris is more like a professor of comedy, this course was very different from the first, it was much more highbrow, academic and scientific in its approach, one of the great things was homework, each week we were given a new subject to write material about so everyone got into the weekly discipline of writing new of material, we also watched clips of famous stand-up comics and analysed the many tools, performance styles and techniques they used, we learned big words like anthropomorphism and again got to try out our newly written bits in front of a friendly-ish group of our peers, for the first few weeks of this course I remained conflicted and pretty poor, but week by week began to approach material from different angles and get bigger and better laughs from my course mates

The showcase performance was at the Wilmington Arms, a nice big room for comedy, my 5 minutes turned into 12 nine of which I was pretty pleased with, I had accomplished my mission, I liked Chris and his teaching style and have been back for more of his courses, he also introduced us to Geoff Whiting who runs Mirth Control, possibly Britain's biggest comedy booker, a useful guy to know for many aspiring comics who routinely queue up to get on his radar

An interesting side note about this course was the high number of 29 year olds who were doing it, I can't really remember being 29 but "Turning 30" seemed to be the motive for a lot of them, it was also full of singletons whose choice of material gave the impression that they were thinking of taking up stand-up more as a  from of mass speed dating than anything else

Would I recommend Chris Head's course? I certainly have done in the past, but again I have to say it really is horses for courses, (no running gag intended) if you're wanting a longer and more cerebral approach then yes he can truly help you, if all you need is help trimming down your existing set, some fundamental performance skills and you're eager to get it over with quickly with less homework to do there are shorter, simpler courses probably better suited to you.

I made a couple of good friends on these courses, another benefit of doing them, a lot of your early open-mic gigs are "bringers" where you can only perform if you bring a friend or two as audience, as you quickly exhaust your pool of willing friends who've seen you and your shtick a couple of times. buddying up and reciprocating with your course mates helps you get more stage time, both these courses regularly sell out and seem to go from strength to strength

Horses for courses, but which one?

Logan Murray's excellent book
At the premium end of the scale the Amused Moose "Standup & Deliver" course is perhaps the most famous, I know a lot of folks who have graduated this one after parting with almost £500, as with all other comedy courses you get those who evangelise about it and those who were disappointed, often not mainly with the course but with themselves for not being immediately "made funny" by it, what I can say first hand is that tutor Logan Murray is a widely regarded and well liked comedian who still performs stand-up as character act Ronnie Rigsby, he is also author of what I consider to be THE required read "Be a great stand up" an invaluable book for all new comics

What is worthy of note is the sheer amount of money these guys are making, on a course with say 20 or 30 students paying anywhere from £150 to £480 each, you can see why it's an attractive business venture, who else earns a few thousand pounds from a few nice evening gigs in the world of comedy?

Another course I often meet graduates from The Comedy School is tutored by Mr Cee, a funny urban comic, as with all the other course graduates I hear both the evangelists and the disappointed, I have observed Mr Cee giving sage advice to some of his gigging graduates after they've left his care, he strikes me as a mentor type with a genuine interest in nurturing some of his alumni on their continuing journey.

Comedy brand Comedy Bin are starting up a new course of their own, Kiwi Ben Crellin, an awesome stand up is going to be tutoring this one, on paper it looks great, its unique selling point seems to be its speed and intensity, it's 8 evening sessions over just four weeks, perfect for the instant gratification generation, another pull is the promise of open spot gigs at the string of London comedy bin gigs afterwards

Another comedy "Brand" Laughing Horse do some courses, I've never actually met anyone who has done one so can't even offer much hearsay about them other than the fact that like the other comedy brand Amused Moose these guys run a yearly new act competition, there are often whispers that acts who have done these comedy brands courses seemingly do better in the more arbitrary stages of the competition heats, how much of this is simply myth I really cannot guess

There are a couple of other lesser known courses I know very little about too, one funny lady told me she was put off booking a course because the tutor was widely know as a political activist whom she believed would not like her political colours and therefore stifle her choice of material, ultimately which comedy course you chose will be for your own personal reasons, perhaps as simple as the easiest venue to get to, the quickest start date, the heritage, politics or gender of the tutor, the practical working comic versus comedy professor equation, whichever one you chose you need to understand this to save you from post comedy course cognitive dissonance (buyers remorse) they won't make you funny, only YOU can make you funny, the best courses however will give you the tools and the method of doing it in a safer and cosier environment and the confidence to get out there and do it, the financial and time commitment you make when you sign up for a course is also a bit of a springboard, those who worry too much about jumping out of planes may buy a parachute as an investment towards actually doing it

Like other extreme sports you get the box ticking thrill seekers who discover that  their one off venture and its associated adrenaline buzz is highly addictive, there are some prolific open-mic acts who gig almost every night of the week, often double dipping on weekends, some are akin to addicts who'd do anything to secure the next fix of ego inflating audience love and validation, cringing, fawning & buttering up promoters, coercing "plus ones" into joining them at "bringer" gigs, PAYING TO PERFORM at pay-to-play gigs and walking into random gigs uninvited on the off-chance that they may need a substitute comedian.

I have the utmost admiration for anyone who has the bottle to stand up in front of a room full of people and try to keep them laughing, I'm certainly not ridiculing the addicts either, their ambition and drive is admirable and indeed it needs to be because satisfying a constant hunger to perform stand-up comedy usually involves a huge investment in time, nationwide travel and money that often eats away at your effectiveness in the day job or conflicts with your partners needs for stability and financial security, yes,even the multi-millionaire stand-up royals like Jimmy Carr & Michael McIntyre had to almost bankrupt themselves for long periods of time in order to get their careers financial viability truly established, with so many talented performers willing to entertain folks for free you need to get really very good before people start wanting you to do it for money, so are you still sure that this is the dream you truly wanted?

And then the real learning begins

Father O'Malley,back to character comedy again
Once you've left the relative comfort of your group of fellow stand-up students the real learning begins, stand-up comedy is one of those skills that is mostly acquired by frequently doing it, stage presence and confidence follows with plenty of material in the bank and regular stage time, most newbies expect to have a handful of pretty awful gigs in their first few months and many of these expectations are justified once the real world learning begins, "gig gig gig" is the mantra, keep hitting that stage, get as much stage time as you can, keep exercising the writing muscles, be mindful of what audiences are laughing at and you will carry on improving, in London we have several open-mics to chose from almost every night of the week, some better promoted, attended and run than others, stage time shouldn't simply be your goal, QUALITY STAGE TIME (with some genuine audience) is what you need but to start off with embrace them all, the shitty little rooms with three punters and a dodgy mic, the West end pub basement with exclusively non-English speaking audience, the Camden pub loft full of gothy emo students, the big comedy clubs and the rowdy gong show hecklers, whatever happens, good gig or bad gig it's all experience, genuine learning experience and every bit of it teaches you valuable lessons

Stand-up Comedy Factories & Identikit performers?

This is a frequent allegation and indeed a subject touched on in a separate blog post below, the claim is that the formulaic approach or set methodology a lot of comedy courses employ produces identikit performers, acts who all enter the stage the same way, move the mic stand to stage right, shout out "Clapham are we well?" they proceed to tell the audience that they come from a shitty town and look like the result of a sex act between two famous lookalikes and go on to do a set full of clichéd gags on hack subjects  in exactly the same order as all their comedy course peers before them

It has to be said that I and many of my comedy chums can very often tell which particular course a new act has been on by their choice of subject matter, the way they structure their set & use the stage and several other nuances of their performance, having said that, I don't really accept that these courses are factories churning out standardised product, we are all individuals who learn differently,  on any course you still have to write your own material and find your own style, some of us stay on script, some of us are rebels, ultimately any free thinking individual will go with what they think works best for them having taken into account all of their tutors wisdom

Can't I just go out and gig?

There's no law that says you have to do a comedy course, there are a number of decent acts that simply got up and did it, they learned on the job and now have bragging rights over those who had the security of an insurance policy type course, much of stand-up comedy is perfected by trial and error, you fail first in order to succeed and never really know how funny your material is or isn't until it's been tried in front of an audience, often you get surprise laughs where you weren't expecting them and deathly silences where you were, instead of failing in front of a group of fellow students the course-less wonders have that pleasure in the real world in front of less forgiving "proper" audiences, some are great comics from day one, many take much longer to learn by trial and error what a course would have given them by week two, we're all very different

As I mentioned before I grew up in a shitty town, (hack comedy cliche #1) I knew kids who taught themselves to drive in stolen cars, some of them make decent drivers eventually but much of what they learn comes from scrapes with the law, high speed chases and spectacular crashes

We're all going to die!

Some of the biggest faux-pas I've seen at open mic gigs are from these course-less wonders, I've cringed at vilifying and bullying material, unwarranted verbal attacks on audience members, I've sat through entire performances of material lifted from Roy Chubby Brown and even heard of a Bill Hicks "Tribute Act" who not only nicked Bill's Material but impersonated his dress sense, voice and physicality, I've witnessed terrifying rants and detestable stage personas, done poorly these are all massive no-no's, beginners errors that usually get weeded out safely in a comedy course environment.

Most comics will happily tell you about their bad gigs, most concede that the worst place to die on stage is in your own local community, you see those punters daily, shop with them, commute with them, pass them on the street, if you've made a rookie error on your own doorstep you will probably want to leave town, dying on stage makes you feel dirty, you can cope with it much better in a far away place, dying in a classroom full of peers however is a shared bonding experience, if you have the choice always go for the latter

There's also an unspoken etiquette on the stand-up circuit and not knowing "the rules" can attract much derision and disdain from more experienced open-micers, the community as a whole is quite supportive and welcoming but cosy cliques certainly do exist, the potential for being ostracised, mobbed or cyberbullied by a clique you've somehow offended is quite tangible too and in a close knit community of creative sharp witted egos that can turn pretty ugly, comedy isn't a competition but many comics are very competitive, you'll notice that none of your colleagues are laughing at your set in any competition final they are in, politicking to try and win a bigger share of scare resources can be another sad fact of life on the circuit, I would encourage all newcomers to not get too stuck in the headspace of "open-micer" mentality, associate with as many pro comics as you can and you'll find wiser, less bitchy perspectives on the key questions that most newcomers to stand up seek answers to.

Course or no course it's all down to your personal choice, other than saving a few quid and attaining "self-made comic" bragging rights, there's little advantage in not doing a course, if you're skint you should at the very least get a book from the library and give it a thorough read before diving in with the sharks, forewarned is fore armed, the most important thing to remember though is to enjoy yourself, laugh and have fun, comedy can be a very serious business, focus on enjoying the ride, oh and if character comedy is fundamentally your thing, why fight it? be true to who you are and don't try to follow the crowd, stand-up is a solo discipline and the best comics are true to themselves