Back in the saddle?

My 4th ever gig. At Jester Jesters, Farringdon. Photo ©Jonathan Hearn

One thing I’ve noticed so far on my perambulations through the garden of comedy is that you need to maintain momentum. If you pause to smell the flowers for too long you’ll soon look up and find it’s winter (and by that I mean old fashioned winter, with snow and stuff, not this mild nonsense we keep getting in the 21st century). The sky is grey, the grass is mud, and your fingers are blue with cold. And no, before you ask, there won’t be any late/early blooming posies in this garden. You’ll be all alone with a twig in front of you and no one around to share it with.

An odd metaphor perhaps, but regular readers will know by now that I am a bit of an oddball. What I’m saying is this: I’ve realised I need to be getting – and doing – more gigs. Standing up, being funny, and enjoying the process.

My previous post related the painful but necessary rite of passage of doing the Comedy Store ‘King Gong Show at the end of November 2011. Although I took a hammering from the vituperative crowd, I didn’t feel unhappy with my efforts. I lasted over two minutes! Most of the acts that night barely passed the 60 second mark. That wasn’t their fault. The crowd demands blood at such nights; they make sure they get it.

The week before Christmas I did an open mic night called Pearshaped in Fitzrovia in the basement of the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street. It was, in a word, dismal. There were approximately eight people in the audience, six of whom were the other acts. No one laughed (aloud). Thank God for James Veitch (comedy buddy from Chris Head’s course) who also performed that night. We consoled one another afterwards. It’s hard trying to be funny in a silent room. It’s a bit like that philosophical conundrum about the tree falling over in the forest. Can a comedian still be funny when no one laughs?

Discouraged, though not entirely unsaddled, I fell a bit by the wayside. Christmas came and went, trampling its muddy boots through the calendar. Work priorities meant not having much spare time to research the good open mic nights, let alone write new material. I neglected my blog. Things began to slip…

But last week something happened to refocus and inspire me all over again. A gig I’d booked yonks ago came along in the diary. This was Five Minutes of Fame (AKA Free and Funny) at the Camden Head in Angel, Islington. I’d almost forgotten about it – indeed, I tried pretending I’d forgotten about it and told very few people until the booker reminded me it was a “Bring-a-Mate” night. No bringing of mates = No standing up.

I felt ambivalent towards the whole thing. Others from the course told me it was a big night, a busy crowd, well worth doing. But what if I was crap? Without the safety net of doing the showcase and having that camaradarie of “We’re All In It Together” behind me, let alone the crowd of supportive friends and family who came and, well, supported me… without that, could I still get up and do it? Frankly, I was having doubts. I felt frumpy, grumpy and unfunny. (And then I felt Sneezy, Dopey and Doc. But that’s another story.)

Well, there was only one way to find out. I’d mentioned the gig in passing to a few people and they said they’d come… so I was obliged to at least go through the motions, wasn’t I?

Day job commitments were pressing (I work in a dry-cleaners) but I cleared the decks (I also work on a yacht) and spent the afternoon of the gig rehearsing. Scribbling one-liners and asides. Practising glances and vocal inflections that might lend some colour to my set (I also work in a TV repair shop).

Anyway. I’m pleased to report, it went quite well. In a packed room I raised some laughs from a few of the 80 people there. It was good to perform again; this was more like it! You can watch me doing my bit here:

All this gave me the impetus to keep going. Last Monday at The Plum Tree bar on the Farringdon Road, just beneath Holborn Viaduct, I did another pre-booked open mic gig at Jester Jesters. A smaller venue it nevertheless held a fair crowd of perhaps 35 people, not all of whom were other acts. So hard on the heels of the Islington gig I felt relatively fresh. I’d reviewed my act and made some minor changes. Some worked, some didn’t. Learn from doing. This editing and pruning, polishing and resting of material is essential. Practise makes better.

Watching a subsequent recording from the Jester Jesters night I’ve now noticed the verbal ticks and mannerisms that pepper my act, some of which are fun and interesting while others which are distracting and irritating. (For instance, I say “um” a lot. This annoys me. Once or twice is ok, but not every 15 seconds. I must work on this.)

So I’ve got back into gear, finally, and am trying to keep the momentum going. This Saturday 28th January 2012 I’m taking part in the heats for the Laughing Horse New Act of the Year Award at the Cricketers in Kingston-upon-Thames. And next Monday, 30th January, I’m returning to the Comedy Store for another stab at the ‘King Gong Show. (Why?! you may ask. Because I’m stubborn, I reply. And a comedian.)

I have a couple more gigs in February and two more in March, including Downstairs at the King’s Head in Crouch End, my home patch. Those are the booked nights. I should try turning up and getting a slot as a walk-in too. It’s all valuable experience – even nights like the Pearshaped gig have their own inherent lessons – and I’ve worked through the block.

In the meantime, I am hanging on to my day job. In Greenwich.

Meantime. Greenwich. Geddit?!

A (challenging) Comedy Store debut

I thought it would be a good idea to check out the legedary Comedy Store in London’s glittering West End (you have to describe it that way as otherwise it just feels seedy. Although Paul Gadd might argue the point) . On the last Monday of the month, the club holds its new acts try-out evening, ‘King Gong (that apostrophe is highly necessary).

Some thirty acts attempt to last five minutes of stage time to make it to the final in which a one minute “Joke Off” (say it in your best northern UK accent) determines the winner. Everything’s dictated by the audience’s approval or otherwise. Three judges, selected from the crowd, are responsible for raising their red cards in response to the cheers/baying, and once all three have shown their cards the MC Paul Thorne gongs the ‘king gong. And you leave the stage, in shame (usually). Of course if the audience likes what it hears you don’t get booed and you enjoy the triumph of five minutes in the spotlight (whatever the final outcome). And if you win the whole thing you’re offered an open slot at the regular Comedy Store night. So the stakes are fairly high…

The slots are normally booked weeks in advance, but on the night you can ask if there’s room for more, especially if the evening’s going quickly or there are no-shows amongst the line-up. From time to time you can also volunteer from the floor. I was there with three pals from the stand-up course, Bart Harris, Bruce Cochrane and Eddie Gershon. Bart and Bruce added their name to the list at half time, but neither Eddie nor I frankly felt confident enough. The earlier acts had been a mixed bag, some good, some downright dreadful; but many just couldn’t handle the savagery of the heckling. Few lasted longer than a minute, some perhaps a shade over. For this was an extraordinarily gladiatorial atmosphere, replete with gratutious obscenity, plain in-your-face-rude-as-fuck, and just good old-fashioned booing. I’d never heard the like and the thought of standing up and trying to entertain these monsters turned my bowels to jelly. Unset jelly, at that.

Into this bloody arena stepped Bart and Bruce. Bart lasted around the minute mark, and Bruce lasted the full five, dodging heckles as deftly as he’d dodged death in his previous career as a British Army Bomb Disposal Expert. Congratulations to them both (Bart and Bruce, that is, not Bruce and the Grim Reaper).

For some reason, perhaps simply because I was there and the presence of my mates buoyed me, at the MC’s final request for volunteers from the floor I found my arm mysteriously lifting and catching his eye; to which he said, yes, madam, come on up…. and so it was I found myself on the stage of the Comedy Store in front of a crowd clearly out for a last bucket-load of newbie-blood: I was the penultimate act.

Where do I begin? I shan’t go into the gory details, other than to say I lasted longer than I’d expected – over two minutes, although I don’t know the exact duration. For some reason the first hecklers latched on to my gender identity as being something to shout at me about, and this novelty spread like a bonfire in a Kleenex factory. I had a few decent come-backs up my sleeve and got some nice laughs on them (I shan’t repeat them here but one involved the use of the infamous “C Word”; suffice it to say I suggested to one particularly irritating dickhead that it was better to be in possession of such a thing than be one.)

Unfortunately the need to parry and deflect this diabolical heckling was immensely distracting and I was effectively unable to get into my actual set, which meant that I never really got off the ground. But this also means I lasted two and a bit minutes improvising on the Comedy Store stage – and if I can do that I can do anything (almost).

What my future hecklers should realise is that anyone with a history of gender identity conflict is going to be fairly innured to taunts about who or what sort of life or background they have. I’ve been the wrong end of a fair share of transphobia in my life, and I’m not afraid to stand up for myself.

So I didn’t – I don’t – take the heckling personally. I know watching the DVD will likely make me wince (not sure whether I’ll post it yet). But what the heck: Hecklers heckle, Stand ups stand up. I stood up at the Comedy Store on Monday 28th November 2011. And I didn’t fall down.

(For the record, Jenny Beak won the final and deservedly so: she was super on her keyboard, with her pithy ditties à la Tim Minchin. Expect to see her name around.)

I’m still standing…

Mid-flow in the Time Set

Reader, I stood up.

I stood up in front of about a hundred people (some 16 of whom I actually knew), and I gave the best five minutes I could muster.

Last Monday the 21st November 2011 saw my debut in the Stand Up World (I have to capitalize each word as the Occasion was So Significant, you see). And would you believe, I only had to open the show – well, once the (regrettably awkward) MC had done his introductory bit. Not sure why he was having such a bad time of it. A valuable lesson for us novices, no doubt: not every audience is going to be as warm to our efforts as this one was! Perhaps they were just so pysched to see us Newbies they had no time for the formalities of the traditional Stand Up night. Nine weeks of prep and it came to this: the insane but very human act of standing up, holding a mic and engaging with a large and mostly unknown group of people.

I did my set on Time/Time-Keeping/Being Crap at Keeping Time; incredibly, I made it through without totally effing up* or forgetting my lines (punch or otherwise)… I even got a few laughs. Don’t just take my word for it, you can watch it here if you like, right here on my YouTube page.

And I loved every minute of it! OK, my hands were shaking like crazy when I left the stage but a nip of something Scottish and pure from the hip flask soon calmed me down (I think I saw someone do that in an old movie once, or was that smelling salts?). It felt SO good to be in front of a live audience again. So very good.

And now I’m putting out feelers for more slots. If you hear of any Comedy Night Clubs that are looking for open slots for new acts – please drop me a line.

In meantime, I’m on the line up for Monday 9th January 2012 – an auspicious start to such an eventful year I feel: Jester Jesters at The Plum Tree pub, 54 Farringdon St, London EC4A 4BD.

If I repeat some material, please don’t berate me. I’m still only a newbie, still trying to stand up without falling down.

* I’ve heard on the grapevine that my Mum might be reading this Blog so I think I have to moderate my Anglo-Saxon. Sorry, Reader. Sorrier, Ma.

Still standing… just

Bet you thought I’d crumpled, didn’t you?

“Where’s she gone?” I expect you all cried. “What’s happened to my regular dose of witty insight into the world of stand-up? Come back, Fall Down Stand Up! We need you!” you all howled. Probably.

There I was, rattling along at the dizzying rate of one Blog per week, when all of a sudden, about a month ago, everything went silent. No posts. No links. No quips. Nada. Rien. Zilch. Zero. Zip. Diddly squat.

No doubt you must now all be wondering where the /f/ I’ve been.

Perhaps I’ve been sick, or on holiday? Maybe I’ve been on the road, on tour, supporting Lee Evans or Micky Flanagan? Perhaps I’ve been rehearsing for my one-woman show that I’m taking to a titchy off-off-off-off-off-off-Broadway theatre* for a seasonal run in December?

Or maybe, God forbid… Have I thrown in the comedy towel…? Acknowledged my failings and decalred enough’s enough. Did I fall down once too often and decide, reluctantly but gracefully, that stand up was not my medium, my forte, that comedy was not quite my thang…?

Well, folks, I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings but the truth of the matter is that I have simply had a madly busy time of things the past month and whenever I thought about writing something for the Blog something else came along that required my attention just a fraction more. Like lesson planning, or marking essays, or teaching (for I confess I have several day jobs… just take a peep at my website (and no, before you ask, I’m not giving any of them up just yet)).

It’s so damn difficult to balance all the jobs I do. And fitting in the comedy class itself every Monday became no mean feat, let me tell you. Never mind writing a five minute set every week! And then Blogging about it.

Fact is, writing material has been the toughest task of all – trying to find the time to write and practise a set while incorporating all of Chris Head’s (and my comedy peers’) notes and trying to be funny. Every damn week.

That I’ve come this far, however, without missing a session is something I am consequently proud of. Who cares if my material isn’t funny?! (of course, it is… she types swiftly.) The point is: I turn up every week, I bring my material, I perform, I socialize afterwards and I go home feeling a little bit better about life. What could be more simple?

And the showcase is next week! 7.30pm 21st November at The George, Strand, London WC2. That’s the less glitzy end of the Strand by the way. Not the busy and sexy Trafalgar Square end. The other end. The dully legal Royal Courts of Justice end.

Just £5 will secure your opportunity to witness comedic history in the making. Book online – there’s no fee – although there will be some tickets on the door too apparently. Visit http://www.eventelephant.com/standupcoursetheshow21-11-11

Am I nervous? Of course I am, I’m fucking nervous. I haven’t appeared before a live audience since 1999! (I don’t include my stint as an extra in various operas and ballets at Covent Garden, and I certainly don’t include my teaching… although, now I come to think of it, there is a faint crossover there…)

I’ve loved the journey I’ve taken doing this course. I’ve signed up with Geoff Whiting‘s Mirth Control stand-up booking site and I hope to try my hand out there in the real world.**

So. Watch this space. The comedy continues… for now… I hope some of you can make it next Monday. Make yourselves known – in a nice way, please!

* So far off-Broadway in fact that it’s actually in Nebraska.

** Perhaps not as far as Nebraska.

Passing muster… and mustering some mo-jo…

Blimey. Where the heck has the week gone?

The session last Monday seems a lifetime ago. Here I am, some days later, on Saturday night, only now finding a moment to reflect on where I am in this whole comedy thing.

I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, basically.

(This might get a bit rambly, so please, reader, please bear with me, I’ll try to keep it simple. And no, this isn’t the vino talking. Promise.)

When you begin a new activity – let’s call it for now a hobby – when you begin pursuing something fresh, exciting and different in your life, you tend to be full of optimism, enthusiasm and energism energy for that newfound interest. You chat about it to your friends and family, you obsess over it, you even start a blog (talk about laying your life bare). You’re itchy with Want and Can Do and nothing’s going to stop you achieving your goal. Yay!

But then… time passes… Like a spotty teenager in the throes of her first pimply pash, what happens when the glistening sheen of that early ardency begins to diminish? What do you do when the pungent wiff of The Honeymoon finally evaporates? Where do you turn for inspiration? How do you keep the momentum momentumming? How do you maintain the fire?*

These are a few of the (admittedly paranoid) thoughts I’ve been having since last week’s session. I’m not sure where they’ve come from. After all, nothing actually that bad happened to me last time. Compared to the week before, I’d spent much more time working my material, and that time and effort paid off. I’d remembered – and utilised – that old chestnut of the performer’s equation:

time + (thought x practise) = Performance

And people laughed. They seemed to be having a good time; so I had a good time, both on the stage and in the audience. A few of us even had a pint in the bar afterwards.

So why the malaise-mayonnaise the past couple of days?

I think I’m in that early-mid learning crisis stage when you’ve settled into the routine of the new hobby (there’s that word again), and now you feel it all drying up. You feel you’re losing interest and are about to call it a day. Imagine what it must be like to be a pro stand-up! having to come up with a million new funny things to talk about every week… perhaps Michael McIntyre and Ardal O’Hanlon don’t have day jobs which require a mountain of lesson planning prep and report writing afterwards (damn you, Ofsted). Perhaps all Eddie Izzard has to do all day long is moon about in the mirror, muttering to his hairbrush-mic, “Have you noticed how cabbies always swear at cyclists in skirts?” or the like.

What I’m saying is this. The early days are behind me. I’m no longer quite as obsessively scribbling… I now need to make the effort to notice the stupid side of life…

…and all this worries me! have I lost my mo-jo? I thought I had it last week! But now I wonder whether I ever had a mo-jo in the first place? What and where the fuck is my mo-jo anyway? Is it shiny, and smooth? can you point to it?

Is this my first comedic crisis of confidence?

And I’m still trying to come up with something to talk about on Monday. Perhaps I should discuss my errant mo-jo…

* I’m reading William Golding’s masterpiece Lord of the Flies at the moment and there’s a good deal of talk about keeping the fire going in it. They use a plump child’s specs however, and I don’t think I’m quite on that level yet…

Stand and… deliver?

A crazily busy week meant that my prep for last Monday’s class was limited to a couple of hours of what Chris Head terms “splurging” well after midnight on Sunday night… and then trying to shape something workable from that mess in my lunch break during the day… before attempting to present three minutes of material, sans notes, to the rest of the group that evening.

For Monday was the first time we would be performing an actual set; the previous weeks having been but warm-ups for this moment.

Splurging is a pretty apt word, when I think of it, describing as it does so onomatopoeically the process of collating all those mad scribbles into a cohesive series of hopefully funny moments. To splurge is to wrestle with words, play with imagery, conjure the ludicrous from the prosaic, then write them all down in a blur of ink and paper for about five sides of A4.

Having achieved the splurge, I needed to condense and refine it into a series of bullet points I could recall easily within the set on Monday, which was limited to three minutes. Three minutes will sound either like nothing or a lifetime, depending on your outlook, and for me it wasn’t long enough, heck no Ma’am, no siree-Bob, no way José.

My problem, if you haven’t already noticed, is that I like words rather a lot, rather too much in fact, and when I’m on a roll, it’s tough to stop. When I practised my set it seemed it would last well over six minutes, so I cut one or two things, reassuring myself that I can always use them another time. That took it down to four minutes.

I prayed I’d be able to cut some more “in the moment”… Oh, if only, if only. Chris gave everyone a warning at the three minute mark, at which point we were to wrap it up and get off the podium. I was going third from last, and everyone before me managed their material very well. There were some great moments of laugh out loud comedy and it was evident people had done waaaaay more homework than I.

Damn, I thought. Damndamndamn. It’s one thing to remember stuff. Quite another to cut it as you go. Reader, I tried. But then I got a laugh on something – I was discussing abbreviations, ironically – and that just set me off on a tangent… and my freshly edited sequences rapidly unravelled. I struggled to get back on track without reinstating all the material I had earlier taken out.

Yes, I did hear Chris’s three-minute warning, but like a Tommy in the trenches I blithely carried on, hoping my set would sort of finish by itself. I was on my favourite bit about Germany being Europe’s Banker by this time, and was perversely reluctanct to halt before the punchline (although I’m not actually certain now that I even had a punchline). Suffice it to say Chris stood his ground and at around the four minute mark he told me I had to get off… And thus my first set thus ended with the ignominity of “Er, well, yes,” rather than the more appealing “That’s all for now from me, thanks.”

What lessons do I take home from this?

  • Do more homework.
  • Say “No” more frequently to invitations to party and play. (Listen, I don’t get many, so when they do come I find it hard to refuse. Work a seven day week? Yep, I can do that, cheers. Come out drinking on Wednesday night? Sure, why not, what else do I have on tonight?)
  • EDIT.

And of course, here I am on Friday night/Saturday morning, and I still haven’t splurged for next Monday’s class. Talk about cutting it fine. But as long as I can cut it, fine…

Obsessed with scribbling

It’s almost too much. Everywhere I go, I seem to spot something that makes me think, “Now that’s a bit bonkers, perhaps I can use that in a routine.” I can barely make it to the tube without having to stop every ten paces to scribble something else down on the paper folded in my back pocket. If someone says something faintly silly I’ll scribble it down as a cute observation. My nephew aged Almost 7 said he’d received a letter from Santa Claus recently – in July! “How come it took so long to get to you, Jacob?” I asked. “Because it came from the North Circular,” he told me solemnly. Quite (my sister lives in Wanstead).

When I see an odd poster with a peculiar tagline, I am compelled to stop in my tracks, reach into my pocket and find an empty square of paper, grab a pen from my satchel-cum-Rymans, and scribble it down. If I notice something a bit screwy about the way people queue up outside Iceland at 09:01AM just in case they miss a “Super Saver Pound Special” then I have to go through the whole palaver again. (Palaver or Pavlova?)

I must do this immediately, you see, because otherwise I’ll forget whatever it was that made me stop and think, that might be funny. If it isn’t written down, it just gets lost in the jumble of my frantic day and that’s that. It’s a vanished comedy goldmine. Possibly.

In this way I think I resemble my Dad, who likes making lists as much as I do. I suspect he actually prefers constructing these lists than converting them into completed tasks. Read Radio Times: tick. Smoke pipe: tick. Sort the Recycling for tomorrow: tick (eventually). Help V. with the new printer: can this wait till next week?

Anyhoo, once I’m somewhere where I can remain stationary for five minutes, I can then convert the hurried observations into tidy bullet points and mind maps in my notebook. (Which reminds me, since when did people start writing (let alone saying) “anyhoo”??)

I went out for a beer with a pal from my old primary school last night (we’ve not seen each other for twenty years: we’ve both changed shape considerably, although in very different ways (readers are encouraged to see my website in order to gain a richer understanding of this)). As my friend had “boy bladder”, every time he popped to the loo I was able to jot down my increasingly erratic thoughts on the ubiquitous scrap of paper. Turned out War & Pees by closing.

War & Pees. Boom Boom!

How to be… funny?

Although I occasionally make people laugh I have never really considered the process of how one might fabricate an actual laugh.

In Monday’s session Chris Head went through the comedy basics: set structure, how to prep our material, how to remember it, and how to cope with heckling (God forbid).

“What is it that makes you as the performer laugh – what do you find ridiculous?” he asked us. We were given 12 minutes’ thinking/scribbling time to consider something we had found a bit daft during the week. We were to note three things in particular:

  1. An analogy – what was it like?
  2. Its genesis – how did it come about?
  3. Its future – what happens next?

Exaggaration and imagination were key. How surreal could we go? How far from reality would we be able to drift without totally losing the plot?

My “ridiculous thing” was the “Travellers’ Eviction Threat Action” in Basildon, Essex. They’re in the news a good deal and they inhabit a patch of land not so far from one of the schools I teach at in the county. The thing I find a bit daft about this situation is that the Travellers seem reluctant to do any actual travelling. I sense a rebranding is imminent. The flashy PR gurus from the West End will be down soon and give them a new name, logo, font and “purpose”. “Follow us on Facebook”, the banners will proclaim. If only. According to my taxi drivers, that is…

Chris put us into groups of four or five. We were to deliver two minutes’ worth of our “ridiculous thing” to our group. Peer feedback followed.

Was I funny? I don’t actually know. One or two people smiled, I think. I was too nervous properly to notice. Yet it felt good, this standing up in front of a handful of friendly folk and telling something faintly silly.

Chris took us through the ways we can lift these moments of random life and put them into a story; how to remember the bloody stuff; and how to come back at a heckler, drunken or otherwise. All wise stuff, that inevitably will be drawn upon.

Next week we must deliver three minutes’ material to the whole group… And without a script. This is where the real panic should begin to set in…

… and yet, strangley, it all feels like a good thing to be doing. I found myself enjoying the nerves, the polite applause, the metaphorical back-slapping. We do it for each of us – we are all learners together: this is comedic solidarity.

So, I’ve noticed that I can make people smile. Laugh even. I’ve simply never tried to do it quite so, well, deliberately.

Next week will be a teller. Can I step beyond the scribbled line, lifting my daft tale of urban nonsense and perform my material successfully?

Afterwards, persuaded to stay for a pint, I relished the companionship of doing a class like this. Group vibe = good vibe. Good vibe = group laugh.

And so it starts…

The George pub where Chris Head holds his weekly comedy course sits in all its Mock Tudor glory opposite the Gothic grandeur of the Royal Courts of Justice. It’s the end of The Strand I visit least, far from the bustle of Charing Cross and Traflagar Square. The pub is half full (half empty?) downstairs: men in lawyer-ish suits and lost tourists gawp at the flat screen footie. It’s not too noisy, it’s not too dead. It’s a normal London pub.

The Dining Room-cum-Comedy Club is upstairs. This is where we gather. (Obviously it’s not in use as an actual Dining Room on Monday nights. Might be a bit rough on both sets of punters.) Chris was busy rearranging tables and chairs at one end whilst at the other my fellow comedy virgins were congregating. The saying, “Rearranging the furniture on the sundeck of the Titanic” flashed across my mind. You might’ve heard a pin drop if anyone had had one. I said Hi, trying to sound chipper, but inside I was about as confident as a holidaymaker in Colombia. I looked about the room instead, and waited for someone else to make the small talk. Call me chicken, see if I care.

More people turned up. Further muted greetings. Everyone seemed pleasant enough. We were all in the same boat after all (hopefully not the Titanic).

Eventually, Chris called us over to his end of the room. A friendly, open chap in his late 30s, longish hair, beard. Keen eyes and sincere smile.

“I can tell by the silence that this is a room full of people who are beginning a course in Stand Up Comedy,” he said. He gave us the running order for the evening’s session, and indeed the course to come.

We spend the first half of every session delivering “material” to the group. Subsequent feedback is both verbal and written. The thought sends shivers down my spine. Shivers not only of terror, but also, peculiarly, delight. Part of the reason I am doing the course at all is to get back into live performance. I have spent too long away from a stage, absent from a room of people wanting (paying!) to be entertained. Telly may pay more than theatre but I haven’t done a play since 1999 (last century, jeez) and I miss that certain buzz.

The second half of the class is occupied with learning about the craft of stand up: how to prepare material, how to handle hecklers, how to remember lines. There’s an awful lot more to it than just telling jokes, clearly.

So to work. First of all we had to introduce one another. There were fifteen in the group tonight, ranging from an ex-British Army bomb disposal expert to a landscape architect from New Hampshire. Several actors: former, resting or practising. I felt immediately at home. It reminded me of day one of rehearsals: the read-through, the tea-breaks, all those “Where did you train? who have you worked with?” questions. Not nosy. Just actor-chatty.

Chris got us up and at it in the second half of the session (the first two sessions are “prep” weeks, when we simply practise finding material on the spot). We were split into groups and tried our hand at some impro: ice breaker exercises aimed at freeing up our imaginations and shaking off the nerves a bit.

The first exercise was switch story-telling. One person determines who speaks and the group of four have to share the telling of a single story, allowing two minutes per group. In reality this meant approximately 30 seconds per speaker. I found my imagination and tongue almost entirely incapable of making any sense. Managed to stutter a line or two of surreal blather and was delighted when Chris rang the bell to say stop.

In new groups, we then had to tell a story of a favourite holiday. This time it was one speaker and four switchers. They contradict your tale and you must go with whatever they say. My story was about my first trip to New York. “It wasn’t your first trip,” someone said. “That’s right, it was my 10th,” I replied. And so on. Freeing up the tongue. Loosening the imagination. Shaking off the nerves.

Finally we got a minute at the microphone itself, in front of the whole group. A whole minute. All alone on the miniature podium, using the microphone (even though we could all probably have been heard without). We selected a topic from a menu cobbled together moments before and the audience asked a question to get you off the ground… possibly asking another if you appeared to dry.

There was some funny stuff indeed. This was, effectively, our first experience of “standing up” (for most of us, at least), and it was wonderful to hear how people’s imaginations ticked along. There was a story about growing up in Scotland of English parentage and suffering the split accent paradox that resulted. Someone else discussed church. Another related an episode detailing a bout of particularly dirty sex with his girlfriend (literally dirty. And I mean dirty. The juxtaposition with the church guy was sublime).

When it came to my turn, I talked a little bit about my tattoos. Where, what, how. I am fond of my tats and adore talking about them. It seemed a gift of a topic to kick off with and my minute passed extremely swiftly. On the Night Itself – the showcase on 21st November – we have to fill FIVE minutes. It will either be excruciating or all over in a trice.

Yes, people were being polite and clapping when Chris instructed. But it felt good to present myself before a group of people (who were not my students) and share something a bit silly about my life.

Before we knew it, it was gone 9pm and Chris was summing up the evening for us, saying how we’d now begun the journey and were already funnier than some of the new acts he’d seen on the circuit. Praise indeed. Finally, he asked us not to worry about bringing set material next week but to carry on jotting down little things that pique our curiosity or niggle our irritable bone. He’s a great teacher, I can see that from the start. We even got a handout.

Nervously note-taking

Confirming my place on his Monday night Stand up Comedy course, Chris Head advises me to buy a note book and use it to “jot down ideas and thoughts as you go about your day”. Presumably he means humourous ideas and thoughts. I somehow doubt my “shopping and errands to run” list, which I scribble daily on a scrap of paper that then lies forgotten in my back pocket, would make for side-splitting comedy… although you never know.

Chris suggests I watch YouTube/DVDs or even live performances of stand up. “Look at who you like – and why,” he writes. This is something I learnt before from the late great Michael Donaghy, my much-missed poetry tutor at Birkbeck and, later, City Uni when I went on a spree of evening courses on poetry writing in the noughties.* “Study the Masters, Eliot, Auden, Larkin,” Michael told us, “and act like you’re art students. Try to figure out the magic in the line.” Lines of art, lines of text.

And now lines of comedy, laugh lines, punchlines. The fabric of comedy. The building blocks of humour.

Of course, when you’re chuckling at something funny on the telly or radio (as a confirmed R4 addict I confess I prefer the latter, Archers and all, sorry) you don’t often stop to analyse the detail amongst the bigger picture. You’re just enjoying yourself, you’re relaxed, who cares how the gag was developed from a random thought into a comedic rant, culminating in pee-leakage-enducing guffaws from the audience?

And although I’ve long admired the likes of Eddie Izzard (whose level of executive transvestism I like to think even I have surpassed), I’ve rarely, if ever, sat down and actually read one of his scripts in order to deconstruct the set-up, delivery and pay-off of one of his sets. This would probably be a good time to start.

I usually carry a small notebook with me, amongst many other items of largely unnecessary stationery in my satchel (yes, I have a satchel, and yes, it is full of pens. OK, so I’m a pen fiend: my bag is like a branch of Rymans), but until now have not made much regular use of it. Beyond the occasional jotting of poem/image/errand, the notebook has been a shade unloved of late. Now, however, it has a purpose in life. I’m trying to scribble within it those quirks of life that catch my eye, or make me smile, or put a wry question into the (very) back my mind that one day I should like to explore further…

Like joggers who actually jog to work… I mean, what’s wrong with the bus? Or a bike, if you really must keep fit…? But actually running to work… Jeez.

Or wondering about who comes up with those “anti-spambot” texts you have to enter “exactly as seen” when you want to post something on a website forum… The madness of “Triangle autumn”, or “Geranium Lyricist”, if that’s what it says, as they’re usually in a font that looks like a cross between Shakepeare’s autograph and one of my memos that I wrote on my way home from the pub… on the bus…

Or that phrase, “Turning into your parents”. What does it mean, really? That you start looking like your Mum? Or talking like your Dad? If you know anything about my background you will appreciate I have a particularly striking take on this notion… of which more, perhaps, another time…

And then there are the things that might strike me as funny during the day but which I don’t get a chance to record right there and then, and by the time I’ve got to my notebook it’s completely drained from my pitiful memory.

So although the course doesn’t start for another twelve days, I’ve already begun the journey into the dark and difficult place from which I hope to emerge, with some dignity intact, ten weeks later on 21st November, the day of the Showcase.

*Not to be confused with the Naughties, the (PG-Cert) nickname for a bunch of actors I used to fart (my Mum might be reading this so I have to use the word “fart”; that other four-letter f-word would not cut the mustard here) fart about with backstage when doing Hamlet with the Peter Hall Co at the Gielgud back in 1894. Or thereabouts.