Musings arguments and gig reports from your favourite Goth lesbian transsexual vegan recovering alcoholic and drug addict sceptic rationalist atheist comedian chameleon and caricature.

Thursday 24 February 2011

Horses For Courses

I've been thinking about these for a while, when I first started out I went on one with a friend, I'd already been doing stand-up for a couple of weeks when she got in touch and asked if I fancied going.  It was run by Janice Connolly and Archie Kelly was guest tutor, both of them fresh from Phoenix nights (which I know dates this story.)

The course was useful to me, but the lessons I learned wouldn't really help until much much later.

Cut to 6 years down the line and the same friend got in touch with me to ask if I might help out as a guest tutor on the stand-up course that they run.

I jumped at the chance, as I think that if you can you've got a duty to the industry to try to help make it a better place with better comics, promoters and audiences for the good of us all, but that's possibly because I think I might be a goddamned communist, or at the very least un-American.

Now, of the people who went on the course that I was on I believe I'm the only person who's still performing, my friend is a teacher and works in the industry in another capacity as well as running the stand-up course (she doesn't teach on it another comedian does the teaching).

And I've heard a lot of discussion about whether stand-up courses are worth it, if they can actually help anyone and if those who would succeed would do so anyway without the aid of the course.

Personally, like Jimmy Carr, I don't believe in "Funny bones" I think that funny on and off stage are separate things with interchangeable skills,  some people can be the funniest people you ever meet, lightning fast and very witty, but on stage they can't get that across, and some people are the opposite. I also think you can learn how to make people laugh I don't think that sort of thing is innate I think it's learned, and I think that provided you're willing to put the effort in, and you're capable from learning from your mistakes and critically examining what you do on stage there's no reason you can't keep getting better and better, up to a point obivously, there is yet to be a comedian out there who transformed on stage in front of people into the Platonic form of the joke in a burst of pure light.

So I believe that Stand-up courses can have a place, the problem with a lot of them is that the ones who would have gone on to be successful comics do and the others don't go anywhere other than down to the pub with their friends and tell them about how they used to be a stand-up, and they were good at it, but they just couldn't balance it with other commitments, and people had said that they could be the next Michael McIntyre.

I think that what stand-up courses need to do is be able to teach those who do start off unable to write a joke, who don't have "Natural talent" and to teach some of the skills which are not related to stage, because that's where the focus seems to be with most if not all of them.

The 5-10 minutes a day that the act who's on the stand-up course is on the stage performing is vital but it's a tiny proportion of what actually goes in to being a stand-up, it has a disproportionate impact too, do badly you don't get booked, do well get booked a lot more, however there are other things that they need to be able to teach that they don't.

As far as I'm aware there's not a stand-up course out there that teaches how to go about writing a CV, telling the newer acts that the industry is small enough that any bullshit you put on there is likely to get found out, so if you've been on at a gong show where Jim Jefferies was MC you've not "supported Jim Jefferies" If you were at a new act/new material night where Jason Manford turned up and did 10 minutes of new stuff and you were on last you haven't "Headlined above Jason Manford" or if you were on before him "supported Jason Manford"

That going on last regularly at gigs where between the 10 acts on the bill the combined gigging total is less than 500 gigs is not headlining and you don't "Regularly headline small rooms" you regularly go on last at open mic nights.

And these are things that will trip you up, and make promoters less likely to believe what you're saying and less likely to book you, and that if you do get booked off the back of it by a promoter who is either brand new and doesn't know yet how the industry works, or is taking a chance on you because you might be telling the truth, and you turn up and die badly in a way that shows up your lack of experience, then they're not going to book you again for a very long time, and the new promoter may learn a lesson from that and end up becoming quite a big time promoter and you've pissed on your chips with them.  The established promoter may talk to other promoters about how badly you did and you find that you're having difficulty getting gigs.

The circuit's changed quite a lot since I started when you could get away with stuff like this because there were fewer comics.  Alex Boardman on another forum told a story about how in the mid 90s when he started out he put some bullshit press quotes that he made up and said were written by the Guardian on his CV, these quotes were later reprinted by The Guardian and became actual quotes, but these days with the internet it's easier to see through things like this, and there's about 100x more comedians out there all looking for the same gigs.

Not a single comedy course, as far as I'm aware, teaches that as a new comic that it's not advisable to sit in the corner of the green room and pontificate about your experiences on the comedy circuit and your great knowledge of comedy when you've been going under 18 months and are sharing a green room with comics who've been going 18 years.

I don't think any course, as far as I'm aware, teaches you how to write emails to promoters, who to get in touch with, how often you should email them if they don't reply to you.  Even little things like what level you need to be at before posting when you're free on forums like , or sending out your fortnightly availability to promoters who regularly book you.

Stuff like checking when you book a gig where it is and what time they need you there, and making sure that you're there on time and that you've got the phone number of the promoter in case of any trouble on the night with traffic etc.

All of these are vital skills that you need as a stand-up, all as important as the skills you need when you get up on that stage, because without them you're going to find it more difficult to even get to that point.

And as a stand-up most of the learning about performance that you do you do on stage, it's there that you learn what does and doesn't work, how to judge where a laugh will come in a new bit of material, how to emphasise the words for the biggest impact.

How to banter, how to turn that round so that you can switch from that to material without it looking forced and without audiences being able to see the joins.

And the only way to get better at that is through stage time.

The other aspects of performance that you can teach off stage are what needs to be taught, keeping your head up, standing at the front of the stage, going through material and taking bits out of it that aren't adding to the jokes to get down to the diamond in the middle of the idea.

In terms of how to teach them to write better material it's a tricky order, because on the course it's a supportive environment with others who are all in the same boat performing to each other, and with you only able to judge how well you're doing and how you're progressing alongside other people who are at the same level as you.  You then finish the course and go out into the world of gigging where the audiences don't care that you've had a 6 week course they only care if you're funny and mostly they're not prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt.

So it can be a strange situation to be in, I think what you need on a course is for there to be a guest pro comic every week who does a short set and helps with questions etc, just so you've got something you can measure your progress against.  I think that whilst the courses need to start off supportive, there also needs to be a more critical deconstruction of the students material to really get to what does and doesn't work and why that is, teaching brevity, going through with the group and thinking about what in various bits of their material could be got rid of and still have the joke work.

Workshopping bits of material, maybe each week giving them a topic and getting them to pair up and go away and come back in half a hour with 3 jokes each based on that topic.

Stuff like that would work in a teaching environment, and be useful for teaching stand-up, and letting the people on the course get their money's worth and helping to teach those who aren't as "naturally funny" how to work on the things that they can.

Personally I don't think that stand-up courses are good enough, I think that the way they try to teach new stand-ups could do with looking at, and I think that there is the potential for there to be some really useful stand-up courses out there that would help a new generation of comics to come through.

So I helped out on the stand-up course, and it was plain to see that some of the people there really wanted to be stand-ups and were going to have an easier time of it than some of the others, and that some of them really didn't get it at all but were there because they like going on courses, and if it hadn't been comedy it'd have been flower arranging, or cake decorating or poetry or creative writing workshops.

This particular course was one of the better ones I've seen or heard of, and it was great fun to help out, and I definitely would again, but the things I've realised through thinking about it and taking part and talking to people made me realise that the way that we try to teach these things could do with a little sprucing up.

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