Kelner learns how to be funny on stand-up comedy course!
Laughter is the best medicine, although if you have diphtheria you might want to try something a little stronger. Is that funny?
Frankly, I do not know any more, having spent the best part of two days experimenting with a variety of different deliveries of the line. It is to be the closing gag, the coup de gras if you like, of the routine I will perform as the culmination of a weekend away having a go at stand-up comedy.
It is not, I should add, my best line. It is what I now know to call a throw away – some of you may have reached that conclusion already – as opposed to a disguised gag, or a shaggy dog story, or any of the other varieties of joke helpfully enumerated for me in the welcome pack I am given on arrival at the Mill and Old Swan Hotel, Minster Lovell, in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds.
My first thought is; what a strange place to be doing comedy. If the comedic centre of Britain is a Soho basement on a raucous Friday night, this is about as far away from that as it is possible to be, emotionally if not physically.
Minster Lovell is not so much a picture postcard village, as a picture postcard designed by Working Title. You approach it over a perfect little stone bridge, all the pretty houses are of Cotswold stone, roofs are thatched, and the River Windrush gurgles contentedly through the village. You half expect Hugh Grant to be in the Old Swan’s half-timbered bar stammering out his order for half a pint of wallop.
Parts of the hotel date back to the 15th Century. Richard lll’s entourage stayed here when the monarch was being entertained at Minster Lovell Hall up the road, and former Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his wife Mary spent part of their honeymoon at the Old Swan. Somewhat less significantly - although the hotel seems very proud of it - David Colman and Macdonald Hobley have spent a weekend here too (on separate occasions, I ought to say).
Of course, neither the late King nor Macdonald Hobley was compelled to spend the weekend honing comedy material to perform for a room of comparative strangers. This weekend, sixteen of us are booked in on a quest for laughs. Our gurus are veteran comic Bobby Bragg, “king of the warm-ups,” and actor John Arthur, who has appeared in numerous TV sit-coms including Fresh Fields and Barbara, and should know something about comic timing having been a member of Alan Ayckbourn’s company at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough in the 1970s.
It is a new venture for the two of them, although Bobby has organised celebrity golf tournaments, and John has done some presentational training. Having noticed that some of the conference venues they were using during the week lay fallow at the weekends, the have-a-go idea was born. The idea is that John will teach us stagecraft, impart to us a few actors’ tricks, while Bobby works on what we laughingly call our material.
I have some strong stuff about how I hail from the South Lancashire coalfield, and how my dad used to come home each evening black with coal dust, spitting great globules of it into the hearth, before scrubbing himself down in a tin bath in front of the fire. Punch line: I don’t know why - he worked in Barclays Bank. But as John is at pains to impress upon us, there is far more to stand-up than just having killer jokes like that.
The sixteen of us split into two groups, and our half goes off with John; first, to introduce ourselves to the others in the group like alcoholics admitting to a shameful secret – “Hello, I’m Martin and I think I’m funny” – and then to learn how to be self-aware rather than self-conscious. Diana Rigg, John tells us, compared performing in public to standing on a slowly revolving stage, naked.
Thankfully, no one in our predominantly forty/fiftyish, comfortably upholstered, group is required to test this theory. Instead we run through a series of actors’ exercises, including walking to the stage a number of times in front of our new friends reciting a nursery rhyme in a variety of different ways. It is early Saturday morning and the course has only just started, but I begin to wonder, after my fifth delivery of Mary Had a Little Lamb - in the style of someone who can barely conceal his astonishment at the lamb’s behaviour – if a comic’s life is for me.
Still, it would be a shame to waste the comedy gold with which I have come armed, so after coffee break I join the rest of my group to drink at the well of Bobby’s thirty years’ experience in show business.
When you see Bobby and John together, it is not difficult to tell which is the comic. Bobby has the kind of expressive face made for comedy; big eyes, big specs, a mouth with one or two too many teeth in it, and a big, booming laugh that is going to come in very handy as he encourages us through some less than hysterical material.
The real surprise of the weekend is the calibre of my fellow comedy students. Almost to a man – and four women – they are successful in business, in several cases training and consulting, travelling the world, often getting up to speak before an audience of hundreds. And yet quite a few seem indecently keen to make their mark in the art of stand-up, described by Marty Feldman as “an unnatural act,” and by American comedian Bob Odenkirk as “the last refuge of the bitter alcoholic.”
Mo Shapiro, who has come on the course with her partner Mark Yoxon, is a qualified counsellor, assertiveness trainer, and sports psychologist. It seems to me that her whole life is about performing, running conferences and so on, but it becomes apparent, talking to Mo, that what she really wants to be is Victoria Wood. In fact, she often puts on a blonde wig and a long red coat at her speaking engagements, and treats delegates to a word-perfect rendition of Wood’s best routines.
Mo has come with sheafs of material she will perform in the guise of sozzled old aristocrat Lady Lushe. Best gag: “Lord Lushe said to me, we have to economise. If you were handier in the kitchen, we could get rid of the cook, and if you bought a Hoover, we could get rid of the cleaner, so I said, ‘Yes, and if you were any good in the bedroom, we could dispense with the chauffeur.’”
As a group, we discuss each other’s material, arguing endlessly whether cod is funnier than haddock and so on, like proper comedy writers. We are working towards a show on the Sunday afternoon, when all 16 of us will perform for two or three minutes. Interestingly, all these successful consultants and trainers and the like seem to be quite nervous at the prospect.
I can tell people are becoming stressed – I am myself, actually, despite nearly 30 years performing on radio - because when we break at 5pm on a beautiful sunny Saturday evening, and most of us take a walk up to the remains of Minster Lovell Hall on the banks of the Windrush, described as one of the most romantic ruins in Britain, everybody seems too busy repeating lines to themselves to take any of it in.
Bobby is quick to point out that the course will not turn us into stand-up comics – that is painfully apparent from the DVD we are all sent of our performances – but that at the end of the weekend, we will have more idea how to get a laugh than we did at the beginning. Remarkably, this is true, even of the student who arrived with just the one joke: “Where do you find a dog with three legs? Answer: exactly where you left it.”
It is a well-structured course, the idea being that when we have completed it - although we might still not know enough to get off the stage of the Comedy Store alive - we will feel more confident in essaying the odd joke or two in our daily life. Besides, it is no hardship to spend a weekend in one of the country’s more attractive corners.
The final afternoon has the air of a revivalist meeting, with all of us urging each other on, our rather too generous whooping and hollering eclipsed only by Bobby Bragg’s distinctive guffaw.
Bobby did not quite manage to turn any of us into the new Tommy Cooper, and I predict not too many consultants, psychologists – or, indeed, freelance journalists – abandoning their posts for the comedy circuit. We did have a lot of laughs, though, which, while not necessarily the best medicine, were definitely something of a tonic.