Comedy is booming but can an ordinary person learn to do stand-up and make an audience of strangers laugh with a couple of hours' training?
Ashley Davies gets up on stage and discovers that it's a lot harder than it looks …
• Ashley Davis tries out her act on stage
I PROBABLY have an inflated sense of how funny I am – in fact, I know I do. My friends and I spend most of our time trying to make each other laugh – often to the point of cruelty – and I've managed to write a few humorous columns here and there over the years.
But there has been the odd moment, usually with strangers, when I've blurted out a witticism that sounded side-splitting in my head but which provoked nothing but silence, embarrassed shuffling and the ungrateful listeners' sudden interest in their fingernails. It's a horrible sensation. You feel hot and sick and it ruins your confidence. And it makes you want to knock over a table and swear like a chef.
• Lynne Parker's verdict on my performance
I go to loads of comedy shows and have done quite a lot of reviewing and judging (I know – who am I to?), and so truly admire what these people do. I've seen them winning hearts and minds and making people weep with laughter, and I've seen them failing spectacularly. How the bejesus do they get the self-belief to stand up in front of all those strangers? How do they cope when it doesn't work? Did they always know how to do this peculiar trade or did someone teach them?
So I go along to a workshop run by Funny Women founder Lynne Parker. Her organisation exists to discover, nurture and promote female comics, and she runs these kind of sessions all over the UK. Her workshops are usually attended by people who fancy dipping their toe into comedy, performers looking for a way of widening their repertoires or women who work in completely unrelated fields but think this might be a fun and unusual way of beefing up their confidence.
Lynne, who has never been a comedian herself but has worked in the industry for a long time and knows what works, looks like she could be Brenda Blethyn's glamorous sister. She's an alpha female who could probably destroy an enemy with a paragraph, but she seems to have a warm core so I feel safe with her. The ten or so women in my workshop meet in a small lecture theatre on Edinburgh's George Square, which is being used as an Assembly venue throughout the Fringe (including for the heats for the Funny Women awards). The stage area is black, the walls are black and the curtains (wings for this month) are black, and there are pricklingly hot theatre spotlights overhead. Standing in a room in which students might usually be chewing pencils and trying to stay awake, I already feel exposed by the lighting and I'm nervous as a cat in a city park. I haven't been on stage since I was at school.
The other women who have paid 45 for the workshop are a mixed group. Most of them are confident businesswomen in their late 40s to early 50s who already have plenty of experience doing presentations and public speaking, but who are doing a stand-up gig for their charity, Red International, and want some tuition before taking the leap. They have no experience at all in comedy. A couple of women in their 20s are more acquainted with the business: one, Carla Simpson, is an actress who has become accustomed to "hiding behind a ukelele" and the other, Dawn Marshall-Fannon, is a self-confessed comedy geek (an academic copy editor by day) who has done a few open-mic spots herself but wants to get more experience.
Our course runs for two hours across two days, with some homework in between, and at the end we'll each be ready to do ten minutes of stand-up. The first day is all about learning to open up, be spontaneous, play with "voices" – that is, characters, as opposed to sounds – and stimulate parts of the brain that may not usually be used.
One of the first exercises involves us telling the group something about ourselves that they would never guess from looking at us. I tell them how, at primary school, I used to indulge in vivid adoption fantasies and told my closest friends that my real parents were the blonde couple from Abba. I claimed they were so worried about me growing up in the glare of publicity that they sent me to live with a boring family so I'd have a chance of growing up normally. Already, I'm caring more about getting a laugh than risking embarrassment about revealing too much about myself. Lynne says this could be material on which to work at a later date. Result.
Then I get yanked out of my comfort zone. Lynne asks me to describe myself as though I was my mother talking about me. Cripes. I'd heard this kind of intimate stuff takes place in workshops that don't contain workbenches but I hadn't bargained for it. To be honest, I don't think it has ever occurred to me to wonder how my mother would describe me. I babble away – slowly picking up my mother's African accent – and it feels like some kind of therapy session. Well, gosh, who knew? But almost immediately I see the point: if you've never had any acting training, it's a quick way to learn how to take on a new character. When you're so focused on thinking about the content of that character's mind, you put yourself in a different place altogether. (I know this sounds poncey, but hey, we're doing showbiz here, so bear with me.) This task is also useful in teaching us to think differently about how others perceive us. It's harder than it seems.
It also gets the juices flowing in recognising the comic potential of assuming another character. After all, some of the most successful comic characters – Mrs Merton, Dame Edna Everage, Ali G and Al Murray's Pub Landlord – are crafted personas.
By now it feels as if Lynne already knows more about me than most of the people I work with and already has a pretty good idea about what areas of my experience and outlook would make for the most fertile comedy material. So this is the "trust" thing theatre folk talk about that I've always sneered at. (Let's take a moment to rub our chins, brothers and sisters.)
Our overnight assignment is to work on three lists, which begin with the following: "I hate it when…", "I love it when…" and "I wish…". The first one's easy, I've been practising every day for years. My list of "loves", tellingly, is shorter, as is my "wish" list. The latter includes a desire to understand European economic matters in more detail, as whenever I hear the word "eurozone" I can't help thinking of a hardcore gay club where women are not welcome.
Before partnering up to make something of our homework, we play another game. We stand in a circle and someone starts telling a story. After one person has spoken a few sentences of the tale, Lynne points to somebody else, who then continues the story until we've all spoken at least once and come up with a daft little narrative about an evil businessman who becomes a cross-dresser in order to find out what his female colleagues are talking about.
The object is to train us to think on our feet and be spontaneous with our wit. We then pair up and start sharing our ideas for the hate, love and wish lists, and let each other know what we believe are the most fertile areas for comedy.
Lynne's experience kicks in again. She encourages me to try develop an idea from my "hate" list, about the amount of time male work colleagues spend in the toilets, and gives me some advice on exaggeration. I start with something along the lines of: "I hate where I sit at work because it's very close to the men's toilet and not only can I tell by the sound of the flush as they leave that they haven't washed their hands, but some of them spend far too long in there. One, in particular, takes in his newspaper and spends up to 20 minutes in there. He goes in with the weight of the world on his shoulders and emerges looking radiant, whistling triumphantly and with a glow of achievement."
Lynne advises me to exaggerate and develop the story, so it could end up as something like: "One of my colleagues spends two hours a day in the toilet. He goes prepared. He walks in there with a backpack, his Kindle, a picnic basket and flask, and sets up Skype so he can keep in touch with the foreign bureaux. When he's finished he sings Nessun Dorma to the sub-editors."
I feel quite pleased – if under-rehearsed – with what I've written, but when it comes to actually standing up and performing my material, my lack of experience as a public speaker takes over. I am completely happy – perhaps this self-satisfaction is unwarranted – with the quality of my writing, but my confidence in my ability to deliver it is low. Although Lynne has shown us how to handle the microphone and what to do with the stand, and although I know I am with a group of kind people willing me to do my best, I feel like I'm speaking too quickly and am so nervous that even though they're right in front of me I can't see their faces properly. I forget some of what I was supposed to say.
It's ironic that I feel my lack of public-speaking confidence has let down my performance, as nearly all of the other women in the workshop afterwards say they've found it to be a real confidence-boosting experience. They've all found it to be a warm, self-affirming exercise and don't seem in any way shaken by being taken out of their comfort zone.
Lynne invites Carla and Dawn to enter the heats for the Funny Women awards. She asks me too, as it happens, but I'm too shy. I feel I've learnt a lot about assembling the content for a performance but I have also learnt that actually standing up and doing it – rather than indulging in witty banter between funny friends – is much, much harder that it looks.
• Funny Women Comedy Workshop, 15-16 August, Assembly George Square, 2:40pm. The Funny Women showcases are 17-21 August at the same venue, also 2:40pm
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