Comedy is no laughing matter
Have you heard the one about Glasgow City Council and The Stand Comedy Club laying on free stand-up comedy workshops for teenagers?
It goes something like this: Tommy Sheppard, director of the club in Glasgow and of the third annual Glasgow International Comedy Festival, approached the council's community action team to run workshops for 16-to 18-year-olds from deprived areas.
The Feeling Funny? course, run in conjunction with the festival, was advertised in youth clubs and schools but just eight teenagers expressed an interest. Four two-hour workshops were organised for last weekend and this weekend, covering various aspects of comedy, from writing material and the art of performing, to audience interaction.
Another series of six workshops for 14 over-18s (mainly middle-aged men) in Castlemilk has been funded by the Scottish Arts Council. Participants from both sets of workshops will have the opportunity to perform a five-minute set in a showcase event on March 26, the final day of the festival.
"We can't teach people to be funny but we can teach them to perform," says Mr Sheppard. "We can teach them stage techniques. The skills that you need to be a stand-up comic are very transferable, the same skills that you need to do well in a job interview. We're trying to build their self-confidence."
Last Sunday's workshop, taken by stand-up comedians and comedy tutors Jane Mackay and Frankie Boyle, was about how to write material. "The idea is to look at various sources for material and to try to encourage them to draw on their own experiences," explains Mr Sheppard.
Five boys and three girls, seven of them 17-year-olds from two homeless hostels -the Shettleston Road Project and the James McLean Centre in Springburn - and a 16-year-old from a youth training project in Maryhill, came.
Mackay took to the stage and was immediately heckled by one of the boys shouting a string of insults peppered with expletives. A pro with 10 years'
experience, she cut him straight down to size.
"It is nerve-racking," she confides, "but I used to be a councillor in Islington, north London, and getting told you're fat by a bunch of teenagers is nothing compared with telling people they're being made redundant.
"The first time you make people you don't know laugh, it's quite exhilarating."
She demonstrated the importance of holding the microphone close and standing at the front of the stage instead of cowering at the back or pacing , looking down and turning your back on half your audience: "The audience will sense you're nervous."
She encouraged the teenagers to get up on to the small stage in the basement bar to tell a joke or simply share with everybody what they did last night. With no volunteers, she coaxed one girl, Keighley, to get up and introduce herself. It was simply an initiation in standing on stage and speaking in front of an audience.
Keighley told them that she watched a couple of programmes on television before going to bed. She appeared unfazed and confident. She was one of the more enthusiastic participants.
"It was just for a laugh at the beginning - I'm doing my Highers at Stow College and want to go to university (Glasgow Caledonian) to study forensic investigation - but now I'm quite interested," she said.
Andy Bell also rose to the challenge. "Hi folks, my name's Andy.
"What do you call half a rabbit?
By the end of the session, five of the group had got up and said something, however brief. One, Isa Bzikr, an Algerian asylum seeker, overcame the language barrier by impersonating some of his friends with various grunts.
All laughed uproariously, proving comedy can transcend language.
Mackay says it was a challenging session. "I'm used to working with people who want to be here."
However, outside, and individually, the teenagers seemed more enthused. "I think it's brilliant. I think it's class," said Steven Glynn, the heckler of earlier.
Kylie Darling conceded: "It was no bad."
Mark Langdon, a community action officer for the city council, says the big success of the day was getting the group to turn up. "The reason we chose 16-to 18-year-olds is that they're hard to reach. We're trying to get to the most excluded. We're trying to get them to engage. Stand-up comedy is a little bit edgy so I thought that might be one way to break that barrier."
This weekend's workshops are about performing, from how to stand and hold the microphone to dealing with hecklers and audience interaction, how you can turn the audience's heckles and comments to your advantage.
"You need the stage presence and you need the wit," says Mr Sheppard. "If you're pacing up and down, it makes it difficult for the audience to focus on what you're saying. It's to try and get them to lose that nervousness."
Miller Glasgow International Comedy Festival 2005, March 10-26 www.glasgowcomedyfestival.com