It's how they tell 'em, but a career in teaching helps as much as a funny face

11th April 2008 at 01:00
Stand-up comedy has broken out of working men's clubs and now provides entertainment for children barely out of nursery, an alternative career for disillusioned teachers, and night classes for students of all ages and backgrounds. Henry Hepburn reports

If the audience don't like you, they don't laugh." That's the bottom line as far as Viv Gee is concerned. She has run Strathclyde University's pioneering stand-up night class for more than a decade and believes there is a common misconception about what makes a good comedian.

Wisecracking loudmouths who dominate nights out with friends and are told "You should be a comedian" should ditch that idea, she says. Their cockiness alienates an audience - "a little bit of vulnerability" works much better. Audiences respond well to acts that are "not afraid to show themselves". Unusual looks can also be an advantage.

"It seems to be the guy who doesn't get the girl, who wasn't in the in-crowd, but who is quite clever and kind of self-deprecating - but not a complete victim," she says. "They're also confident in what they want to say and quite intelligent, and can change the way you see the world."

Strathclyde's stand-up course was the first in Britain run by a college or university. It has helped launch about 30 regulars on the stand-up circuit, including Des Clarke, Des McLean, Mark Nelson and Reverend Obadiah Steppenwolfe III.

When The TESS dropped in, students were making last-minute changes to routines before their first-ever live performances - five-minute slots in front of friends and family later that night. All but one of the dozen students to make it this far is male, and Viv reckons only 30 to 40 per cent of her students over the years have been women. It can be a difficult scene for them to break into, as she knows full well, having regularly been mistaken for "the comedian's girlfriend" when turning up for her own gigs.

Oonagh Lawson is the sole female performer and the oldest student at 64. She writes her own plays and has performed many times at famous Glasgow venues such as the Tron and the Citizen's Theatre. She hopes the experience will sharpen up her scripts.

Barry McGinley, at 16, is the youngest student. He has always been interested in music and drama but now he wants to make it as a comedian. A pupil at Glasgow's St Thomas Aquinas Secondary, he is a little nervous about a close-to-the-bone joke concerning priests, because some of his teachers might be coming to the show. In the end they don't, but his granny, Winifred Macleod, is there and reassures him that he was "excellent" - she is "really proud of him".

Most acts have a shtick based on sex and relationships and their failings in that department. But one of the most impressive students - stage name Andy Hollywood - strikes out on his own with an inventive skit on the Olympics that makes sly digs at China's human rights record.

Viv says there is no censorship, although she is uncomfortable with material that strays into racism or sick jokes about events such as the World Trade Center attacks. She leaves students to decide for themselves what they are prepared to go with.

The best routines can go wrong, and some of the funniest acts in rehearsal fall flat on stage. Sometimes it's just down to practice: those who have rooted out distracting mannerisms by watching themselves on video often perform best, although too much practice can kill spontaneity. But an underwhelming performance is not always easy to explain.

"You often get surprised that some comedians go down really well with an audience when you wouldn't have thought that they would," says Viv.

Martin O'Donnell (Snr) - his son of the same name is also in the class - took the course to help overcome panic attacks. The 42-year-old, who has a physical disability, admits he is not a natural performer, but walks off stage pleasantly surprised after getting some of the night's biggest belly laughs.

"I can't see myself being the next Billy Connolly, but I enjoyed it - never in a million years would I have seen myself getting up on stage doing this a few years ago." studioindex.html

Janice Phayre is hurtling towards a punchline that usually involves a carnal encounter and a word beginning with F. It is an unremarkable scene at a stand-up club - except her audience has an average age of eight.

Janice is compere of the kids' afternoon club at the Magner's Glasgow Comedy Festival and has adapted much of her material for her younger-than-usual audience. So the aforementioned routine transforms into an innocent tale about an embarrassing first kiss.

Quite apart from having to adapt material to get it past the parents, children make for a tough gig. "Adults have learnt how to react as an audience," says Janice.

"Sometimes they'll be laughing away at something that, when you examine it, isn't actually that funny, but the comedian has built it up in a way that will make people laugh. But kids are different - they don't laugh if they don't want to."

The comedians who go down well know that anti-social behaviour is lapped up by the six- to 12-year-olds the club is aimed at.

Phayre remembers a gig with Brendon Burns, the Australian who won the top if.comedies award at the Edinburgh Fringe last year for a taboo-breaking show called So I Suppose This is Offensive Now?. "He ran on stage and screamed in their faces - they loved it," she recalls.

Also on the bill in Glasgow is Andrew O'Neill, a long-haired 28-year-old in combat pants and black nail varnish who goes down a storm. He plays to the audience by unfurling a list of words he has apparently been banned from using in their presence - then proceeds, in a sonorous voice, to read it in its lengthy entirety.

The mums and dads relax when they hear the relatively benign scatological terms that follow; their sons and daughters squeal with delight at the mention of "bottom, bogie, snot, poo, wee, dog poo, cat poo, velociraptor poo". But Andrew is a little less adept than Janice at remembering where to draw the line. In one skit about his favourite pastimes, he extols the joys of running round and round until dizzy - then, in an easily missed aside, contrasts it with his friends' preferences for drugs.

Another act, Geoff Norcott, plays on his lack of street cred as a former English teacher. He also recalls amusing tales from the classroom, like the pupil who defined a simile as the "sign you put at the end of a text message to show you're happy".

The randomness of children's thought processes can be manna from heaven for comedians. Andrew asks one boy what his friend's favourite dinosaur is (the stubborn friend having refused to answer) and is told "I think it's a chicken".

Another tells Andrew that when he grows up he wants to be a ukulele player. A third boy agrees with Norcott's passionate assertion that grown-ups should stop harping on about the dangers of computer games, but for a different reason: ONeill argues that killing zombies can only be a good thing; the sombre boy of about eight points out that adults fail to appreciate the positive impact on hand-eye co-ordination.

The young audience is impressed by the show. Lorna Watt, 11, is surprised by comedians' ability to "make it up according to what the audience said". She thinks this unpredictability makes stand-up better than other children's shows.

Ryan Moran, 9, revels in the chance to show his own comedic potential by responding to an invite from Phayre to get up on stage and tell a joke. Calmly and clearly, he relays a complex shaggy dog story. Afterwards, he quips that he should have asked her to talk to his agent.

Linda Sloan, accompanying her seven-year-old daughter Neve, says: "I thought they got the balance right in terms of appealing to adults and children - I would come back."

Neve, meanwhile, shows that for all Andrew's inventive wordplay and witty subversion of grown-up comedy shticks, successful comedy can be a simple thing: "I just thought he had a funny face."

Charlie Ross is a former teacher turned comedian - like many on the stand-up circuit. He sees a clear link between the two: "I think they're both performance-based, you get heckled by kids as a teacher, and you have to think on your feet in the classroom and as a stand-up."

Like other pedagogues turned patter merchants, Charlie relies on his former career for a big chunk of his material, as he showed during a recent gig in Glasgow.

In one part of his routine, he recalls an occasion during his time as a PE teacher in Clydebank and Glasgow, when he was supervising a school disco and a young girl innocently asked him for a dance. No sooner had he stepped onto the dance floor than - to his horror - the opening bars of Salt-N-Pepa's hit "Let's Talk About Sex" resonated through the speakers.

Later, he recounts a staffroom game called "How Many Kids Can You Make Cry in a Term?" Players are unlikely to accrue a high score by shouting, he confides; a far more effective tactic is the sombre utterance of "I'm not angry with you - I'm just very, very disappointed." (He assures me afterwards that the game never actually went beyond staffroom banter.)

Charlie's experience as a teacher also provides plenty of ammunition for banter with the audience. He obviously remembers rivalry across the primary-secondary divide. When he asks if there are any other teachers in the room, a woman in the front row puts her hand up and reveals that she has a P1 class.

"Ah, so you're not a real teacher," he quips, quick as a flash.

Charlie continues to teach, taking a night class in stand-up at Glasgow Metropolitan College. And he also encourages teachers who are tempted to follow his path into comedy.

"We have such a wide range of experiences and meet so many characters in schools that there's far more material to draw on than if we had a boring desk job." upcomedy.aspx.

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