What does a gay horse eat?
Haaaayy. Get it? Or is it Heeeeyy? Okay, maybe this is more of a visual gag. You’re meant to flick your wrist forward in an exaggerated fashion as you say “hey” in a high-pitched, slightly effeminate drawl. Cause horses eat hay, see? And of course, all gay men do that wrist flick thing when they greet one another. Still not feeling it? I don’t blame you; I’m not funny. I can’t even tell a PG-rated politically incorrect joke without messing it up. Yes, I make people laugh, but more in a “Look at those dance moves. Is that meant to be sexy? Good luck to her boyfriend” kind of way. Laughter has most definitely always been directed at me, not with me.
Over the years I’ve often wished I possessed the linguistic nous required to engage in quick-witted raillery. I’m good craic but my banter has always been more visual than verbal. When my opponent is thrashing me in a war of words, I resort to an impromptu forward roll or calling them a “douche bag”. It’s much easier to win points from behind a computer, as your laptop will never answer you back. So in order to develop the confidence necessary to improve my banter technique, I decided to try a taster class for the City Academy’s Stand-up Comedy course.
The course tutor, Kate Smurthwaite, is a professional stand-up comedian and comic writer. I’d never heard of her before but my knowledge of comedians is rather limited. I know the Geordie guy with the long hair that hasn’t been washed in many years, and the black American guy, who employs the “n word” in every routine because he’s black and therefore he can. Where the comedy lies in “Finding Nemo and n*****s” eludes me, but it seems to work for him.
The class was a real mixed bunch. Either consciously or not, everybody seemed to fit an existing comic stereotype. There was the middle-aged fat bloke with an opinion on everything; the gobby Northern woman; the Indian bloke who thought everyone had an issue with him because he was Indian; the weird indie geek with massive hair and thick-rimmed glasses (clearly channeling Flight of the Conchord’s Jemaine Clement); a geezer in a deerstalker hat, who claimed to be a psychoanalyst but struggled with basic English (He had also never heard of Harry Potter); a few others, and me. My comic persona was the Irishwoman who didn’t have a clue what was going on, bejaysus, begorrah, etc.
The purpose of the 90-minute class is to give you an idea of what to expect on the course should you decide to sign up. The first exercise, to which an entire session on the course is devoted, was to make a “hate” list. Kate said that those starting out in comedy always struggle to come up with material that is funny about so she advises making a list of 10 things you’re passionate about. These can be things you love, hate or worry about. Hate lists usually get people furiously scribbling, so that’s what we went for. The aim is to find the potential comedy in everyday irritations.
So we got stuck in. Being a naturally angry person, I had no difficulties in making a comprehensive list. While I was diligently attending to the assignment, some of the other students decided to try out their material on Kate. I cringed inwardly. I would pay not to see this bunch of freaks perform. By the way, how can you be a teacher and a stand-up comedian? Is this not a bit of a paradox? How can you be supportive of wannabe comedians when your job is to ridicule such delusions? Judging by Kate’s patient encouragement, I’d say she’s more teacher than comic.
After 10 minutes, we were asked to read out one annoyance from our list. “I really hate it when people stand on the left hand side of the escalator in tube stations,” says the first guy. A room full of heads nod in agreement. His neighbour sits up and clears his throat. “So like, I hate it when my flatmate, Russell — that’s him over there — puts empty cartons and boxes in the fridge. Like, the other day, I thought there was some leftover cheesecake and I really wanted to eat the cheesecake and I thought it was there because the box was still in the fridge, but when I went to get some, the box was empty.” Everyone stares at the Russell in disbelief, nostrils flaring. When it’s Russell’s turn to share, his grievance is at his flatmate’s reluctance to take out the rubbish on a regular basis. I wasn’t sure whether it was a comedy course or couple’s therapy this pair needed.
It quickly became evident that everyone had gone for universal irritations. And therein lies the potential humour. People generally find something funny because there’s a truth in it. Everyone gets pissed off at idiots who don’t know which side of the escalator to stand on and morons who put empty cartons back in the fridge. I clearly did not get the brief. “I hate the way my fiance makes porridge. He never gets it right and it ruins my day.” Blank expressions. Clearly no one relates. Feck. “I also hate Keira Knightley’s chin,” I blurt out, hoping to have touched on a mutual bugbear. Eyes begin to narrow. I’ve just insulted one of England’s finest acting exports. A great start to the class.
We moved on to how to deal with hecklers. Kate says a good way for a comedian to keep control of an audience is through status. If you show the crowd that you’re in charge, you’re less likely to get abuse. You can show status in a number of ways: you can use your height if you have the advantage, or pet names, you can give orders or as a last resort, you can freak people out by doing the “creepy sexual thing”. To practise taking control of a crowd, we were asked to do some improvisation work in pairs. Each person had to try to take the higher status. We only had time to watch two pairs perform so volunteers were required. In order to redeem myself after the last exercise, I stuck my hand up. “Okay,” says Kate. “You’re in the dentist’s, you have 60 seconds, Go!”
“Take your pants off,” the diminutive American girl I’ve been paired with orders me. What?! I was going to go for “Hello, do you have an appointment for a root canal next Tuesday?” What the hell am I meant to say now? While thinking of my next move, I mime removing my trousers. “Open those butt cheeks,” my partner barks at me. “I want to see that wisdom tooth.” She’s giving me orders — she has the control! I grab my generous rump and spread my buttocks apart. Yes, in front of 15 strangers, I am holding my posterior while someone pretends to inspect my cavity. The really tragic part is that I’ve a good five inches on her, yet it’s me who is cowering and exposed.
After what seemed like a lifetime, the 60 seconds was up and the rest of the class had the opportunity to tell me exactly where I went wrong. If I thought this course would be a confidence boost, I was sorely mistaken.
After watching another performance, we had time for a quick round of “Good News, Bad News”. Someone has to give a piece of bad news, for example, “I have alopecia.” The person sitting next to them has to turn this into something positive, such as “I’ve been saving money on shampoo and waxing and can now afford to go to Rio in the summer.” The point is to see how you can turn something uninspiring into a potentially humourous situation. There’s no way I can mess this one up, I thought. My turn comes round. The guy next to me says, “The Euro’s going to fail and we’re all going to lose our jobs. ” Me: “No-one likes the euro anyway.” “Oooh, controversial,” someone says. Really? How is that in any way controversial? I’m no Tory but I thought public opinion was generally in favour of Cameron’s Euro-sceptic stance? Typical, that I should have the misfortune of being surrounded by a group of Lib Dem supporters.
By the end of the class my suspicions that I am not a natural comic were confirmed. But that’s fine. I’ll stick to my forward rolls. When they get old, I might mix things up with a crab walk.
Here’s one last joke for the road, courtesy of my friend Fifi.
What d’ya call a nun giving a clown a piggyback?
Virgin on the ridiculous.
Ha ha ha! Oh, wait a minute. Shouldn’t that be… Ah, bugger.