The serious business of comedy training
Can you learn to be funny? Maybe not, but courses, workshops and drama schools can teach prospective comedians how to hone their craft. John Byrne talks to tutors helping comic hopefuls learn the tricks of the trade and how to engage an audience
The phrase “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” has been attributed to many comic actors over the years, but is most widely believed to have been the last words of Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean.
Comedy, particularly stand-up, is still an art form that even experienced performers associate with dying – if not in the literal sense, then in the almost-fatal silence when the jokes just don’t work. Fortunately for those who would like to broaden their range of performance skills, or even try their luck on the live comedy circuit, there are a wide range of comedy training opportunities available.
“Historically, learning to act has often focused on either the psychology or the physiology of the actor, training voice and body to iron out the quirks so as to create ‘neutrality’,” says Oliver Double, comedy lecturer at the University of Kent.
“Learning to be a stand-up starts with recognising that those quirks are valuable and don’t need ironing out. Crucially, whereas actor training is mostly done in the studio, learning to be a stand-up necessarily means getting in front of an audience. You can’t really learn without learning how audiences work, and how you relate to them.”
Any individual or institution that sets out to teach comedy leaves itself open to the heckle that “you can’t learn to be funny”. With more than 20 years’ experience running The Comedy School, Keith Palmer doesn’t disagree, but points out that this is not necessarily what good comedy training is about. “We make it clear from the first session that we cannot teach you how to be funny – however, we can show you the techniques comedians use to engage with audiences and hopefully make them laugh.”
For anybody serious about creating that laughter, here are a just a few of the training options available.
Drama schools and university courses
Topics such as Restoration comedy or commedia dell’arte are often covered in drama courses, but those who wish to focus specifically on comedy may wish to consider dedicated courses offered by several third-level institutions around the country. Peter Kay studied on a vocational programme at Salford University. Richard Talbot, course leader of Salford’s current BA (hons) in comedy, writing and performance, is enthusiastic about maintaining the synergy between comedy and media training.
“It is no coincidence that we are close neighbours with broadcast companies at MediaCityUK, but we are also keen to see students generate their own platforms at local open mic nights at the King’s Arms, or using our camera and editing resources and equipment to create clips for social media, such as Stephen Tries on YouTube.”
Richard Cuming, programme leader for the BA (hons) in comedy at University of Winchester, points out that every course has its own unique components: “At Winchester, students do stand-up, but also improvisation, comic acting, clowning, slapstick and writing, and have a number of options such as puppetry, digital performance and physical theatre to develop their comic and performing skills.” His advice to anyone considering a third-level course is to “investigate and research, ask questions about what is distinctive about the specific course. Most, but not all, of our students are 18 when they start, so for them it is a three-year commitment. Ask yourself whether you have the stamina for this”.
Short courses and workshops
Short courses and workshops include those run by specialist companies to night classes from individual stand-ups and comedy writers at adult education centres.
The Comedy School runs a year-round programme of comedy-related workshops as well as intensive six-week courses that individuals can sign up to in London and Brighton. Prices range from £240 to £265 (concessions are available) culminating in a final showcase at an established comedy club. Laughing Horse Comedy offers two-day intensive courses in London, Edinburgh, Brighton and Manchester, and longer four-week courses offering more tutor time. Course prices start from £99.
London’s City Lit has an established programme of evening courses in stand-up, sketch comedy and comedy writing, with beginners and improvers classes starting at £129.
Laughing Horse’s lead tutor, comedian Jay Sodagar, advises that shopping around is essential when choosing a short course. “I did not come from a drama background but was fascinated by stand-up comedy. In hindsight and being a professional comic now, I realise a lot of the courses I did when I started were useless. They gave misinformation, out-of-touch advice, or just over, over-complicated things (and I use two ‘overs’ deliberately). With the right support people discover their own comedy using their own terminology. Sadly some talented people are given misinformation and stop doing comedy. I was close to quitting myself.”
Some experienced and respected workshop and course teachers such as Jill Edwards and Ivor Dembina (via his Think Before You Laugh site) offer one-to-one coaching. While this can be very effective, it is normally most useful for those who are already gigging and have already developed material to work with.
Although some would doubt comedy can be learned from a book, Logan Murray’s Be a Great Stand Up (Teach Yourself Books) is highly regarded by professionals and students alike. More recently, many online courses have appeared ranging from the video class with Steve Martin offered by Masterclass (£70) to the free online course by comedian John Roy.
Can any of these methods work? Perhaps the punchline should go to Lynne Parker, who has successfully run courses and workshops through Funny Women since 2002. “Over the 15 years since I set up Funny Women, I’ve met quite a few women who have spent a lot of time attending workshops, telling me about how they are going to do comedy, what they are writing and preparing, even coming along to gigs to watch other people perform. What really matters is actually doing it and trying stuff out. I am well known for ‘pushing’ people on stage – usually when I know that’s all it will take to get them started.”
kent.ac.uk, thecomedyschool.com, salford.ac.uk, winchester.ac.uk, laughinghorsecomedy.co.uk, citylit.ac.uk, jill-edwards.co.uk, masterclass.com, thinkbeforeyoulaugh.com, johnroylive.com, funnywomen.com