Week three: Puns rule ok

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Is it wise to second guess what an audience might find funny? That’s what I’ve been doing this week, to a certain extent. I’m find it hard to cut down material – last weekend I had a timed practice reading out the stuff I’ve written and it lasted around nine minutes. The final routine needs to be around five minutes!

I’m having to be ruthless – I’ve cut one slightly dubious gag (I think it’s quite funny but might be seen as being in poor taste so I’m not sure I should run the risk, and I’m not as confident in that joke as I am in others). And I think the section about tea is going to have to go, which is a shame but it was only really staying in before because of the Errol Flynn reference and the pay-off at the end of that segment. It’s probably far too long to be be doing in a set this short, especially when the laughs need to come thick and fast.

I’m worried about whether I have a back-up if it goes wrong. The way I’ve structured the set so far, it has a clear beginning and end and it has to pass through certain points to get to that end, plus there are some clear links between sections. I guess I need to keep paring it down until any wasted words are removed, and provided it doesn’t go too far over things should be ok. Very nervous about the idea of performing, still – I don’t know if I’m going to invite people or not. They will hopefully laugh if they do come, but I also don’t want people I know to see me fail.

Last week’s session was mostly about puns and cliches. I was quite proud of one pun I came up with from the words on the sheet we were given. Epilogue: the last tree in the woods. I wasn’t very good at getting anything out of cliches, but I’ve since written one joke which takes that kind of approach and I don’t think it’s too bad. I wonder if I’ll have room for it. I do love good puns (and some bad ones as well) but the session showed that it’s very easy to get them wrong. Writing them is a skill in itself.

When we were given the option of volunteering to perform last week, I hesitated and ended up missing out. I think it may have been for the best anyway – the material is going through constant re-writes both on paper and in my head, which should hopefully help by the time we reach the end of the course. I still can’t quite imagine performing any of this stuff in front of a live audience though, and I’m not sure how I feel about doing the internet dating stuff in front of people. Mind you, it could feasibly be made up – I don’t think anyone will believe the pirate story!

Getting started: Learning where material can come from

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The second session of the stand-up course was a lot more hands-on, which is how I think it will be from now on. We did a word association game which, shamefully, I got knocked out of very early. We also did a random word generator exercise where we had to pick a word out of a hat and then talk about it for a minute. My word was ‘low’ which was very difficult but I managed to fill the time. I don’t think it was very funny though. It was mostly about depression and David Bowie.

The final exercise was looking at a double page spread from a local newspaper and spotting the things that made us laugh. I had part of the travel section, which again was pretty difficult but was surprised that there were 4 or 5 things which really amused me, because of the associations I made with them. There must be something intrinsically funny about cruises…

All of these tasks were tools to get us coming up with ideas and thinking about what we could write about. I haven’t really had the time to put any of this into practice yet though, and I wonder whether I ever will during the course. I have lots of stuff I want to work on though, and hone, so I don’t think coming up with five minutes of stuff will be a problem. Whether it’s funny is a different matter entirely, though.

James Cook, the course tutor, asked for volunteers to perform their material in front of the group. I didn’t feel I could do it this week, and I’m not sure whether I will next week – I need to feel more prepared than I do now. But I also need to get over that fear of standing in front of people and talking, and doing it sooner rather than later will probably be to my benefit. I think it depends on how I get on with working out some more material over the weekend. I’ve had a few ideas that I’ve been jotting down this week, one routine will last for a little while and was inspired by listening to a Stephen Malkmus song.

This week I’ve been doing field research too, seeing Mark Thomas at the MAC and last night went to Popcorn Comedy where I saw John-Luke Roberts (his non-specific audience insults were fantastic) and Graham Goring (I loved the way he skewered his own nerdish qualities). All very different acts but all enjoyable, and I came away thinking about different bits of their techniques. I think I’m still figuring out what kind of style I want to go for – I’m naturally drawn towards the literate, slightly oddball and aloof style that John-Luke Roberts has, as well as several of my other favourite comics, so that seems a natural way to go. But I think it requires a certain level of skill and experience to pull that off, plus also the time to really work at your jokes. Time isn’t a luxury I have much of right now, so I better get working at it very soon.

I have some material about pirates, tea, internet dating, a couple of laboured puns and a joke which I’m a little unsure as to how it’ll be received (it involves amputees, although it is certainly not a joke at their expense). Is this a sensitive topic? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the evil part of my brain at work. I might try it out on someone or even on the group next week…

Are you sitting comfortably? No? Well, I’ll start anyway…

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The first week of the stand-up comedy course was an interesting evening. I bumped into a familiar face (Tim Wilson, who worked for Business Link back when Cul-de-Sac – my idea for an online West Midlands music magazine – was still in wet ink on the drawing board) and was recognised by course tutor James Cook as the man behind Who’s Laughing Now.

I found the first session quite demanding. There was a lot of admin and getting to know each other, why we were there, and all of that stuff. Plus there was a game to try to come up with jokes involving something in the news (the Beckhams) and a household object (a colander). Obviously this isn’t something that I find very easy as I couldn’t come up with anything in the time allotted (and to be honest I was more interested in grabbing a drink because the room was very warm). I guess this is something I’ll have to work on. James told us the key is to write a list of words and terms that you associate with each and see where there are connections, and that’s where you can make the joke. I’ll have to remember that.

There’s homework to do for Monday – write 3 minutes of material. I still haven’t put anything down in long form, but have been scribbling notes in a pad all week, every time a thought has come to me. I’m still at a stage where I don’t really have confidence that these ideas are a) genuinely original or b) funny but that might get better with time. I need to spend some time tomorrow hammering some of these ideas into shape and seeing what I can do with them.I think there might be a little bit of half-decent stuff in there but it needs time, skill and creative thinking to hone them so that they do the necessary work.

I think I’m still trying to find my voice, or the kind of comedy I would like to write and perform myself. I like so many different types of comedy from the perspective of a fan and also a critic, but knowing what suits your own voice seems harder to come by especially when there are so many things you’d like to be able to do. So far I’ve written a few pun-based jokes, which may or may not be very funny, came up with a great idea for a joke and then found that it had been told several times before (curses!), and jotted down a few observations and notes about things which are personal to me and that I know about.

I think it’s the latter that I’d be most comfortable with, ironically, despite my lack of stage experience and not really enjoying talking about very personal things to strangers, but it feels most natural so far. What I’ve found more difficult is hitting the jokes in those subject areas, and I suppose this will take more work during the course. As someone who doesn’t feel naturally funny, I don’t want any of my material to feel too forced, but at the same time I’d like to have written a few more jokes by this point. With having a day job, other freelance work to do and trying to squeeze in ‘life’ stuff too (not to mention needing to overcome the tiredness from commuting), I haven’t been able to devote as much time as I’d like to this yet.

I’m not looking forward to performing any of this material in front of the class just yet, as I think I need to build up to that. I think it’s going to require spending more time per week writing, practicing and remembering material if I’m going to feel able to go on a stage on April 2nd as part of the showcase, but that’s the goal. Ultimately, the two things I want to get out of the course are a) greater self-confidence and self-worth and b) good habits of writing regularly, as fiction and scripts are the main goals for the future. It’s going to be a long road to achieve both/either!

Having reviewed several stand-up comedians in the past (albeit none of them very harshly), I hope this course will give me a better insight and appreciation of the type of mentality and personality it takes to get up on stage and be funny. And this is a lesson that’s only just begun…