WHAT happens when you put a football writer on stage with a microphone, a handful of cue cards and a few dodgy jokes? Marc Iles finds out whether comedy can be taught — or whether he has missed the punch-line completely.
YOU know that feeling when you’re standing in a blinding spotlight, sweating profusely, and a room of people has fallen deathly silent in the expectation that you will be funny? Well I do.
Stand-up comedy had felt like a good idea. I could quip; my Facebook statuses were seldom left “unliked”, but as the dozen faces stared back blankly, waiting for me to start my act, I suddenly felt like the least amusing person walking the face of the planet.
Two consecutive days of intensive work had boiled down my inner-most musings into a basic five-minute routine. I opened my mouth and, thankfully, words came out. Miraculously, some of them even got laughs.
How did someone who usually spends his every waking hour writing about the often-less-than-jolly world of Bolton Wanderers Football Club find himself in such a predicament, you might ask? Well, I blame a Laughing Horse.
My alter-ego, the non-footballing one, has been attempting to write gags for other people to perform for a couple of years now, with mixed success.
Doing my own material involved a bit too much of a leap, being as I have just hurtled past my 35th birthday, replete with its trimmings — a mortgage, wife, two children, a demanding job and a bad knee.
Stand-ups don’t look like me, anyway. I look like Grant Mitchell has eaten Phil Mitchell, or an over-inflated Jean-Luc Picard. I am the bloke at the bar ordering the pork scratchings.
But a few weeks ago I got an opportunity to leave my comfort zone in the shape of an intensive comedy course, run for the past eight years by Laughing Horse in Manchester (well, Salford), Brighton, London and Edinburgh. And, hand on heart, taking up the offer was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Marshalled by two working comics with vast experience of the Fringe and beyond, Lewis Bryan and Ian Fox, this was the most fun I have had in a pub without having a beer in my hand.
Set in an atypical compact Manchester comedy venue, The King’s Arms, just across from Salford Central train station, the theory part was spread over two afternoons, with the aim of performing your bit on the last night.
The instantly likeable Lewis put the class of eight wannabes straight into action.
Within 10 minutes of sitting down, I was standing back up again in front of the room and being told to talk about myself for three minutes — luckily, I am one of my favourite subjects.
Much more improvisation followed, and by the end of day one, confidence levels sky-high, I was convinced an agent would be standing waiting for me the next day begging to sign a DVD deal and a stadium tour.
I was set homework for the first time since I left university 14 years ago. The task was simple — write a routine over three pages of A4, roughly five minutes, by using some of the techniques discussed on the day.
By 3am the next day my wife finally got tired of me leaping out of bed to scribble down another joke on my notepad and asked me to sleep in the spare room. The whole world’s a critic.
I arrived for the second part of the course, sleep-deprived but in good spirits, to find out that this stand-up malarkey was nowhere near as easy as I had thought.
The group was split in two, leaving my half with the effortlessly cool Ian, a superb local comic who, it turns out, I have actually paid to see before.
After a few theory pointers we ran carefully through our embryonic routines.
Brandishing his comedic scythe, Ian left us in no doubt that our scripts needed some tightening.
Now, I have had plenty of words chopped out of my stories — believe me — but rarely has an extreme editing left me in quite so much panic.
It wasn’t done in an ‘I know more than you’ way. In fact, we had great fun batting ideas around the room on how we could make each other’s dialogue funnier.
All of a sudden, though, the clock on the wall seemed more noticeable. The hours were ticking down to showtime and I needed to get my act together, literally.
The next few hours were a blur — spent scribbling out superfluous words on bright orange cue cards and trying to write reminders in black biro on my forearm.
The running order was announced. Lewis would be the night’s compère, Ian would be headline act.
Then came the news I feared most . . . I was first up.
How did Fergie describe it? Squeaky-bum time, that’s right.
Thank heavens for compères. By the time I emerged from the shadows of the room into the spotlight, Lewis had made sure the crowd had warmed up their laughter muscles.
And because of Ian’s earlier help, my still-flabby and strung-out routine at least got sufficient giggles to stop me running for the exit door.
One by one the students did their bit, and I only hope my stuff was half as funny as theirs seemed once I had taken a seat and unclenched, beer in hand this time.
Of course, Ian aced it at the end, emphasising that while many of us had taken big steps — there was still a gigantic yawning chasm to bridge before we could considering rubbing shoulders with the pros.
But I would be lying if I said that I had not got the comedy bug now. I do not think Peter Kay, Dave Spikey or Paddy McGuinness need be too concerned about the newcomer to the Bolton comedy scene, but at least I now feel able to give it a whirl.
Watch out for a bald-headed, overweight trainee comic coming your way.
- For more information about courses, shows or events visit laughinghorsecomedy.co.uk or follow @lhcomedy on Twitter.