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Stand Up Comedy, can it be taught ? by Ariana Peerez and Jay Sodagar (I've been on one of Jay's courses)
Watching Russell Howard on telly makes stand-up comedy look naturally effortless. It’s granted we’ve all told jokes. But not everyone knows how to tell a joke in front of a crowd. For those whose jokes always seem to miss the punch line, can comedy be taught? According to Jay Sodagar, a comedy tutor and full time stand up comic with over 18 years experience, the answer is a simple yes. ‘A lot of people have this concept that you either have it or don’t have it,’ he says. ‘To be perfectly honest, everyone has it.’ Jay says comedy can simply be regarded like any other subject, all that is required is to learn the ‘sequence or a pattern’. Everyone is predisposed with a sense of humour; the key is how each individual puts it into use to connect with the audience in front of them. ‘Some people who have been termed as naturally funny, what they have really done is that they have learned a social skill, a social pattern,’ explains Jay. ‘When you see a professional comic on stage, what you are really seeing is them learning how to connect with an audience and that’s by understanding group mentalities and dynamics. It’s all very psychological.’It is similar to learning how to read, continues Jay. From a young age, children learn what a shape of an ‘a’ looks like and attach value to it, later learning the phonetics. A comedian, like a child, deciphers the best approach to connect with their audience and works with the reaction received to make the comedy they are presenting successful. ‘Once people get to grips with it, comedy becomes a lot easier,’ says Jay. Being a good comedian also depends on your performance and material. Jay argues that a comedian can go on stage and have written the best material in the history of comedy, but that doesn’t mean much in terms of their performance. Unless you are performing in a way that you bring your audience to your material, or adapt your material to the audience, the connection could easily be lost. This relationship between audiences and stand-up comedians has long been considered the most important factor that has kept comedy growing throughout the years. Stand- up comedy is not something new in the UK, it goes back to the 17th century. Restoration period comedies in the 1660s were popular for their sexual explicitness, an element encouraged by Charles II. By the Victorian era music halls were full of comedy stars such as Joseph Grimaldi and Dan Leno.
At the end of the Second World War, many soldiers who took part in stand-up comedy during wartime concert parties sought a career as comedians afterwards. Comedians like Eric Sykes and Peter Sellers all began their career this way. The post war rise of comedian stars also concurred with the rise of TV and radio – The Goons Show being the best example. According to Keith Palmer, Director at the Comedy School, the current presence of media has been one of the biggest reasons comedy has become so prominent in the UK today. ‘Media has made comedians a commodity,’ explains Keith. ‘You just have to turn on the TV and you can see a comedian, it has been made popular.’ However, unlike Jay, stand-up comedian Jenny Collier says comedy overall is subjective. ‘Something that I might find hilarious, someone else might think it’s not funny,’ she explains. While Jay believes comedy can be taught over time, Jenny argues it’s more of a natural talent. ‘You can always teach how to get in front of an audience, how to be confident, how to talk to people and the technical things. But it’s hard to say whether you can teach comedy.’
Jenny has established a unique voice on the comedy circuit with her fast-paced wit and edgy persona. After her first successful gig three years ago, she decided to take up on comedy as a career. Since then, she has been gigging consistently and has been heard on BBC Radio 4 Extra and BBC Wales. ‘I thought of doing a comedy course because it would probably help, but I got part of my style now and I know what I am doing.’
As a result of its increasing popularity, several universities throughout the country, including Brunel and Canterbury University, are offering courses to teach comedy as a career. Though teaching it is not new, formally teaching it to students as a profession opens a new door into the world of stand-up comedy. Once regarded as just a hobby, stand-up comedy is becoming a professional form of art. Dr Oliver Double, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Head of The School of Arts at Kent University, says in the UK comedy is thought of as a separate part of theatre. ‘One hundred years ago, the idea of teaching theatre would be way out and ridiculous,’ comments Dr Oliver. ‘Comedy is now one of the most popular forms of theatre that exists in the UK. Think of Michael McIntyre at the O2 Arena, about 15,000 people appear per show to see one comedian. Why wouldn’t you want to learn about that?’ According to Dr Oliver, the courses are a practical way of engaging with comedy. As a lecturer, he believes the experience supports students’ understanding of the art of being funny.
Aside from the academic practice, various courses around the country are also available to aspiring stand-up comedians. All of which, according to beginner comedian Fraser Wilson who attended a Logan Murray course over summer, can help amateur stand-ups benefit in more than just one way. ‘After taking the course I stopped taking things too seriously,’ he laughs.
But for Fraser, like for many others, learning comedy isn’t just about becoming the next Russell Howard, but rather doing it for the love of it. ‘When you go to a comedy course, you’re basically learning how to be a child again. I think you start feeling better about yourself because people start to laugh more and you notice you start to laugh more, I made myself slightly happier as a person.
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