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GAGGING FOR IT

Eveing Standard 16th Feb

With demand for stand-up classes booming across London, Nirpal Dhaliwal puts his own funny bones to the test... The capital is seeing an explosion of comedy courses. Inspired by an avalanche of acts appearing on television and in clubs throughout the city, Londoners are taking to the spotlight to pursue their dreams of being a comedian. And I'm just one of them. For the past three weeks, I have attended an intensive three-hour evening class taught by Harry Denford at the London Theatre in New Cross. A larger-than-life professional comic, this ex-airline pilot tours the circuit performing as a gold-chained, potty-mouthed, south London chav. He also runs a class at the London Comedy Course - one of the most established schools in the country. In fact, classes are so popular I could only get on a specially arranged midweek course set up to cater for excess demand. But while I've long fantasised about being a stand-up, the transition from being quick-witted among friends to performing in front of strangers still daunted me. My fellow students had enrolled for all sorts of reasons. Kate and Steve, two middle-aged City professionals, wanted to challenge themselves. "I want to feel scared and have fun," said Kate, who runs management training courses. Matt, an unemployed, recovering alcoholic, was doing it as a last hurrah, "in case the prophecy about the world ending in 2012 is true". Later on, he confessed that comedy was an opportunity for him to make something constructive of his experience, rather than simply writing off those lost years as a complete waste. The mechanics of comedy are intriguing. The first class taught us to walk on stage, take a microphone from its stand and greet the audience - much more complicated than it sounds. Just doing this before a handful of other pupils was unnerving - it took us all almost two hours to get it right. For the untrained, the merest hint of public attention is enough to make them fumble and make a fool of themselves. Harry also taught us that the standard introductions, two-syllable greetings - 'Hello' or 'Evening' - will always elicit an identical response, while anything more will engender silence. Stand-up suicide. The knack is to keep the audience with you. "They're like sheep," said Harry. To prove this, he taught us to leave the stage after a stinking performance in a way that reaps some applause, and salvages dignity. Loudly thanking the audience for being wonderful, raising an arm and proudly declaring "Goodnight!" will get you just enough of a polite handclap to stave off any recourse to pills and a bottle of scotch in the dressing room. Comedy, you quickly discover, is the science of psychological survival. We analysed the structure of a joke, learning what its essential bits were. We also gave our honest first impressions of each other. Everyone agreed that my colour, beard and on-stage reserve were my most prominent features. These then became the basis of the act I was to write for and perform in our graduation ceremony, before an audience of our friends and families. Harry told us to make fun of ourselves first; we could then move on to other topics. He himself is overweight, so making a fat gag will deal with the obvious straightaway and pull the rug from under potential hecklers. For my routine, I decided to kill all three birds with one joke. My opening lines were: "People say I look shy. But that's just because I'm scared of white people … When I was little, you lot used to beat me up. But now that I've got a beard, you're scared of me." Hearing the laughter of the students, I felt the addictive tingle, the abusive, anonymous love of the mob that keeps a comic coming back for more. We also practised improvisation. Harry asked me to riff on why England fans shouldn't wave the English flag, given that St George was, in fact, Turkish. I heard the laughter once more and felt again the near-erotic thrill that compels a comic. I was hooked. Harry added more tricks of the trade to our repertoire, schooling us in how to deal with a difficult audience. Although a comic must command his audience without attacking them, when he does he must be merciless. "Always assume," said Harry, "that every club you're in has one bloke at the back who's off his head on cocaine." Acts have to be constructed to minimise the possibility of someone intruding into your routine - never ask an open question of the audience. Finally, last week, I was ready to perform my set, along with other graduates. Luckily, my girlfriend was encouraging, as were my classmates. So much so that I've already written new material and want to try it out on the capital's burgeoning open-mic circuit. This might lead to more funny times ahead or, indeed, a brick wall of dejection. But I'm prepared.

So how hard is it to be a stand-up comedian?
As comedians converge on Edinburgh, Tanya Gold joins them on stage in her comedy debut

It is a common fantasy that anyone with a mouth can be a stand-up comedian. And so, every summer, hundreds of young men – and, if they have peculiar courage, women – head to the Edinburgh Festival hoping to make laughter-millions like Michael McIntyre, the comedy multi-millionaire. I can understand that. I made a joke about ducks in 1994 that thrilled everyone. I could easily be a stand-up comedian. If only I could be bothered.


So when I am asked if I would like to do stand-up for one night, I say, hell yeah, when am I on, baby? In Edinburgh, I’m told. Tonight at 10pm at the Counting House. What to do at such short notice? I telephone Harry Denford at the London Comedy Course because, although I am obviously very funny, I might need a little editing. Harry is a professional stand-up with a very funny act about a fat London geezer who keeps fluffy dice on his light-aircraft’s window.


The training centre is in New Cross and Harry is dressed in white, like a prophet from a religious sect.. I so am certain that I am inherently hilarious that for the first hour I don’t let him speak. I tell him I am afraid of squirrels. He doesn’t think this is funny. I am so badly bitten by mosquitoes, I add, that I’m considering opening a restaurant on my leg. He doesn’t think this is funny either. I say that if you are bored in the supermarket, you should shop in the style of Anton Chekhov: “There is no cheese. There has been no cheese since Father died.” He doesn’t think this is funny either.


Eventually, he makes me stand by the microphone and just talk, without thinking. This reminds me that I have always considered comedy psychoanalysis for people who don’t want to get better. “Tell me about Telegraph readers,” he says: “What are they like?” They like golf. And gardening. And hoes. “Well let’s do chavs,” he says, “Why don’t chavs buy the Telegraph?” I can’t say, I reply, because I don’t use the term “chav”. It is denigrating to the working classes. Harry looks at me as if I am a moron, sitting on my moron’s throne.


Describe yourself, he says; we might get something funny. I describe my feet, then my knees, and so on, up to my head. The only bit I really remember is calling my stomach “a rest home for stretch-marks.” “You’ve left something out,” he says. And I realise he’s right. It’s the voice. I have forgotten my stupid voice, the one that cost my father a quarter of a million pounds. “You have to be a whore,” Harry says, “a comedy whore.” I must mock myself for laughs. So my routine will be about being middle-class and having a stupid voice. I will be the Martin Luther King of Received Pronunciation.


I tell him what middle-class people love – bedding, John Lewis, Radio 4, dentistry, Waitrose. When he thinks something is funny, he makes a note and we go to the computer and write the script. Brevity, he insists, is vital. If I am succinct, he says, he can get me four laughs a page.


I fly to Edinburgh, watching the sweat leak on to my script. At 10pm I am outside the Counting House, talking to Bruce Fummey, who has given me a slot in his one-hour show Nothing In Particular. He is big and jolly, drinking a pint, trying to drum up business. “Just enjoy it,” he says, like a man talking to a burns victim.


Upstairs I sit in the first row, very primly. It’s a typical Edinburgh comedy club – small stage, strange smell. Perhaps 40 people walk in, mostly male, mostly with beards. Bruce begins. He is a big fat Scotsman and his routine is, basically, to suggest that all the other big fat Scotsmen in the audience are gay. They love it. I can’t remember my first line. I keep opening my bag and looking at it. Eventually I write it on my hand. Then I write the rest of my script on my hand.


Twenty minutes later, I am on. I have begged Bruce not to introduce me as a journalist, because I think if he does they will hate me: “And here, for one night only, is Adolf Eichmann, with some jokes about 'chavs’!” He drums up a big ovation and begs them to be kind to me. I wish he wouldn’t; it feels like my mother is introducing me. I go on, looking hostile. I take the microphone from the stand, as instructed, and face the audience. My only comfort is it will be over in four minutes. “Hello,” I scream, like a malfunctioning, middle-class robot, and read the prepared first line from my hand.


“You might have assumptions about me because of the way I look,” I say, gesturing at my large hips. I sense I look mad. I can feel my eyes bulging like traffic lights and my RP is zooming all over the room like a bat trying to get out. “I admit it. Men won’t have sex with me. Girls won’t hang out with me. But I am not ashamed. I will come out and say it now in front of everyone. I’m proud.” I pause for the beat and gesture again at my hips. “I’m middle class!”


They laugh, as Harry said they would. "My dad is a dentist", I add, and they laugh again. I suppose there is something inherently hilarious about dentists, unless you live with one. “My Dad used to come home covered in blood,” I say. “My mother thought he was the Yorkshire Ripper. Except we lived in Surbiton.”


"What", I add, "is the most middle-class thing ever invented? It’s swinging, ladies and gentlemen. In Waitrose. Near the basil.

SOUTH LONDON PRESS ARTICAL