He tells us about his journey to tonight's meeting in a softly spoken, barely audible voice. He gets louder as he explains his trip, his tone endearingly steady for someone so nervous. And then he tells a joke about septic piles. It's not that funny, but it's a start. He leaves and we hail him with thunderous applause. Mike has just done his first spot as an aspiring stand-up comic.
Jackson's Lane Community Centre, situated in an old converted church right opposite Highgate Tube in London, has become something of a landmark on the "getting started in comedy" circuit. Jack Dee started here, so did Eddie Izzard. While most professions have some kind of official training ground, or qualifications to get before you go looking for work, stand- up comedy doesn't. For the majority of would-be comics, there's only the mirror, nights out at the pub with your mates, or the nerve-wracking "open spots" on the comedy circuit as preparation for the job.
Most comics start out just dying in dingy pubs to cut their teeth. Which is why the beginners course for stand-up comics at Jackson's Lane is so special. You get to have your first terrifying moments of trying to be funny in front of a crowd of people who want to be comics too. Freak luck.
"Tonight's group will probably reduce to half the size within about two weeks," predicts Charmian Hughes, a stand-up comic herself who has taught at Jackson's Lane for the last four years. "Not everyone wants to be a stand-up comedian; some people want to learn to write comedy, others just want more social confidence. It takes a lot of commitment to keep coming back every week, so only those who really want to do." And really wanting to do it is what she thinks it takes to make it in the stand-up world. "No normal, sane human being would want to go through what stand-up comics put themselves through. You have to be suicidal and masochistic."
The evening started out like something out of a bad comedy skit - French and Saunders doing a piss-take of a homesy, mumsy comedy workshop. A "loosening up" exercise is this evening's ice-breaker. Charmian, pregnant, and in colourful fun-mum spotty sweatshirt and leggings gets everyone to play tag. Except when you tag someone you have to hug them and they then shout out their names and say "I'm shit". I politely get out of the way and observe the oversized rumpus room. Something is working - almost immediately the loudest and the most extrovert seem to get tagged the most and do the most tagging.
Ice broken, the group reforms the semi-circle. There's no softly, softly approach. Tonight, the first class, everyone will have to get up and say something in front of the class, whether it's about their journey in or what they did at the weekend. The mix of people is fascinating. A middle- aged used car salesman in a suit called Floyd, a camp Scotsman who's done lots of clowning called Steve, a big louche man called Nick who's written a few comedy skits for radio, a loud pushy journalist called Gavin, a cook from Hampshire. There are three women, Sharon, Helen and Sarah. Sharon, an antiques dealer who lives nearby, hates female comics who swear and confesses to doing Country and Western dancing in her spare time (lots of material there, she says). Helen tells me she wants to do the class to be "more creative" and says all her friends think she's funny.
In fact, who these people are, what they do, and why they're here is the stuff of classic human intrigue. They're Fame movie material.
Everyone wants to know one thing. Are they funny? And if so, how funny? It's one thing making your mates laugh, but it's another standing up in front of strangers trying to control what you're saying and testing out material. It seems to me that there are two things you need to be a stand- up comic, the nerve and the material.
Tonight's class seems to throw up different types of people. Some come on, introduce themselves, manage to get through about two minutes and shuffle off. One or two come on and try to do stand-up immediately. Some have prepared stories, others have jokes and props, some are quiet, some naturally funny. I find watching each person stand up and say their bit completely absorbing. Every one of them has got something, even if it's just a nice face.
One man gets up and says "My name is Bruce and I'm Chinese." This immediately gets a laugh. He then tells a very funny political joke about the Chinese. Floyd, the car salesman gets up, doesn't say anything too funny, but I notice he has amusingly huge flappy hand movements. Another man gets up and introduces himself as OJ Simpson, this falls flat. Another gets up and says, "Bondage ... James Bondage." This doesn't work either.
One man, Mike, says he's so nervous he's forgotten his name. He then talks about buying a new pair of trousers that day and his nerves and intensity provide natural comic tension. He's got it.
Then ... it happens. The big chef from Hampshire gets up and tells the most appallingly un-PC joke about two gay men sucking fruit up each other's bottoms. As he starts this joke he realises he's blundered, but decides not to back down. The chef positively hams the joke up with excruciating facial expressions as he rams the imaginary fruit up his behind. The punchline isn't funny, but his naive audacity is. We laugh. And then ... "Hi, my name's Simon, and as a gay man I'd like to say ... [a long pause] that I found that joke very amusing."
Simon goes on to tell us about a time he and a friend were attacked by a drunken ex-SAS man at a bus stop. He's hilarious, a natural. His story is polished and slick; this man is way funnier than anyone else so far. He's so funny I wonder if he actually already is a stand-up comedian planted in the room as a surprise guest. No. Simon is a radio journalist who's done lots of radio comedy and improvisation. Has he got what it takes? Definitely.
Later in the bar I chat to Simon and Gavin the pushy journalist. They've worked together and have come to the course together. We chat about comedy, about gay jokes, and about how all good comics eventually get lured into TV. We talk about how odd it is to want to be a comic, to think you're funny. Somewhere along the line you have to admit that vanity to yourself. I ask Simon if he thinks he's funny. "Up to a point I try to be modest," he says. "But ultimately, yeah, I do."
8 The next beginners' stand-up comedy course is at Jackson's Lane Arts and Community Centre, 269a Archway Rd, London N6 5AA on 5 March-16 April (7 Tuesday Nights, 8-10pm). It costs pounds 35/ pounds 30 concs (discounts are available for members of the community centre). For further details and bookings, telephone: 0181 340 5226Reuse content