`Being funny is like being gay. It's hard to admit to, people think it's odd. You're born that way'

The frail, slightly stooped, silver-haired lady turns away from the reversible, flat-weave rugs on the wall to shake her tiny fist at the ceiling. "That noise is breaking my concentration," she complains. "All that clapping and loud laughter. Just what is going on up there?"

Throughout the morning, the seven Jack Dee wannabes in the upstairs room of Colchester's Minories Art Gallery have been asking themselves the same question. Although the promotional leaflet promised a two-day comedy workshop on "writing material, delivery, dealing with hecklers and breaking into the circuit", they seem to have ended up in a Jerry Springer Show encounter group run by Steve Berkoff's nastier brother. Or as Tim, a chain-smoking, jobless alcoholic from Essex mutters into his Cronenberg at lunchtime: "Instead of learning `ow to do jokes we've `ad this little geezer who looks like Woody Allen `aving a pop at us."

Course tutor Ivor Dembina, the geezer in question, is not into "bollocky stage-craft. Neither is he here to "look after your egos". It isn't even entirely clear whether he's that interested in them being funny.

"Truth?" he thunders. "This is what we are here for - the truth about you!" Tim squeezes the cigarette Ivor has told him not to light up and looks down at the floor. "If you're shit, I'll say so. In an hour's time, you'll be thinking: `Who is this bastard? I've never heard of him.' But you've got to keep going after I've told you in front of other people you're a pile of shit. Whatever you do, finish the course."

The only student not to finish the course will be David Judge, a 59-year- old after-dinner speaker who bravely admits to hero-worshipping Tom O'Connor and disliking alternative comedy. His carefully worked-out catchphrase, "Here comes the judge, here comes the judge", is met by stony silence. Ivor has asked everyone to be interesting for one minute, but David's homily about Colchester - "the centre of the universe" - falls flat. "Sure you're proud of it, but someone from Belsen's proud of living in Belsen. I don't want cliches and platitudes - it's all bollocks." David says he was expecting tips for after-dinner speaking. "Who is this chap anyway? I've never heard of him."

All the others, however, agree it will be worth baring their souls and being ridiculed in front of a bunch of strangers if, at the end of the ordeal, they can jump on to a stage, grab a mike and shout "Hello, Colchester, how you doing?" But first they must expose their dark side to Ivor. "Everyone's got shit in their lives. The secret that you are most debating whether to reveal - say it."

Almost immediately, a middle-aged solicitor called Peter is inspired to bounce up and tell us about his life in the legal profession. One of his clients, a serial flasher, was thinking of retiring but decided "to stick it out for another year". Ivor frowns - he wants his angst, not cheap gags. "You are a cheat, Peter. You cheated by telling that joke. What did that tell us about you? Nothing. Next."

Rob, a student, confesses to lying to his parents and being shiftless. "Better," says Ivor. John, a local journalist, spills the beans about his depression, protruding forehead and lack of success with women. "Good stuff." When Laurence opens up his heart about his "shitty life", the group whoops and hollers. But Andrea's story about serving divorce papers on her husband 15 minutes after he discovered his leukaemia produces a long, uneasy silence, eventually broken by Ivor pronouncing: "There's a joke in there somewhere."

Never mind the new rock 'n' roll; comedy is the new Alcoholics Anonymous. Tim, the last to bear witness, ambles forward and mumbles: "I can't believe I'm going to tell you this." Ivor tells him to speak up. "Look, he's holding on to his fags and won't look at a few middle-class wimps." As resident compere at Hampstead Comedy Club, Ivor knows what he's talking about.

There's not a dry eye in the art gallery after Tim his finished telling us about the collapse of his business, the break-up of his family and the descent into alcoholism. "I was in the gutter, gospel truth." A star is born; he's suffered for his comedy, now it's his audience's turn.

It may be cathartic, but is it funny? At the end of the course, Ivor chants the course mantra: Who Am I? Why Am I Here? What Can I Tell You? "You've got to be conscious of who you are and what you're doing with your life." But why should this make people laugh? "I don't know, but it does. You'll see when they do their five-minute spots at the arts centre tonight."

Sure enough, the small gathering of 50, mostly performers' family and friends, guffaws at every confession and chuckles at every epiphany. Pete acknowledges his public life as a sham, a "pile of shit". Rob admits to being a liar. Laurence is not saying he's depressed, but Leonard Cohen has all his records - boom boom! John reveals he's out of counselling and just glad to be alive. But Tim dries up half-way, after making a clumsy "comedy pass" at a young girl in the front row.

Andrea is the biggest surprise, coming out as a lesbian. "I didn't know she was gay," smiles Ivor afterwards. "Amazing, isn't it? In a way, I think being funny is like being a homosexual. It's hard to admit, especially to yourself, that you're a funny person. You're just born that way, people think you're odd. Hopefully, I've helped six comedians come out of the closet this weekend."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.


ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

    £37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

    Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

    £25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

    Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

    £16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

    Day In a Page

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea