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."