The mission: Quentin Fottrell dusts down a few jokes and tries his luck - and his audience's patience - as a stand-up comic
Saturday 13 February 1999
Tough Love is my secret name for the tutor. He says, "If you're afraid of making a fool out of yourself, don't do stand-up comedy." Tough Love asks me to prepare a story to entertain the rest of the class. I make a few cracks about my weekend. The only laughter heard is mine. Well, if I didn't think I was rib-cracking hilarious, would I be doing this? Members of my "audience", however, feign a smile through gritted teeth.
By the second week, Tough Love wants to see some routines. My adrenaline pumps. My legs wobble. I avoid discussing kebabs and cult television, which is a comedy minefield. I talk about losing my virginity in Catholic Ireland - "It got so rough, I tore his cassock" - and my current lack of success in relationships - "I'm not telling you the last time I went to the movies on a date. Suffice to say the movie I saw is now a classic, despite the fact that it's been colourised."
Tough Love takes notes. He teaches the class to analyse and dissect jokes. We must take the truth - stretch it, mold it and beat it into submission. The magic surrounding comedy slowly disappears. Thankfully, the dream of making oodles of money like Eddie Izzard or Jerry Seinfeld remains.
Halfway through the course, Tough Love takes a week off and is replaced by a female comedian. She - I have come to know her as Mother Courage - takes a more nurturing approach.
I take advantage of Tough Love's absence to recycle some older material for Mother Courage. My routine begins with the difficulties of father- son bonding: "Suspecting my interest in girls was non-existent my father asked me if I'd lost my virginity. `Course I have,' I told him. `Loads of times.' Lying was a big mistake. When I was 15, he bought me a Meccano set and I built a shopping mall. When I was 18 and could legally drink, he came home with a bottle of liquor and I baked a bourbon souffle" And so I go on.
Finally, I hear titters. I embrace them. I will take them to my grave. They were worth waiting for. As I leave the class, Mother Courage stops me: "I forgot to mention earlier that I really liked your whole camp persona. It really works." I smile gratefully and thank her, not having the slightest idea what she's talking about.
As my confidence increases, the amount of time I put into my routine decreases. Eventually, I arrive at the class with a stack of scrawled notes. How bad could it be? I am greeted by a camera crew from Dutch television who are making a documentary on stand-up comedy. Do I pass up the chance to be a TV star in Holland or - notes in hand - bumble through my routine? I choose the latter. As I nervously read out my jokes, I accidentally mix up the pages. My humiliation makes great TV. In journalist lingo, I am what's known as a nugget.
After the course ends some of my classmates sign up for open mic spots in London pubs. Preferring anonymity, I take advantage of a pre-planned visit to New York, where I try my luck at a friend's bar. I throw the throng a real old chestnut to get the ball rolling: "I just flew in from London and my arms are killing me!" I look out on an arms- folded, stoney-faced sea of silence. I feel that stinging sensation again. I tap the microphone, "Is this thing on?" The city that never sleeps just took 40 winks.
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