Last weekend, I did something funny. Bizarre, even. I dropped in on a vocational comedy course that teaches people how to make people laugh. The idea of such a course is anathema to some in the comedy world, who believe that you either have it or you don't.
It's worth bearing in mind, though, that comedy-course alumni include Jimmy Carr. The course I visited in north London is led by the circuit veteran Logan Murray, a former sparring partner of Jerry Sadowitz. And among Murray's own protégés are the feted sketch troupe We Are Klang.
The grumpy old man of comedy, Arthur Smith, offered one explanation for this odd turn of events. The veteran comedian remarked on how many young people now aspire to become comics.
That claim is backed up by the wide range of comedy courses now available in the UK, from the new BA degree at Southampton Solent University and modules taught at Kent University by the academic Dr Oliver Double, a former circuit comedian, to the plethora of vocational courses hosted in pub back-rooms all over the country.
Nevertheless, when I once dipped my toe in the murky world of "open spots", the first question I was asked by some promoters was: "You haven't done a comedy course, have you?" in the tone someone would use to ask if you'd passed wind. So, even before the course session got under way, I asked the obvious question: what's the use of a course?
"It minimises the risk of doing a bad first gig," Murray said. "That's something that can mean no one will ever look at you again. Not only that; it's important that fledgling comics have a support group around them at the beginning, and doing a course gives them a chance to swap ideas and experiences with people in the same boat."
There was certainly a feeling of camaraderie during the session, which was visited by the godfather of alternative comedy, Tony Allen. We were put through our paces with improv games and word games that included putting a comic spin on proverbs and advertising slogans. I'd forgotten that thinking on your feet this way could be so tiring.
It's this spontaneity that attracted the punters to the course. Many of them had signed up simply to get out of their "comfort zone". Initially, at least, many had no intention of gigging. It's often a different story after the adrenalin has kicked in a few times, though, and comedy addiction begins to set in.
The thrill of making others laugh has prompted increasing numbers of new comics to set up their own club nights, guaranteeing them stage time and the chance to get other new comics on the bill, including some better-known acts if the organisers have the contacts.
The idea of setting up your own club is not new. Eddie Izzard is among those who did it in the 1980s, when the problem was that there were too few open spots on a circuit just beginning to grow. Now, the problem comedians face is too many other comics, and the difficulty of getting open spots in established clubs where fears about quality control have led some promoters to demand that performers have already notched up 20 gigs. One notable exception is the Comedy Store's infamous King Gong show, but it's still tough - although plenty do manage to jump this hurdle and live (or die, at least on stage) to tell the tale.
While the establishment of club nights hosted by and for new comics is a sign of the camaraderie and innovation of the comedy circuit, it can lead to what I call "tumbleweed syndrome"; slogging away at gigs where your only audience is eight other hungry comedians. As Steve Bennett, the man behind the comedy website Chortle, says, these nights "can lead to disappointed audiences thinking that that's the standard of all stand-up clubs".
The trend behind all this is, of course, that customer choice has expanded with a steady growth of comedy clubs - big and small - since the "alternative" comedy boom of the 1980s and 1990s. In the same period, in contrast, US stand-up comedy went through boom and then bust.
The UK expansion was at first confined to London, but by the early to mid-1990s, scenes were developing in the major towns of the Midlands and in Manchester and Sheffield. Now, you can find a good laugh even in small towns like Bury St Edmunds - hard to believe, I know, but it's true. The number of regional comedy festivals (including Newbury, no less) has also grown. It's telling that these festivals often rely on the clubs already in the area or on big-name tours passing through. However, not having to make an extra effort means that no festival buzz comes close to the Edinburgh Fringe festival - the mother of all comedy jamborees.
Of course, everybody knows that bigger isn't always better. Often the subject of this criticism is comedy's very own chain, Jongleurs, attacked for its "Eat, drink, laugh and dance" ethos and accused of skewed priorities. No one doubts the part the original Jongleurs in Battersea (opened in 1983) played in nurturing talent (Jack Dee, Paul Merton, Frank Skinner and Robert Newman are just a handful of alumni), but its spreading of the comedy gospel has reached stagnation, catering for the "chicken in a basket" stag and hen market. Bennett charges Jongleurs with "booking the same comics for years, all too often with the same material as when they started".
Wherever you drink from comedy's cup, the audience has to accept that a mixed bill is exactly that; for every decent comedian there are plenty of bad ones and even more average ones. I feel that watching comedy, particularly stand-up, is like being a football fan - you have to watch a fair few 0-0 bore draws before you see the 5-4 thriller or 8-0 killer, but when you do you remember it for a long time.
Despite my own preferences, I do sympathise with those who use the phrase "the jackboot of stand-up", referring to a production line of comedians talking about the same things, telling pretty much the same jokes and pushing more unusual acts to the sidelines. In the Eighties, the circuit had many eccentric cabaret characters such as Chris Lynam (he of the firework up his bottom), the clown Andrew Bailey and the prop comedian Martin Soan, who came to prominence with The Greatest Show On Legs, a nude balloon act with Malcolm Hardee.
Both Edinburgh and the national circuit are still dominated by stand-up, but lately there has been something of a resurgence in both character comedy and sketch comedy, and in club nights to house them. In Edinburgh, the success of the "alcoholic children's entertainer" Jeremy Lion, the alter ego of Justin Edwards, is a great example of retro comedy chic (think Hi-De-Hi! but funnier) and a fine exponent of musical comedy to boot. So, too, is the Eighties musical parodist Gary Le Strange.
Meanwhile, the transfers to television of Little Britain, Catherine Tate and Mitchell and Webb have to some degree revived interest in sketch comedy on the live scene. And if you want an act who can mix character, stand-up and sketch, look no further than The Mighty Boosh, whose fey tomfoolery (well, apart from the bit about the randy rabbit) has won them cult status. They have also proved that the double act is not dead. Even with two BBC2 series behind them and a * * major tour, the Boosh boys have not been too quick to desert the smaller clubs. One of the duo, Noel Fielding, appeared at Robin Ince's celebrated Book Club night in London not too long ago.
Ince was once Ricky Gervais's support act, but his renown in the comedy world now rests with the Book Club. It houses all sorts of cabaret acts from the Goodies-esque group The Trap to the character act DJ Danny (teacher by day, superstar of the turntable by night) to the whimsical stand-up of the Edinburgh newcomer winner Josie Long, who jokes in her act that audiences tell her she's doing stand-up all wrong when in fact she's just doing it differently and to great effect. Few comedians could show you an infantile drawing of two bus drivers talking to each other and make it funny.
A more quirky take on club events is a new night called Club Black Sheep, hosted by the duo Ciaran Murtagh and Andrew Jones, who have created a number of delightfully silly comedy plays between them. Among the acts for their inaugural show was Alex Horne, whose comedy mirrors the research-based antics of Dave Gorman. Horne has done a show devoted entirely to body language and a "choose your own adventure"-style romp based on Latin. He shared the bill with a balloon-modeller and a poet trombonist; it's the kind of mix the hosts rightly describe as "unexpected".
"We're trying to bring acts together that wouldn't normally share a bill," Murtagh explains. "It's a contemporary twist on an old idea that harks back to the days of music hall and variety. The strange thing is that, somewhere along the line, what was once populist and mainstream has become underground and cult-ish. Performers of whatever discipline can learn a lot from each other, but comedians have their own clubs, cabaret artistes have theirs and singers have theirs. We want to break down barriers."
So it's a diverse universe, this comedy malarkey. Like Big Bang theory, it looks as if things are only going to carry on expanding. They only do that when there's a space to fill, and clearly the range of tastes to be catered for is as wide as ever. That's a trend mirrored in the music industry, where you can't keep a "mania" about one band or artist going for longer than five minutes, and in cinema, where there are so many ways to make a successful film that don't involve adhering to a classic Hollywood format.
Our current comedic predilections run the gamut, from the (rather old-fashioned at times) Little Britain, which shows we still carry a place in our hearts for the more theatrical and the macabre, to the enduring popularity of The League of Gentlemen, which inspired the recent BBC3 show Live! Girls! Present Dogtown. Then there's the more gentle teasing (by comparison) of Gervais and his bloke-down-the-pub persona in The Office and Extras, and the banter between Jack Dee and Sean Power in Lead Balloon. It's pick-and-mix out there, although TV programme-makers have approached comedy more like the magazine rack in a newsagents than the sweet counter by formulating themed shows such as the Channel 4 sketch show Spoons, and before that the girl-poweredSmack the Pony.
The trade between live and television tastes means, inevitably, that the circuit is changing. "Comedy is splintering in many different directions now. Who knows where to go?" Ince says. "We need more clubs that represent what I think of as the 'indie' scene of comedy; but who knows, it could be gang warfare before long." If it does come to that, one imagines that the battle will largely consist merely of punchlines and witty ripostes... But, joking apart, competition in this business can be cut-throat. Each comedian is their own small business, and they must learn to market themselves or at least manage their own fame.
But herein lies the beauty of comedy. Its fame levels are many and varied and - unlike most actors, it seems - not all comedians seem to be striving for the same goal. Take the examples of Jimmy Carr and Daniel Kitson. Carr has had no qualms about promoting himself (hardly surprising, given his marketing background), and the title of his Perrier-nominated 2002 show, Bare-Faced Ambition, seems fitting given his willingness to host a Channel 4 game-show and "top 100" programmes.
The winner of the Perrier that year was Kitson, Carr's sartorial antithesis. Kitson, nevertheless, has been equally determined not to become a star, spurning television after an unhappy stint on Phoenix Nights and finding a live audience that's right for him. Moreover, building an audience has become that much easier thanks to such web wonders as MySpace and YouTube, which (when it isn't showing examples of extremely antisocial behaviour) is a good way to check out hot comedians from the UK and the US.
Dr Chris Ritchie, the course leader for Southampton Solent University's comedy writing and performance BA, acknowledges that it is the "autonomy" that attracts people to comedy. And Steve Bennett of Chortle recognises that comedy and career are linked in a way they have never been before: "There are a lot more people starting in comedy now that it's almost considered a valid career option with a defined route to the top.
"Britain is probably the only place in the world - including the States - where a mid-level live comic can earn a crust - and a pretty decent one at the upper end of the circuit - without having to make any concessions to what TV executives want. They can do their own thing and make a living from it, which has to be healthy - even if it does encourage more people to consider a job in an industry that doesn't have all that many vacancies."
It would be wrong to say that many comedians are camera-shy, of course, and there are legions of TV executives out there looking to re-create live magic on screen. That task, whose secrets are akin to those of alchemy, failed signally with talents such as Eddie Izzard, Lee Evans and, most recently, Lee Mack and Tim Vine in the stagey BBC sitcom Not Going Out. I spotted some of these very execs at Jeremy Lion's latest show; it'll be interesting to see how they package him.
But there are TV successes to applaud, which are attracting more punters and performers to comedy. Catherine Tate returned for a successful third series and, while the Peep Show duo Mitchell and Webb's sketch show wasn't groundbreaking, it was decent enough - no easy task, as sketch is a tough discipline both on and off the screen.
Even where comedy programmes haven't quite lived up to their promise, such as with Graham Linehan's IT Crowd (which I'd dearly hoped would put a stop to all that misguided guff about the death of the sitcom), their formats have been successfully exported to the US. That, of course, is a two-way street, and Dee's likeable take on Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, Lead Balloon, is a good example of this - and a huge relief to those of us who have yearned for years to see Dee tailored for TV.
If television is still seen by most of us as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we should remember that it all starts in the backroom of a pub, and for some it will end there too. Why go through all that slog, though? One answer is what Logan Murray said to his students on his course: "What you have to say is worth saying; you spend a long time dead."
Julian Hall's 'The Rough Guide to British Cult Comedy' is out now (£9.99)
Tell me another one: Julian Hall's pick'n'mix of the best cult comedians
THE MIGHTY BOOSH
Their adoring fans roar their approval of this duo as if they were a rock act, a reception that's more apt for Noel Fielding's effeminate mod Vince Noir than for Julian Barratt's brooding-yet-still groovy Howard Moon. There's a bizarre kind of lyrical easy-listening music that the two men make from rubbing each other up the wrong way. Added to this is a menagerie of strange creatures and a dippy version of the moon that would have had Neil Armstrong thinking twice about landing.
Munnery is a crucial linchpin between the quirky comics of the past and the present. His imaginative personae of mad militant Alan Parker, Urban Warrior and the ringleader of the sinister and surreal League Against Tedium ("Supposing conventional wisdom to be a forest... I am a chainsaw... you are squirrels!") loom large in the iconography of comedy. A brief fling with television couldn't capture the strands of the Munnery shtick, but he's regularly on view at the Edinburgh Fringe.
He's the less serious brother of Jeremy and, as the world record holder for the most jokes told in an hour (499), no one could complain that he doesn't give value for money. Vine's material was once mistaken for Tommy Cooper's, proving that even reverse imitation is still flattery. Certainly such lines as: "You know, somebody actually complimented me on my driving today. They left a little note on the windscreen. It said 'Parking Fine'. So that was nice" are timeless.
Hattie Hayridge is surely the mistress of the one-liner. Her awkward charm and nervous energy put bite into her gigs. She offers the one thing you must get from an observational comedian - she notices things that other people don't. Examples of her insight include her line: "Those signs outside supermarkets - 'No Dogs Except Guide Dogs'. Who are they for?"
If Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer merged into one man, they might have come close to creating Harry Hill (pictured right), who is often seen as aping the duo. But Hill, very much his own man, stretches comedy routine narrative and timing almost to breaking point, yet never goes to the brink of something not working. You've got to hand it to a man whose audience exchanges include: "Name a bird, sir? Partridge? No, already been taken!"
He's the equal-opportunities offender. Some members of his audience may never forgive him his bile, which is equally distributed left, right and centre and everywhere in between. No taboo is out of bounds to the Glaswegian-Jewish misanthrope. Sadowitz can baffle you with card tricks and bludgeon you with his material in the blink of an eye, often at the same time: "If you do these tricks in Glasgow you always get some drunk wanting to shuffle the cards - and I was doing a trick with a rabbit at the time."
Not only has Wilty clocked up many miles and hours on the UK circuit, he is also one of our best-travelled comedians abroad. Wilty has gigged on every continent except Antarctica, after coming to comedy via an open spot in Vancouver, Canada. It's succinct lines such as: "My sex life is like a fairground; it only happens twice a year and on some waste ground," that have helped Wilty become a club favourite.
This out-and- out gagsmith fills his shows with some of the most ludicrous one-liners that you are ever likely to hear, such as: "If you're being chased by a police dog, try not to go through a tunnel, then on to a little seesaw, then jump through a hoop of fire. They're trained for that." Perhaps unsurprisingly, television has yet to house his outlandish act successfully, though Jones has made forays into radio.