Students rush to get on university course for comedians

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SCIENCE and engineering students have always maintained that university arts courses are something of a joke. Now that old prejudice has been confirmed - a university in Scotland is offering classes for future comedians.

Strathclyde University is launching a comic skills course designed to help budding comics deliver the perfect punchline. The 10-week course has proved so popular that it is likely to be oversubscribed with applications flooding in from school leavers and mature students, including a would- be professional clown.

Students at the university in Glasgow will perform stand-up routines in front of their peers and then be subjected to a kind of literary heckling. Their scripts will be edited, analysed, re-written and awarded marks accordingly. The course culminates in a live show at a Glasgow comedy club.

The course is part of a new range of classes being run by Strathclyde's continuing education programme, and will be managed by Viv Gee, a comedienne who has just finished a stand-up run at this year's Edinburgh Festival.

"The secret to comedy really is in the telling," she said. "My advice to anyone trying stand-up is - be yourself. Never pretend to be someone you're not. Also try to avoid being predictable. I like to do impressions of Robert De Niro - which always catches the audience off guard because I'm female and they don't expect it."

Her own in taste in humour varies from Tommy Cooper to Spike Milligan and Blackadder. But the course will include everything a stand-up needs to succeed in any comic genre, from writing gags to dealing with hecklers, to "dying" on stage - the term for the humiliating experience when jokes fall flat and people in the audience begin to talk among themselves.

Ms Gee said the university had developed the idea of the course after sending media studies students along to the local Comedy Club in Glasgow to study performers. "The students sat in the front row and I kept wondering why they never laughed at my jokes."

Desmond Clarke,17, will be among the first stream of comedy students next month. "Dealing with hecklers is a terrifying prospect for all stand- up comedians," he said. "A lot of people think all you have to do is stand up and start wisecracking. But there's more to it than that. There are technical elements like voice technique, finding inspiration and writing sketches and gags."

He says he wants to complete the course to discover whether he has what it takes to be a professional comedian. "Perhaps if you have a degree of talent you can be taught how to perform," he said.

Aileen Hendry, a Strathclyde graduate, said she had already written comic material. "I would like to know whether it's good enough to take any further. My family and friends always encourage me to tell jokes and stories, especially after I've had a few glasses of wine."

Ms Gee added: ''We will go through a sort of editing process, studying the students' own material and trying to improve it. And we'll gauge reaction from the other students on the course. Even if I don't find something funny, someone else will. That's how comedy works or doesn't work."

She offered some compassion for her proteges. "I'll make sure they learn how to die graciously and know how to hold their heads up and say thank you - and remember there is no such thing as a crap audience."