After-school comedy clubs: Heard the one about the teenage stand-ups?

After-school comedy clubs are a breeding ground for new talent and an all-round confidence booster, teachers say. But can humour be learned?

Mark Sellek
Thursday 23 December 2010 01:00 GMT

It was 25 years ago, although it could have been yesterday, that I wanted to be Arnold Jackson, the character played by childhood actor Gary Coleman in the Eighties American sitcom Diff'rent Strokes. Coleman was cooler in every way imaginable: his mountainous Afro versus my Aled Jones bowler cut – his jaunty life in Manhattan, my windswept, suburban existence in South Devon, but it was his funny bones that I most craved: his winning cheeks that bulged like bruises when he uttered his famous catchphrase: "What cha talkin' 'bout Willis?"

I was reminded about Diff'rent Strokes recently, and Coleman in particular (who died earlier this year, aged 42), after watching an episode of The Inbetweeners with a friend and her 13-year-old son. Daniel, it transpired, was keen on acting – more specifically comedy. What was the best route into comedy, we pondered? Could you actually start young? I remembered a 13-year-old stand-up I'd seen at the Edinburgh fringe in 2008, the remarkably named Eros Vlahos. The prodigy wasn't just a novelty act, he actually made me laugh.

These days, it seems, there are myriad opportunities for young, funny wannabes to pursue a career in comedy. "It's actually seen as a realistic career option now," says Hannah George, the first female graduate of the BA Hons in Comedy at Southampton Solent University. "I've done over 400 stand-up gigs, and I'm now writing for Radio 4. The degree helped with every aspect of that, and it's a dream come true."

Encouragingly, it's also now possible to acquire some of the comedic tools to be funny while still at school. Many comics have honed their talent at the back of the class. Jack Dee recounts how a clever ear for the one-liner regularly left his teachers floored. A teacher once used the phrase "any port in a storm". "Why is that?" Dee asked. "Is it because if there is a storm, you'd like to drink any type of port regardless of its quality?" Dee spent the rest of the lesson and a large chunk of his school career marking out time in the corridor. But would Dee be exiled from the lesson now? Perhaps. The question today, is whether at break time, the teacher would introduce him to the drama teacher.

"Funnily enough, I've found it's not normally the class clowns who are the funny ones within a formal setting," says Laura Lawson, the maverick pioneer of E4's School Of Comedy, a sketch show in which fledgling comics take on the world of adults. Lawson was teaching drama in a west London school and decided to try putting on an after-school comedy club. The kids worked tirelessly. She cajoled and encouraged. It wasn't long before their sketches were impressing commissioning editors at the Edinburgh festival. Alongside the show, Lawson still runs School of Comedy at the Tabard Theatre in Chiswick.

"Children of all ages, from all areas of London, can come and join in, learn and be inspired, as well as providing future TV talent. We'll soon be opening on Saturdays, and we're opening two new schools in January; at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill and at the Pembroke Castle in Primrose Hill. Our vision is to encourage every school in England to run a School of Comedy club. We'd love to franchise the brand, so kids all over the country can have the same opportunity."

Alison Pope credits School Of Comedy with enhancing her son's self esteem. "It has done more to help his

confidence than anything else he has ever done. If you can stand up regularly in front of a mixed group of your peers and do mixed stand up routines, and work on material where your views and opinions are listened to, then an hour-long show in front of parents and the public is a walk in the park."

Comedian James Campbell has been performing child-friendly stand-ups in schools nationwide (without swearing, obviously) for 15 years. I wasn't surprised when Campbell told me that the child-man I saw cracking funnies in Edinburgh had passed through another of his projects, Comedy Academy For Kids, which teaches the rudiments of a functional stand-up routine.

School Of Comedy though, is genuinely groundbreaking because of its adult content. Lawson sent me a copy of the second series. A few scenes in, and it's obvious that that's the main shtick: kids dressing, talking, and swearing like adults. "We wanted to let the kids loose on adult comedy with no restrictions." At the Tabard Theatre, School of Comedy also explores something called School of Satire, Lawson explains: "What better way for kids to learn about politics than to rip the Coalition apart with their tiny, witty voices."

"Due to downloadable videos on the internet, adults and children now tend to share similar comedic frames of reference – there's no longer much of a divide," course director Chris Ritchie of the comedy degree at Solent University points out. Which is fine if kids are actually aware of who David Cameron and Nick Clegg are – but is an obsession with comedy just a liberal, metropolitan indulgence? Can it really have utilitarian value within an educational setting? Not every child goes to bed with a copy of 1984 – or is capable of being turned into the next Michael Macintyre. Surely, too, such permissive attitudes to comedy will naturally make some parents anxious.

"Since Shakespeare, there has always been a strong moralising influence in comedy," Ritchie continues. "In the 14th century, the church actively used comedy as a corrective measure to curb societal ills. Take away people like Bernard Manning, comedy in all formats has remained wedded to that."

Campbell agrees. "Apart from making them laugh, I also illustrate to kids when to use humour appropriately, and how it can be easily used in a negative fashion."

"James is absolutely brilliant at getting the kids to think in soft focus, to daydream and therefore to think more creatively," enthuses Charlie Claire, who is headteacher of Geoffrey Field Junior School in Reading. "It also brings to life even the more inhibited pupils."

In 2007, Eddie Orsmby, the head of humanities at Alsop High School in Liverpool, decided to bring along theatrical props such as wigs and puppets to his lessons. "They definitely learned more about plate tectonics during that time," he recalls.

Paul Jewell of The University of South Australia goes further. In his paper "Humor In Cognitive and Social Development: Creative artists and class clowns", he warns against young comics (in class) being dismissed as divisive wastrels. In all likelihood, he argues, these are exactly the kind of children who are the intuitively creative types. "A poorly told joke has misplaced timing, or leaves out important information. In contrast, a well-told joke is the result of highly developed social sensitivity. The punchline of a joke also creates a cognitive jolt, a demand that the listeners suddenly shift their frame of reference to a contrasting one."

Which is kind of the point of clever, incisive comedy. From Peter Cook to Steve Coogan, comedians are often diffident and wilfully eccentric. They see the world in weird, loopy abstractions. Counter-culturally, as checks against entrenched ways of thinking, they are an important fabric of society.

Stewart Lee, alternative comedy's strongest voice, argued in this paper recently that at the expense of stand up comedy's rise in popularity (takings for live comedy have increased tenfold since 2004) is the risk that performers will dumb down their acts in order to find safer, commercial ground. What separates alternative and mainstream comedy has never been more hotly contested. Any attempt to formalise and package comedy therefore, the notion that it can be taught and pursued as a career is likely to cause the purists, the more shamanistic, edgier comedians such as Lee, to be decidedly sniffy.

Rob Rouse, successful stand-up comedian and former geography teacher, baulks when I tell him of the prevailing trends. "Teaching comedy? It sounds all very well meaning. But you can't bottle lightening. The whole idea is that comedy should be organic."

For four years comedian Natalie Haynes tutored children whose schools entered Wisecracker, a national stand-up comedy competition for schools. Without prompting, she echoes Rouse's metaphor, when I tell her of his reticence. "Formalising comedy for Rob would be like trying to gather moondust in a jar," she laughs. "He's a natural. You can't make someone funny, but you can definitely boost confidence, and help with things like structuring jokes."

And why not? If you're experiencing comedy for the first time and you're too young to remember Michael Barrymore, then you've plenty of time to find out what makes you laugh. Whether it's Peter Kay or Stewart Lee: jokes about checkout queues or surreal set ups about Daily Mail columnists. And in such chastened times, the ability to make raise a smile in others, even if it has been learned at school, can't be a bad thing. You don't need to be Bill Hicks or want to overthrow the state to do that.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in