I turned 30 last year, and while I’m not generally one to get too bothered about growing older, there was something about this one particular landmark which led me, almost subconsciously, to take stock of life.
As much as I despise it when people take to social media to pen a lengthy self-mythologising review of their year, there’s no doubting that 2014 was marked a period of seismic change for me. I met a girl. Started a new, brilliant career. And biggest of all, I finally moved out from the home of my relieved parents, and into a house with said girl. Whirlwind.
And yet, amid the new responsibilities of paying bills whilst maintaining a relationship and a home, there was still an itch that needed to be scratched. I wanted to do something I’ve never done before. I wanted to scare myself.
For some, this might mean something like a sky dive, or a bungee jump. Not me. I’m far too over-cautious for all that. A triathlon, or a marathon? Nope, far too lazy.
Instead, I decided to have a crack at stand-up comedy.
I first met Birmingham comedian, James Cook, in the studios of Trent FM in Nottingham in about 2007 or 2008. Which was unusual, given I worked for their biggest rivals, Heart 106 at the time.
As seemed to be the done thing in those early, heady days of Facebook whenever you became even faintly acquainted with somebody, a friend request was fired off, and despite not meeting again in the years that followed, we remained connected via the social media platform.
James’s Facebook posts always seemed to grab my attention, whether it was one of his sharp one-liners, a piece of spot-on political analysis, or merely just a grumble about the fortunes of Aston Villa. One post, however, that stood out, was an article that he wrote about the merits of a stand-up comedy course he was teaching. Initially, I thought this was posted about a year ago, although a quick Google search tells me it was actually in 2010. Time flies, I guess.
It was memorable because I’d never contemplated that comedy could be taught. I think I always imagined that it was a natural gift. That funny people just somehow found themselves, organically, taking to the stage without a second’s thought or a leap of faith.
I’ve always loved comedy, in all its guises, and I’d be particularly in awe of stand-ups because, to my mind, it seemed like one of the bravest endeavours I could possibly imagine. The thought of public speaking in any form is enough to strike fear into the hearts of many people, that’s without taking into account the pressure of having to be funny, or to offer value for money to a paying audience.
It was something I’d never even contemplated doing, that I never imagined I had the skillset or the sheer balls to attempt. But then, at the back of my mind, was the knowledge of James’ comedy course. And despite having no desire to subject myself to what I was sure would be a humiliating experience should I ever attempt stand-up, I was intrigued by the idea of it.
It was my growing fascination with American late night TV which prompted me to take the plunge, as I became captivated by the process of putting together a one-hour long daily topical show, and by the perceived glamour of the writers’ room.
My fixation with this genre of TV led me to read The Late Shift, the story recounting the 1993 tug-of-war between chat show greats David Letterman and Jay Leno, which recounted the importance of stand-up comedy clubs in honing the skills of the late night personalities.
With that, and my newfound desire to test myself, the calling became too strong. Fear be damned, I was signing up to the course.
Arriving on night one was surreal. From walking up to the reception desk at the Midlands Arts Centre and sheepishly telling them I was here for the stand up comedy course, barely wanting to say it out loud as it sounded so ridiculous. As I strolled up to the small room that would be our comedy dojo for the next twelve weeks, I found not the unbearably wacky bunch I’d been bracing myself for, but rather a group of people standing, silently, in a corridor, not daring to make eye contact, let alone talk to one another. Well, of course… they MUST be the funny people!
Slowly, with James’ guidance, we emerged from our shells. Although, in many ways, I wasn’t sure at all what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised at just how structured and useful the course was. I suppose I’d expected nothing more formal than to be sitting in a room with a group of people and trying to make up jokes, but found myself fact taking part in properly planned out lessons aimed at helping us to develop the writing and performance skills required, in readiness for the gig before a paying audience that would mark the culmination of the course.
Ah, yes. The gig. At the start of the course, it seemed so far away that it was almost as though it would never happen. And then, as these things tend to, it crept up on us, and before I knew it, I was standing in a dingy little staircase at the side of the stage at the Mac’s Pentagon theatre, my heart almost bursting out of my chest, and with one question bouncing around my head repeatedly. “What are you doing? What in the ACTUAL F*** are you doing?”
And then, my name was announced, and as soon as I walked onto the stage, something changed. I went from nervous wreck, questioning his own sanity, to feeling superhuman. I’d imagined that the performance would be a blur, but I have incredibly vivid memories of my set.
I remember spotting my colleagues, who had graciously given a night of their time to support me. I remember the face of the man in the front row, with whom I found myself making eye contact, and whose laughter was reassuring me that my stuff might actually be slightly funny. I remember looking in the crowd for Anna and not being able to spot her (she was sitting at the back on the left hand side). And I remember the wave of relief and excitement at the end, tempered by disappointment that it was all over.
The feeling of exhilaration, the rush of performing was like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I came off stage, and felt like I was floating through the venue. I stopped for petrol on the drive home, and simply wanted to tell the surly man behind the counter about the night I’d had. Then I lay awake all night long, unable to quell the excitement that was coursing through my veins.
A new term of James’ course has begun this week, and I’m incredibly jealous of the period of self-discovery and new found belief that his new students are about to embark on. Of the feeling of accomplishment they’ll no doubt feel after their showcase, their first live performance. Of how they, too, will progress from being a nervous soul standing in a corridor.
From doing the course as a one-off means of testing myself, from being certain that my first stand-up gig would undoubtedly be my last, I feel like I’ve awakened a new passion. I’m keen to perform other gigs in the near future, and I’m also set to continue learning the craft of comedy by taking an improv class, starting on January 22nd.
It’s an experience that I can’t recommend highly enough. So, if you’re thinking it might be interesting, I’d just say don’t overthink it. Don’t put it off. Just do it. I believe there’s a couple of spots left on the Tuesday session…
You know there is. There really is.