Guest Post: Gerry McBride – Should I do a Stand Up Course?

gerrymcbrideGerry McBride is a popular Irish standup whose Facebook blog has a huge following amongst both new and well known Irish comedians. His posts are frequently insanely long, often informative and always well written, and it’s a crying shame they’re not publicly available. Luckily you can hop on Facebook and very nicely ask him to add you as his pretend friend, as I’ve done. Anyway, Gerry’s been doing this a lot longer than I, so it’s an absolute honour for me to republish (with his permission) a great recent post in which he asked a wide variety of stand up comedians to anonymously weigh in on the question – ‘Are paid stand up courses worth the cash?’

“How did you get started in comedy?”

Ask a comedian that, and you’ll probably get one of two answers. Either

1) Uh, don’t know, just… went to a gig and e-mailed the guy running it and got a gig I suppose.

Or

2) I did a stand-up course.

Now, I took the first route, except I didn’t even go to a gig; I had never stood foot in a comedy club before I went onstage for the first time. I googled “comedy open-mic Dublin”, was sent to the Battle of the Axe site, e-mailed Tony Fearns and went onstage a few weeks later. While googling, though, I noticed several links for courses offering help in breaking into comedy. I eschewed them, partially because I’d been stung by such a course before (a three day workshop for acting I’d done years before, which served to do nothing other than separate me from a weeks wages and teach me how to pretend to be a fucking tree, or something), and partially because, well, I hadn’t eschewed anything for a while, and there’s nothing I like better than a good eschewing.

Comedy courses are pretty contentious; from those that believe they serve a purpose in the laughter business by helping those who would be too nervous or shy to ever try their hand at something they really love (or indeed just don’t know how to get started otherwise; until someone steps up and writes the Getting-Started-in-Irish-Comedy handbook), to those that want to learn how to be funny, to those that believe that being funny is something you are or are not, something no amount of tree-emulation will change. Personally, I don’t see how someone can be taught how to be funny (maybe I’m just bitter… I was taught how to be funny by getting the shit kicked out of me all through primary school), but I’d be humoured to see someone try…

Teacher; Now, for homework, you were told to observe something in your everyday life. What have you observed?

Pupil; Well… On the way home, the bus driver was Polish. The lady who made me a sandwich in Spar was Chinese and there was some Latvian guys doing road works outside my house.

Teacher; Very good… so what would that tell you?

Pupil; That… there are a lot more foreign people in Ireland these days?

Teacher; Good, good… Did you notice if they did anything different to Irish people? Anything comical, perhaps?

Pupil; Uh, yeah…

Teacher; So put it in a sentence, boy! Remember to phrase it as a question; acceptable terms are “Have you noticed…?” or “So what’s the deal with…?” .

Pupil; Ok… So what’s the deal with all these foreigners these days?

Teacher; Remember, it’s not enough to state the fact; you must follow up with an observation about that fact.

Pupil; So what’s the deal with all these foreigners these days? Don’t you just wish they would all die?

Teacher; …eh… We’ll work on it.

So obviously that’s not what goes on in a workshop… for all I know. Having never done a workshop, I’m pretty under qualified to talk about them (Gerry McBride? Talking shite about something he knows nothing about? I won’t hear of it!). So what I did was ask around people who HAVE done workshops and courses, and see how they felt about their experiences. The following snippets are from guys and girls currently on the stand-up circuit, some open-micers, some more established names, who have one thing in common; they’ve all done one or more of the many different courses up and down the country. These snippets may have been edited slightly from their original e-mails, in order that they be grammatically correct/ they don’t me get lifted for slander. Right off the bat, I’d like to thank anyone who too k the time to respond to the e-mails I sent them; cheers.

First up, we have;

I have to say despite the bad vibes people have towards courses I do have a positive enough view on my experience. I think as far as writing goes you either have it or you don’t. I had written most of my material before I had taken the class cos I’d been toying with the idea for a while. But where the course helped me was confidence. I can 100% say that without doing a course I never could have found the courage to get up on stage and try my stuff out for the first time. I had never done any kind of acting or performing even in school so doing stand up was very far removed from anything I had done before.

Doing the course helped me get over the fear of sharing idea’s and jokes which was something I wouldn’t have even felt comfortable doing even with me mates. It also helped to be able to say them to a small group of other beginners cos straight away you could hear what worked and what didn’t without the pressure of dying in front of a real audience. Like I say I’m not sure how much ya can teach someone who’s just not funny cos we had classmate who definitely didn’t learn a stitch the whole time they were doing it cos they were so convinced there stuff was fantastic and didn’t feel the need to listen to the teachers or class’s suggestions. But for the performing end of it and the confidence building it definitely helped me.

I suppose like anything, you get from these things what you put into them.

Being convinced your stuff is fantastic only to find out it isn’t is certainly something I would have rather done on a course, instead of in front of fifty people. But dying is part of growing in comedy, right? Yeah, but it still sucks and I can do without it. Ironing that shit out in a course doesn’t sound so bad. Next;

I thought it was good, bit over priced but I did not want to go into doing stand up with out doing something .It does get the mind working and I wrote a lot of jokes while doing the course. So for me yeah I enjoyed it and would say it was good but over priced by about €80.

Not wanting to get onstage without having tried it first? Sounds reasonable. They let you test drive cars, after all… Test driving cars is free, though. Next up;

In my experience of doing a comedy course, I found it very useful in getting material in a way I wouldn’t have thought of before. I think it is good to do them at the start and every so often as you go along to think about things in a different perspective and see different ways of doing things. Because you should always be improving your set it’s good to get opinions on how to do that. On the other hand, there is obviously no substitute for what you learn from stage experience. The main benefit of doing a workshop is when there a few comedians bouncing around ideas seeing if they’re good instead of trying them on stage and asking the audience, but should you pay for this?

I have no problems with people earning a living through running workshops or courses. Nobody is stupid enough to write a weekly bulletin chronicling the ins and outs of comedy and distribute it for free, after all. Next;

I got nothing from the course with regard to material generation, material improvement but what I did get was the kick up the hole I needed to get back on a stage and for that alone I am very grateful to it. Meeting other lads on a similar journey was cool too. The teacher was not qualified to teach others in stand up but overall I’m glad I did it.

”Qualified”… what does that mean? I’ve been doing comedy for a while, and I’ve played pretty much everywhere. Am I qualified? Are you? Is there a Comedy Instructors course I don’t know about? Similarly…

Comedy courses are a good thing to do once they’re being ran by someone who has experience in the field that there talking about it, it will give some one who is starting off that bit of confidence to get up on stage ,and that’s the main objective when starting off , this may not always be the case where you have people who have been doing stand up for about three weeks setting up workshops charging people a lot of money which has been the case in recent times , so they can fund the teachers holiday or inflate his already big head so always be suspicious of people like this who are really just looking to make easy money ,but if a workshop is well run by someone who knows what there talking about they can be good and set you on your way.

Buyer beware, it would appear… but that’s life. Everyone is out to separate you from your hard-earned wages/ dole money. But for a course, you don’t have to re-mortgage the house… most comedy courses average out to about fifty euro per session… What else are you going to do with that fifty euro? Go on a (pretty cheap) night out? Buy a Playstation game? Or use it to take your first steps on the road to doing something you’ve always wanted to do? But regardless of the financial aspect, do you actually do anything that helps you onstage?

My time doing a workshop was not a pleasant one to be honest. The structure was as follows as my overview and what I felt at it:

Week 1:
Chat about what types of comedy we like…

Week 2:
Hear about someone’s personal issues, wonder who has the biscuits and be asked to write about your life…and do clapping games

Week 3:
Again hear about peoples lives going odd or mid life crisis, wonder why there aren’t any biscuits this week, and clap and now walk after your clap game..(It’s odd!)

Week 4:
Listen to people’s life story for 2 mins, bring the biscuits this week, clap game, fridge game and wonder why I’m here..

Week 5:
How to make a set..5mins for next week is the goal.

Week 6:
Copycat syndrome kicks in, and gig on the Sunday…

Before I started the course, I actually had a lot of jokes or funny things I’d overheard down, and when I done the course I felt I had to alter my persona, and to be truthfully honest it’s only since recent months I’m happy gigging and with my material and how the crowds have been going.

I would not in recommend a single course nor as regards to getting started in comedy, maybe improv if you’re already a comedian as I feel it may help with quicker thinking, but could be wrong.

So in a nut shell I felt it hindered my comedy, I lost what I was before the course, and only am finding it again now, it cost a decent amount with feck all return and as far as I can see it made someone fairly well off, seen as you then gotta invite family, friends etc to the gig and they gotta pay in!

Clapping games? Fridge games? I knew it! Next on the list, pretending to be a fucking tree! The exercises I’ve heard described sound very like what you’d find on a drama or acting course… as such, it sounds like most comedy courses are more about actual stage awareness and confidence, as opposed to writing jokes. So if you haven’t written any jokes, all you’ll be left with is a lesson in how to confidently stand onstage without being afraid of the audience or falling off. So the jokes that I have written, I’ll be able to take them to a workshop and practice them, getting adequate feedback in order to better hone my set, right?

I’d never stepped on stage before and found the sound of my own voice hard on the ears. Didn’t like listening to myself. I think the only downfall was that I wasn’t criticised enough, I think because I handed over money that the person running the course felt that they had to laugh at my every idea. Looking back, my opening set was pretty poor. But it gave me the initial push and basis for doing stand up; I don’t think I would be doing it had I not done a course.

You’d hope that you would get honest feedback (but no-one would pay a teacher to tell them they were shit either). If I was running a course, this would be a sticking point for me… could I look a student in the eye and say “give it up, mate, you are SHOCKINGLY BAD”? If I’m a teacher, surely the reason I’m taking money from people is to help them improve, right? Here’s one guy whose teacher did just that;

I think it was a massive help in that it forced me be in one place, focusing on comedy for at least a few hours every week. The pressure to have stuff to present to the class every week meant that you’d finally stop procrastinating and hammer your ideas into some kind of usable shape. Writing exercises even yielded a usable joke or two. Having to perform in front of the class too was a useful way of acclimatising yourself to the idea of really performing to a room full of people. As far as the “theory” we were taught is concerned, I disagreed with and disregarded almost everything the teacher said, but I can think of at least one instance where his advice led to a great improvement in a joke.

So basically, I’m really glad I did the course. Without it I’d still be wandering around with vague aspirations to be a comedian in my head and nothing more.

High praise there. I mean, if you don’t go to a workshop, how else are you going to learn? Well…

What you’ll hear from everyone is ‘the teacher wasn’t funny!!’ which is true, but you can’t blame a guy for taking a business opportunity. Overall it was overpriced and doesn’t prepare you properly for a ‘real’ (not a showcase with mates) gig. However, I really wanted to do comedy. I knew no one who did comedy. I never talked to a comedian in my life. I had no idea how ‘the system’ worked. So I did the course. the most helpful thing was meeting other comedians, and having people to go to gigs with and discuss jokes with.

Anyone who says to me now they might do a workshop I say no, don’t. Just talk to comedians. Go up to a guy at the break in the hapenny and ask him how he got into it, where to start etc. No one can make u funny, not even a workshop. And most comedians aren’t funny at all in real life. But they hear jokes everyday so they’re a good indicator if u have some funny in ya.

How do you teach a kid to swim? Throw it in the water! None of this armbands shite! Right?

Courses teach nothing you couldn’t learn from recording a gig or two;
it’s like trying to teach hurling in a classroom. Courses on offer are generally amateur comedians mugging slightly newer comedians; look at the status of people teaching courses… How successful/experienced are they? Are they professional performers? Look at their upcoming gigs, what paid spots (especially headlining big clubs) are they doing? What paid appearances have they done at festivals?

Again, buyer beware… if you were buying a fridge, you wouldn’t just buy the first fridge you seen in Harvey Norman’s. You’d check out other fridges, and see which one was the coolest. Anyways, enough about home appliances. I did what was described above; just started gigging, recording my set, looking back at it cringing, and developed it accordingly. In three to four months, I’d a fair idea as to what an audience would like and dislike (LIKE; funny jokes, DISLIKE; shit jokes).But that was a long, hard road. This sounds like a better way;

I found the course helpful as it was a good starting block for me to get into comedy as I had no idea how to do so! It was good for shaping material into a 7 min set. Had I just started doing gigs I’d say I’d have died a few deaths and had to change stuff that way so it probably saved me a lot of time and pain in that respect.

I had a really good group when I did my workshop so I was lucky to be given honest opinions on stuff- sometimes I disagreed or didn’t want to hear it but It all helps constructive or not, to sum it up- If your going to do a course you need to be able to take other peoples opinions on board and even take the negative ones on the chin… not necessarily change your material to please everyone else but find a bit of a balance between the two- some people in workshops start a course and finish with the same 7 mins which I found insane both as a waste of their time and financially, purely because they just wont listen to anyone’s opinion- which defeats the purpose of doing the whole fucking thing!

Similarly…

Personally I found the course to be a fantastic opportunity to present a hundred ideas over the course of 6 weeks. In the end up you leave with your strongest ideas in loose formation that you can build on as you get gigs. Without the course I wouldn’t be gigging to be honest.

And that comes from one of my favourite new guys, too. The idea of practicing in front of something other than the mirror doesn’t sound all that bad.

In a group course you try out your material in front of comedy writers who can give you feedback and the odd punchline or two. Handy.

I did a one-on-one course with an experienced comic and I made a breakthrough about why my set is at best average and at worse shit. My set has very little to do with me. I hope to ditch my existing starter set completely soon.

The ultimate test of course, is to get up and perform in front of an audience. If they laughed long and hard you’ve done your job. If they haven’t then back to the drawing board. Well run courses, with insightful and sensitive teachers, can act as a short cut to speed up the iterative process of write – perform – assess reaction.

Again, that sounds fairly peachy. Next;

The comedy course definitely got me off my arse and to stop procrastinating. So in that way it was a great start. It also forces you to do your first gig, as that was the ‘graduation’, which was a great facility as I hadn’t the first clue how to book myself in anywhere.

The 3 people with the best material kind of gravitated towards each other and road-tested their jokes on each other outside of the class. This meant the material got tighter but had little to do with the course. Mind you, we wouldn’t have met otherwise.

The jury’s still out as to how effective these courses are. Can you be taught to be funny? Probably not, but you can be taught some basic techniques of stage-craft, which helps you deliver your gags effectively.

In the third week I was told; “I have nothing to teach you about comedy”. It was meant as a compliment but all I could think was “Then why am I paying you?” and fell off the live register until ‘graduation day’.

It might be telling as to their effectiveness or not, but of all the people on that particular course, I’m the only one still doing stand-up! Maybe I just haven’t gotten the hint yet…

I’m still watching the letterbox every morning waiting for my calf-skin diploma to arrive.

The general consensus seems to be that yes, courses do help you get started, but no, they won’t make you funny. This is mentioned again here;

I would probably be still going to comedy gigs and thinking I can to better than this but to afraid to do anything about it. if I had never done the workshop I might never have got up on stage. So that a huge positive for me but it’s a rip-of 300 for 6 weeks of shit-talking doesn’t help you to write material. Some small things I did learn like know your material well. Little or no notes given, we only got to hold a mic on the last week because we asked to do. I’d say the people in the course help each other as a collective more than a teacher would. You can’t teach funny; maybe nurture it.

Nurture the funny? This guy thinks so too;

I believe that it is very much worth doing a course and I am actually planning to another course in the coming weeks. Not only can you learn some of the skills, but also to be around others who are in the same boat will help the creative juices flow.

And here’s someone who wholeheartedly agrees;

Can comedy be learned? 100%. Absolutely. There is no doubt in my mind, that anyone, no matter how unfunny can be taught the confidence and the ability to do a successful set by breaking down the basic structure of what makes us laugh. As a comedian, you get instant feedback from the audience’s laughter or silence, if you use that as a guide, you can learn how to deliver a solid set. The same way that you can learn how to do a presentation well, you can learn how to do comedy well. You can either go and learn from the audience response one gig at a time or you can get a head start and get a basic foundation and do a stand up course. The advantages of doing a course are; you have many chances to use the stage before your first gig, you have fun, you challenge yourself, you meet quality comedians, you meet like-minded people, you get a start in the right direction, you will learn to be comfortable on stage, and you get future gigs.

And;

The course was good in that it provided with me the kick in the arse to start doing comedy, and taught me some techniques like callbacks and rule of 3s but in terms of helping with material or whatever I found that my material went better if I did it my way, not the way suggested to me to make it ‘better’.

Is there a formula to being funny? Can you teach this to someone? On the face of it, comedy doesn’t seem that complicated… tell the audience a story, hiding a particular component until the end, and releasing it to surprise and humour them. Setup, punchline. This isn’t honours level maths. But to actually see the world as a comedian see’s it, where everything is material or inspiration… I’m not so sure. Everyone can be taught how to draw, but can they be taught how to be artists? Contentious issue, that. Here’s a guy with a few courses under his belt;

I have done different comedy courses and I find that some are good and some are not great. Like all course, for me it is about the connection with the teacher. I would advise anyone thinking of doing a course to go and meet or talk to who will be teaching them and then make a decision.

Good advice, that. And finally;

I have to say my experience of the workshop was a hugely positive one. Ok I paid €300 for it that I now know is a rip off but at the end of it I didn’t feel ripped off somehow. People are going on about how you can’t teach comedy which is probably true but what a workshop does is create a haven for ideas and a forum that stimulates creative thinking. It also gives you a place to practice and put out ideas. Like we did two run throughs of our sets in mine and the first one was completely different from my first gig. I got 4 laughs in 7 mins in my first official gig the first time I did it in the workshop it was completely brutal and would almost definitely have died a horrific and bloody death if done in front of a crowd and could maybe have dented my confidence beyond repair. As it happened I had a good first gig which gave me the confidence to get through the following 5 awful ones that followed.

Also I think a workshop gives you a few friends to share the experience with and this is important. Like during the workshop weeks we would go to the Ha’penny together and watch gigs then discuss them at half time which all aided the learning process and prepared you for the big first gig. Sometimes especially when starting out its hard enough to network as all comedians are competing with each other and quite often the funnier guys don’t want to mix with the beginners as they want to be seen as better than them (not everyone is like that but some are!!) so it can be hard to make contacts where as if you are in a workshop you have 5 or 6 people to contact if you want to go to a gig with someone or if you want to get numbers for people to hussle!

Having said all that none of the material I came up with during the workshop is still being used so it begs the question as to whether it actually makes you funny. My verdict is it doesn’t but in all I’m all for them!

You can’t fault that, folks… getting started in comedy for me was a lonely enough time; just another face in the crowd, going from gig to gig with nobody to help point me in the right direction, or give tips and advice; just me, winging it, dodging the one death on stage that would have made me say fuck it, and hang up my comedy boots. If’ i’d done a course before I’d started, I would have met people on the same journey, and those first six months would have been much easier. I would have gladly paid money for that.

So workshops may or may not help you in comedy, but they will set you on the road with a few like-minded people either side of you, to help you along. If I was teaching a course, the advice I would give is next time you’re playing on a Tuesday at the Battle of the Axe, make friends with the guys gigging with you- you’re going to be looking at each other for a LONG time.

Man, this blog kinda has a bit of a soppy ending, doesn’t it? It’s all gone a bit Wonder Years, or Stand By Me. Well, to re-address that balance, remember that you’re after reading the opinions of about twenty comedians; that means somebody somewhere has approximately 6000 euro of their money. Crumbs.

Gerry’s Upcoming Gigs

  1. Sunday, 25th October, Comedy Olympics, Galway Comedy Festival
  2. Tuesday, 27th October, ComedyDublin, Sheehans, Dublin
  3. Friday, 30th October, Michelstown, Cork
  4. Monady, 2nd November, 27 Club, Dublin
  5. Tuesday, 10th November, Hedigans
  6. Saturday, 14th November, Kinseally Inn, Swords
  7. Sunday, 15th November, Capital Comedy, Dublin
  8. Wednesday, 18th November, Anseo, Dulin, ALSO Capital Comedy, Dublin
  9. Saturday, 16th January, Revolution, Waterford
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