Can you learn to be funny?

I recently did a Q&A with John Byrne of The Stage about comedy training for an article as he is writing about the options available ranging from full time study to part time and more informal routes.

As I have rather a lot to say on this subject I thought this would be useful to share in full, with John’s permission.  Enjoy!

John Byrne: How do you feel learning to be a stand up is similar to learning to act… and what are the differences?

Lynne Parker: There are similarities and we get lots of actors who want to try out stand up comedy.  The difference is that you shouldn’t appear to be scripted and some of our best and most famous comedians don’t write down verbatim what they want to say.  Stand up is about thinking on your feet, improvising and adjusting the content to suit the audience, venue and occasion.  That’s why so many people who have to speak in public take stand up courses because it helps to develop these skills.

JB: Where do you stand on the issue of ‘you can’t learn to be funny, you either have it or you haven’t’ ?

LP: I honestly believe that everybody has the ability to ‘be funny’ and it’s largely about developing your own personal awareness of this rather than ‘teaching’ somebody how to craft a joke or move your body in a comical way.

For some people, the notion of being laughed at can be humiliating, and I think that’s why people dread speaking in public so much.  They fear funny more than they embrace it.  A good comedy coach helps you to make the transition from how you deal with being laughed at to laughed with.  Clever comedians and clowns thrive on what we perceive as being laughed at, but in truth they are pulling our strings and we are laughing with them.

JB: Similarly, some would say the only way to learn to do stand up is to start doing open mics, die, get up again, and keep going. Do you feel that training helps, hinders or changes that process?

LP: All these words like teaching, training, coaching and learning get in the way of what really matters which is actually doing it and trying stuff out!  I am well known for ‘pushing’ people on stage – usually when I know that’s all it will take to get them started.  As women we don’t always get that push so our open mic, Time of the Month nights are very important for this, so are our workshops.

Over the 15 years since I set up Funny Women I’ve met quite a few women who have spent a lot of time attending workshops, telling me about how they are going to do comedy, what they are writing and preparing and even coming along to gigs to watch other people perform.  Some of them still haven’t performed yet, and maybe they never will, but it’s the journey that matters.  I know that I’ve facilitated the start of many comedy careers through the Funny Women Awards and our workshops but the real magic begins when you start performing in public.

JB: What was your/the main motivation for setting up the course you teach?

LP: Going along with the theme above, I would get lots of women come along to watch and sense that they really wanted to have a go themselves so we started to run workshops to encourage them.  At the time it was also important income for us without sponsorship and, now that we find ourselves in the same position again, we are looking at how we can run more events and courses this autumn alongside the Awards heats in October and November.

I am very passionate about women having a voice and experiencing the power of using humour – not just on the stage but in their professional and personal lives too.  Much can be achieved if you know how to encourage laughter around a serious topic – Theresa May should sign up!

JB: Can you give some examples of types of people you have trained, common challenges and how you helped people subvert those challenges?

LP: I have ‘trained’ so many women it’s hard to pull out particular examples.  Typically I will have women attending our workshops and events who are naturally funny but who lack the confidence to really say what they think.

I have one incredibly ‘student’ currently who is a mother of four, who’s nursed her husband through cancer (he survived) and now she wants to put it all into a comedy context.  She has done a few gigs with us and is now about to try out open spots at bigger shows.  She told me that she has been dreaming about being on stage performing stand up for years and we’ve helped her to make her dream come true.  Women often need the approval and support of other women – we can also be extremely judgemental so I have created a safe space where we can encourage and help each other.

JB: What would be your tips for choosing a good comedy course?

LP: Take recommendations and ask for testimonials about the course, workshop or classes.  There is a lot of ‘chatter’ in the comedy world so if something is good you will hear about it!  Same if it’s bad.  I have a few courses I recommend because we currently don’t run one – however this might change so we would welcome any interest.

JB: Realistically how long do you feel it should take a beginner to get from a standing start to doing paid gigs even at a relatively modest level?

LP: With women this varies hugely because life gets in the way!  Katherine Ryan won our Funny Women Awards in 2008 after only a handful of gigs and then spent the next year having a baby.  After that she worked really very hard to balance family and comedy – and as a single parent too she’s been incredibly successful.  I am told that it takes about seven to eight years but I know people who’ve taken a lot longer and some much less.

JB: What are the pros and cons of learning comedy writing as a separate subject to stand up? What are the differences between both in terms of people who tend to be good at them and in terms of skills needed?

LP: There is a craft involved in writing for stand up – nowadays there is more of a storytelling culture than joke-telling so getting your ideas or an outline concept on paper is a useful exercise to start off with and you can develop your material from there.

However, from personal experience, don’t get married to your script as you will only be disappointed!  You will inevitably forget something and the trick is not to let your audience know.  If you tell them you’ve forgotten something they will lose confidence in you but if you carry on regardless they will never know.

Make your mind up about whether you want to write comedy or perform it.  Do you see yourself as the lead character in a sitcom, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag or Michaela Cole in Chewing Gum?  Or as the creator of a successful comedy franchise and all that goes with it, like Armando Iannucci?  Sometimes writing something for yourself to say can be the start of a sitcom or television series.  When Miranda Hart started writing Miranda for television she performed some of her lines as stand up when she hosted our shows at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006.  It gave her the opportunity to try out her ideas not just for her own voice in the sitcom but for her mother and other characters too.

JB: Is there anything else you would like to say about comedy training?

LP: Comedy and the use of humour is very powerful and women are learning that it does give us a unique voice.  I am still horrified that women are given more attention and money for being beautiful than if they are clever, witty and speak up for what they believe in.  Society loves a funny man and slowly but surely, we are now beginning to recognise that a funny woman can be a very powerful asset too.  We all have ‘it’ and finding your ‘funny’ can change your life.

Our next Stand Up to Stand Out workshops take place on Saturday 29th July at Powder & Magazine in Rochester and as part of the Fringe Central Events Programme on Saturday 16th August in Edinburgh.