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Why you can teach funny

Edmonton International Street Performers Festival. Credit: IQRemix (CC 2.0

As well as performing comedy, I’ve been teaching stand-up skills and joke-writing for over a decade. When I first started, a friend who is a sort of business guru nodded sagely and said: ‘The people who made the most reliable income during the 1849 gold rush weren’t the miners, they were the people who sold whiskey to the miners.’ I won’t comment on the historical accuracy of that, but it sounds believable.

And if it’s just a metaphor, there’s also some truth in it.

My fortunes as a performer have fluctuated, whereas my work as a teacher has been consistent and reliable. Want to know the real problem with an arts career? It’s how many people willingly accept that it is analogous to a gold rush: ‘Risk it all for one big break.’

Fuelled by the high-drama reality TV talent shows, it tells aspiring artists two godawful lies:

Lie one is that great artists ‘just have it’. That they’re ‘born with it’, and that talent is some sort of raw innate quality. This is so widely accepted that the most common question people ask me when I mention teaching is: ‘Can you teach people to be funny?’

I’m not teaching anyone to ‘be funny’. I’m teaching people to write comedy scripts and perform stand-up comedy. Falling over in the street is funny. Falling over reliably onstage in such a way that the audience can see and be amused by it – that is an art.

But also, yes, you can teach people… in a sense. Comedy performance relies on good writing, understanding comedic rhythms and structures and skills. Improvising skills, presenting skills, acting skills… But most of all hard work and practice. 

The most successful ex-students I have are not those who were hilarious from class one. They’re the ones who put in the hours doing gigs and sitting behind a hot notebook.

The second lie is that of ‘the big break’. Go on then: grab all your eggs, put them in a basket, get spotted and become an overnight superstar. Seems an infallible recipe for success, right? Wrong. This lie makes fledgling artists ridiculously easy to exploit.

Venues charge acts thousands for fringe runs, knowing perfectly well there’s very little hope of recouping the outlay. Experienced artists are asked to work for free in return for the ever-mystical ‘exposure’. Mmm, tasty, I’ll spread that exposure on my morning toast, thanks.

The reality is that a career in the arts is tough. It’s hard work. There are ups and downs but opportunities come around again and ‘big breaks’ fade away if not followed up thoroughly. What we need is an end to exploitative practices and a focus on supporting artists; leaving the drama on the stage, where it belongs.

My friend, the playwright Mark Ravenhill, told me once that an interviewer was surprised that he planned to take a bus home after meeting up. The journalist assumed that, having had his plays performed in major theatres and toured internationally, he would have his own chauffeur. Mark told me: ‘Some people think I’m a multimillionaire while others think I must be penniless. The reality is that I’ve earned the equivalent of a deputy-head teacher’s salary for the last 20 years.’

That’s a much more realistic, albeit less sexy, goal for artists to aspire to than some mythical gold rush.

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and activist. She publishes her work on patreon.com/newsatkate and tweets @Cruella1.

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