The Stand's Fringe Comedy Academy
I’m at The Stand on a Saturday afternoon in June. The doors are shut and the only people inside are The Stand’s gaffer, Tommy Sheppard, regular MC Susan Morrison, and twelve young, aspiring comedians who have been invited to participate in a ten-week standup comedy course, culminating in a special showcase during the Fringe.
I ask them how they’re feeling. “Scared shitless,” they reply in unison.
The twelve nervous students have varying degrees of experience. Most of them are regulars on the open spot circuit, doing unpaid gigs in the hope of sharpening their act and getting noticed by a promoter. Lindsay Duncan is the most experienced of the group, with twelve years working in theatre and sketch groups. “I’m hoping to improve my confidence,” she explains when I ask why she’s doing this. “I’ve been performing scripted material for a long time and this is a chance to get creative and try something new, maybe rediscover some of the passion that lead us all into comedy.”
At the other end of the scale is Liam Tait, whose first ever comedy performance is today in front of his classmates. “There are a lot of things I want to say,” he tells me, “things that I think could be really funny, but I just don’t know how to say them. For me this is an opportunity to be around funny people and really think about that craft.”
After some icebreaking exercises, the course begins with a talk from Sheppard on his ideas of how comedy works. The most interesting thing about this is what he doesn’t say: he’s a promoter who makes his living from his comedy clubs, yet he doesn’t once mention money, or demographics, or how to appeal to any audience, or how to keep punters drinking at his bar. His lecture is a purist look at the most important thing in comedy: making people laugh.
I ask Sheppard what The Stand hope to gain from this course. “We’re hoping to find somebody great,” he says. "Throughout the year, we try to recruit talent through Red Raw [The Stand’s regular open spot night]. We have 30 beginners’ spots every week, with a six month waiting list. Everyone has to start somewhere and we’re trying to give them that opportunity.
“This course will teach them what to do with what they have, and to learn from the other people in the group as well. As this goes on they’ll become each other’s critics and that makes for a very intensive course over the next ten weeks.”
And the intensity begins in earnest shortly afterwards, with all twelve asked to perform two minutes of material in front of their peers. It’s an experience they all find excruciating, but everyone agrees that the workshop element of the course is rewarding. “Some of us are in the comedy society at Edinburgh University,” says Rory Telfer, “and you notice up there that the sketch groups are all great at supporting each other but the comedians just have to figure it out by themselves.”
“It’s really great that everyone’s at such a high standard,” says Struan Logan, “because it means we can make something great at the Fringe.” His fellow student Jamie Griffin agrees but admits, “it’s like any open spot gig, you’re still thinking, ‘damn, I’m competing with these people and they’re really funny.’ It’s a daunting task, but it could lead to something fantastic.”
This is the best and worst time to be attempting to start a career in comedy. The number of gigs available is growing every day, but so are the number of people competing for spots. Rory Telfer explains the life of an open spot: “You do The Stand, which is so professional and always has an audience, and you think, ‘This is amazing, I could really make a living doing this.’ Then you do another gig and there’s twelve old men in a pub, and you’re like, ‘Hey, I’m a student, do you want to hear about my girlfriend?’ and they just couldn’t give a fuck. That’s a bit less glamorous.”
The competition for stage time creates a fertile environment for dodgy promoters who want to rip off naive comedians, and Morrison takes a moment to warn the class about some of the more common traps: ‘Bringers,’ which are shows where the audience are required to bring friends along; Vanity Gigs, where failed comedians host a show purely to give themselves stagetime; and Pay-To-Play, where the promoter requests something in return for stage time, either cash or unpaid work such as flyering.
One member of the class has a story that even shocks Morrison. They claim that they applied for a spot at a regular show, and were told that they had to pay £120 for a comedy course before getting a gig.
Sheppard knows that some of the comedy courses available are suspect. “There is a worrying trend out there. We’ve seen people who couldn’t get booked at The Stand putting themselves forward as experts on comedy and charging people hundreds of pounds for their classes. Courses aren’t inherently a bad thing but I would say ‘buyer beware’.”
Comedy courses are increasingly becoming a fact of life. There are some very good ones and plenty of successful comedians who’ve graduated from them, but there’s still a limit to what can be taught. Everyone in the class seems realistic about what the next ten weeks holds for them. Jamie Griffin says, “I met one guy who said, ‘I went on this course and they basically told me how to be a comedian’ and I thought ‘wow, where is this magical course?’ Then I saw him do his set and... yeah, you can’t teach someone to be funny. That’s what I like about this course, they’re offering to teach us structure and give us tools, but actually making people laugh is still up to you.”
James Macintosh agrees. “I admit, I was worried it'd be like we’d show up and they’d say, 'Give us your script, we’re going to turn it all into puns' and it’d be comedy by committee. I like the way that they start off by saying, 'This is your own thing, so do your thing but just make it better.' They’re not trying to push us into being what they want us to be.”
It’s been interesting to meet this group as they start out on a journey that’s going to take them right to the heart of one of the most important arts festivals in the world. As well as the showcase, many of them are taking advantage of the Free Fringe and Scottish Comedy Festival to put themselves out there, something which has been ironically difficult for previous generations of Scottish performers at the Edinburgh Fringe. All of them are clearly dreaming of being superstars. Perhaps some of them will.