Letters To A Young Comedian

Friday 30 April 2004, The Stage

There are many aspects of being a comedian that people in normal jobs envy - the short hours, the free drinks, the long lines of eager groupies and, above all, the opportunity to meet Barry Cryer.
Another thing that pleases is that this is a job which allows you to do a lot of different stuff. An actor may play different parts in different forms of entertainment but in the end they are always pretending to be someone else. The comedian can do acting but may also write, present programmes on TV and radio or, with our natural understanding of the absurdity of life, work as train announcers at Paddington station.

In my capacity as a Radio 4 presenter, I have been to lots of interesting places and met loads of interesting people. I have been able to use the following excuse for not going to a cousinís wedding: ďIím sorry I canít make it but I will be in Havana with Arthur Scargill.Ē

Another excellent gig saw me spending several days in Indiana with the late Malcom Bradbury. Malcom - a novelist, academic and champion pipe smoker - was there watching his papers and manuscripts being incorporated into the archives of the state university.

Bradbury was the person who introduced creative writing classes to Britain having seen them in action in the US. He told me how the literary establishment, initially sniffy about the idea, had to concede there might be something in it when the first student to graduate from the course turned out to be Ian McKewan who has become one of the best novelists in Britain.

Some comics entertain doubts about the possibility of teaching comedy to raw recruits and so, in fact, do I. However many stand-up courses they attend, the following people for example will never be funny - John Humphreys, Graham Taylor and Stan Boardman.

Nevertheless, I believe that if a student has some aptitude for comedy then she or he can certainly be helped by an experienced teacher. No less a figure than Eddie Izzard used to attend a stand-up class.

One of the exercises that students do is to make a list of all the things they hate and work out what they might say about them. This clearly makes sense since, as critics know, being rude about a subject is vastly more entertaining than being nice about it.

A really good comic should be able perhaps to be celebratory and joyful about life but when its midnight at the comedy club, the audience are grown-ups and they want racey, scurrilous, dirty and even unpleasant.

Being truthful about the world is often to be sceptical, cynical even, especially now in the age of PR and spin. It seems a shame sometimes but it is inevitable that comedy is often negative.

Being rude and cantankerous makes you money. Last year I did an interview one afternoon for a programme called Grumpy Old Men, which has proved to be such a hit that, apart from a second series, the GOM club is becoming a book, a single, an opera and there are now plans for its own TV channel. Or something.

I seem to have rambled somewhat today but having arrived at a conclusion that rude is good, I donít give a toss, so sod you.

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