School of Hard Laughs
Can you become a comedy God in just six short weeks? No, but as Helen Keeler found out, it's a pretty good way to start a promising stand-up career...
What’s a surefire way to make good on all those unrealised career ambitions? A few sessions with a life coach? That motivational ten CD set you ordered from QVC? Or plain and simple jealousy?
Hands up those honest enough to admit to the latter?
Helen Keeler’s hands are unashamedly lifted heavenwards. And that’s one of the reasons why SevenStreets is a fan. And that she’s funny – aways a handy tool to have in your comedy kit bag.
Keeler, one of the city’s sharpest new voices on the circuit, had been dabbling for a while. An open mic night at the Egg Cafe here, a low budget short film there. Grappling with the medium, toying with it, flipping it around like an killer whale with a seal – never quite settling down to get stuck in.
Then it happened. Keeler – a Theatre Studies graduate from Middlesex University – began to see a friend from her student days appearing with increasing regularity on the telly…
“Alan Carr was on my course,” Keeler says, “and the more I saw him, the more I was consumed with jealousy.”
We’re assuming it was with his ascending comedy star rather than his dental work. Having said that, memorable teeth are no barr to a career in stand up. Not in this city, missus.
“He’s much funnier in real life,” Keeler admits.
Still, even a half-funny Carr was starring in his own chat show, Radio 2 programme and sell out tours. You want motivation? That’ll do it.
Keeler enrolled on an intensive Comedy Course run by Funny Business, a Liverpool company offering a six week boot camp guaranteed to bring out the funny bone in everyone from timid HR Directors looking for a few punchlines for their presentations and stressed out city workers, to jobbing comics looking for some solid comedy protein to beef up their routine.
“In the past, I knew that the main thing holding me back, apart from sheer terror, was the fact that I didn’t think I’d found my comedy voice,” Keeler tells SevenStreets.
Ah, the funny voice. And we’re not talking Joe Pasquale (is anyone?). It’s that on-stage persona that supercharges a mere mortal into a prowling, all-conquering Comedy God.
Eddie Izzard’s talked of his struggle to find it. And, should you have had the misfortune of buying his earlier material on DVD you’ll know what Keeler’s talking about. Sure, the jokes are still – potentially – as funny, but for any comedy more sophisticated than Bernard Manning (ie, any you’d be happy to sit through) delivery is everything.
“It was a real conflict,” Keeler recalls, “I wanted to do it, but I just didn’t have the courage to make that final push. The comedy course gave me the body language, and the techniques to make an audience let me take control. Or at least showed me how to bluff it.”
Good comedy, of course, shares much of its DNA with great acting. It’s role play. Only, from Joan Rivers to Jimmy Carr, with comedy, it’s role playing a version of yourself. A caricature. A grotesque (although, in all honestly, we think La Rivers has gone a touch too far).
During her six weeks intensive funny course, its as if Keeler and co had been hoodwinked by Scientologists, so completely were they remodelled from timid wise crackers to prowling alpha-males with balls of pure comedy gold. And the men were equally transformed.
“Yeah, comedy can seem like all-male club,” Keeler admits – and in the week accusations of all-male bias in the writing teams of hit US comedy fixtures Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and Saturday Night Live, it’s hard not to agree – “But it’s all to do with control. If you can keep the audience with you, sex doesn’t matter.”
Hmmm. That’s one way to win over a crowd, though. Wonder if Pauline Daniels has tried that yet?
“The audience has to have confidence in you. So in order for that transformation to take place, you have to slip on the mask, believe in yourself, walk out there and own the stage,” says Keeler.
Working in groups, with each group member developing a short routine, course participants tested out their material on each other, pulled it apart, and rebuilt it into something approaching a turn. It’s only two minutes. But, oh, the agony…
“It’s amazing how much material you have to whittle down to get just a few minutes’ worth of great comedy.
A bit like poetry, SevenStreets wonders?
“In a way, comedy is a lot like poetry. They both need their rhythms and cadences, and they both have rules which, if used correctly, can turn an OK joke into a side-splitting routine,” Keeler says.
Although, ironically, for someone used to writing sparingly and economically, Keeler discovered that, when it comes to comedy, the journey is more important than getting there.
“The more you ramble, the funnier the pay off,” she says.
Really? We’ve seen those extended Ronnie Corbett monologues. We’re not so sure.
“The key is to find the most unusual or surprising way to get to the punchline, using words that are known to just be ‘funny’ words at the end of the sentence is another way. Victoria Wood does this a lot.”
We know. She can hardly get through a sentence without using the word Swarfiga.
Keeler completed her course with an eight minute routine which went down exceedingly well. Her comedy journey, it seemed, was just beginning.
“I was so nervous I just couldn’t take in the audience’s reaction,” she recalls. “I wasn’t even sure if they were laughing. Turns out they were, and that’s all that matters. The audience doesn’t fake it in comedy. They only laugh if they find it funny. It’s not like in the theatre when they’ll clap out of politeness.”
Next steps? “I have to listen more to the audience’s reaction. A comic needs to know when to start talking again. That’s a real skill. They call it ‘graphing the laugh’. Leave it too long and it looks like you’re milking it…”
Taxi for Mr Jupitus…
Still, Keeler’s had plenty of opportunities to graph out her laughs, and for that matter, her upward trajectory. She’s beaten the gong at the bear pit that is the Rawhide Comedy Club, is a regular at Manchester’s legendary Frog and Bucket, and this month has that ultimate comedic initiation ceremony – a run at the Edinburgh Fringe.
So, all in all, those six weeks in Spring were well spent?
“Oh yes, I’d never have got to this stage in my career without the skills I learned there,” Keeler admits.
And what advice would she give her friends when they start to see Helen give John Bishop a run for his money?
“Just do it. Don’t dither for two decades, like I did!”