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  • Writer's pictureAustin Birks

The Noble Art Of Comedy

I was once told that only 1 in every 10,000 people would actually have the courage to walk onto a stage and try and make complete strangers laugh, by writing and then delivering their own material.

To be fair, I honestly don’t know if that statistic is true or not. But what I do know, is that actually going through the process is an experience of a lifetime, and one that had I not been diagnosed with cancer, I would never have contemplated.

Ostensibly, the aim was to raise money for cancer research UK by doing a 5-minute stand up comedy routine in front of 450 people paying £20.00 a ticket at the iconic Glee club in the heart of Birmingham city centre.

The deal is you sign up, you get selected, and then you attend comedy lessons with an established stand-up comedian by the name of James Cook, a local Brummie comedian who had also specialised in teaching people the art of stand-up comedy. To be honest, the 30 people who showed up on that first Tuesday night at the famous Hare and Hounds pub in Kings Heath were an eclectic mix. A really good cross-section of the diversity of Birmingham society, we were a strange mix of age, colour, creed, sexuality. Something for everyone, you might say.

We attended 9 lessons, each one covering elements of what you need to do to prepare to walk on that stage and make people laugh, or not as the case maybe. James is very good. He guides, encourages, cajoles, and pushes you to do the work that you need to make sure that you are match ready, confident, and zoned, because if you are not ready, you will very soon find out. Indeed, within seconds of setting foot on that very small stage, where trust me, there is absolutely nowhere to hide.

The one thing that I learned very early doors was the need to prepare, as James kept saying, the more work, practise, effort, study, that you put in, the higher your chances of success. You can argue that applies in all walks of life, but trust me, there is nothing more brutal than thinking that you are funny, and your material works, to find you looking at a sea of faces not laughing, smiling, or reacting.

The old expression silence is golden, well trust me, it is not golden at all. It is painful and seems to last an eternity. How do I know? Because I have watched it, and having done this gig twice, (first in November 2019, and then again in July of 2021), the first time when the set worked, and the second time when it did not. It is fair to say that I have experienced the euphoria of an engaged audience, to the silence and disappointment when it did not.

Writing comedy whatever that is, is an art, observational comedy is finding that common thread that we can all relate too, the human experience if you like. I took the view, rightly or wrongly, that I was not going to swear or use offensive language. I wanted to test myself by creating comedy without crudity. Yes, there was innuendo in the first routine, but it was as much about what was not said, as much as what was.

The truth is that I spent hour after hour practising, and honing every word to make it look seamless. My partner even found an American comedian who reviewed my routine. And the time that I spent at home with a microphone in my hand, going over and over all the segments, every nuance, expression, and gesture was worked on. And the strange thing is, until you walk on that stage and start, and you get that first laugh, you honestly do not know.

Comedy truly is a baptism of fire, but let me tell you, when you get that response and it grows louder and more frequent, it just feels amazing. Conversely, at my second gig, even though I did exactly the same preparation and effort, half way through the set, I lost my train of thought, and left out chunks that in my preparation had my best material. As a result, I lost the audience and although I started well, and finished ok, it certainly was not the same as gig one.

But what an amazing thing to do, what a way to test yourself and I respect every single person who walked onto that stage and did their best, and they all raised money for cancer research. I never told anyone that I was a cancer patient. I did not see the point, it was not relevant. I was, however, extremely lucky that on both occasions I raised more money than anyone else. This was because my circle of family, friends and associates all knew that I had cancer and supported me magnificently and I thank every single one of them.

In conclusion, I am really glad that I did it. I would wholeheartedly recommend it. By taking part, you will get to know yourself better, you will be challenged, and it does require hard work, effort and commitment. Be ready to wake up in the early hours with a line, or spin on your material, keep a note book to hand to write everything down, and above all practise, practise, practise, and at the end of the day you will have great memories and you will help save lives for people who have cancer. Everyday ordinary people, just like me.

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