What Happened When an Actor Did an Online Comedy Course?

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Photo Source: Backstage. Pictured – Naomi Wattis

Back to the Front is a series where actor Naomi Wattis test-drives an array of different acting and performance courses to help get you ready for a return to the acting frontline. This week, she samples award-winning comedian and writer Gráinne Maguire’s online comedy course.

What do Bette Midler, Emma Thompson, Michael Keaton, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Murray, and Mike Myers have in common? All of them started out as stand-up comedians. A list of all actors who forged their career in comedy would run to pages.

The two main components of good stand-up are rapport with the audience and writing. While it might seem a strange moment in history to embark on a career in comedy, the element that you have the most control over is the writing, and lockdown may well present the perfect situation to start developing that skill.

Whats the mission this week?
This week I’m working on developing a regular writing practice and learning all about jokes with Gráinne Maguire. There are plenty of stand-up courses that will take you through the process of developing your first five-minute set and then lead you by the hand to the stage as you take for the mic for the first time. Now may not be the moment for those courses. Whereas this is a different approach – it’s an in-depth look at the process of joke writing.

Whats the deal?
Gráinne Maguire is an award-winning stand-up comedian and comedy writer with many TV and radio credits to her name. Her course Your Next 20 Mins is a two-hour, five-week intensive online comedy writing course over Zoom. It costs £150.

What do you learn?
The course begins with some wisdom from Maguire’s own experience. Early in her career, she wrote only when feeling funny, and only about things that truly happened to her. When a month at the Edinburgh Festival led to reviews saying she was very nice but had no jokes, she took matters into her own hands and bought every joke-writing book available, then proceeded to learn the craft. The course is the fruit of that experience, and she likens it to the running app Couch To 5K – much as you wouldn’t run a marathon from lying on the sofa, neither would you write your hour stand-up special from just having a few ideas that you thought were funny.

We learn that concentration is a muscle that can be exercised, and throughout the course, Maguire sends daily writing challenges, with strict instructions to spend no more than 15 minutes on each. By the end of the five weeks, I not only have a collection of jokes under my belt, but have also developed the practice of daily writing.

The saying goes: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people”. And my own personal experience of writing has seen me develop a sixth sense for things in more urgent need of my attention than writing. So, it was wonderful to trick my brain into developing this regular habit. Part of the thinking here is that it’s easier to be funny and playful when you’re not feeling pressurised, and if joke-writing is just a part of your daily routine, like brushing your teeth, it doesn’t matter if you have the occasional off day (though for the record, I do brush my teeth every day).

We are tasked with coming up with premises at first, rather than jokes, which again removes the pressure that can shut down creativity. We then separate each topic into three main subjects and come up with lists of words associated with each topic. We find links between the listed words, describe what is weird, hard, scary, and stupid, and think of people, places, and things associated with our premise. At all times, the intention is to problem-solve and to keep writing rather than try to be funny, which can be difficult. But fear not, because along the way, funny stuff comes out in abundance.

In each class, she looks at a different aspect of comedy writing: basic joke structure, word-play, exaggeration, and topical joke writing. We look at examples of different stand-up routines, different types of jokes, and different ways of being funny, such as exaggeration, attitude, visual imagery, act-outs, willful misunderstanding, and taking a firm stance for or against something. There are hand-outs on creativity, how to avoid negative voices that stifle productivity, and how to write when you’re not feeling funny.

Whats the verdict?
For anyone who has ever harboured a desire to try stand-up, this course would give you an arsenal of comedy weapons to launch your attack on the comedy world. It also has lots offer to the established comic wanting to brush up or expand their set. Maguire has come up with an effective process for her own writing, and an equally effective process for empowering her students.

For further information on Gráinne Maguire and her online comedy-writing course, visit her website.

More for UK actors? Check out Backstage.