Dave Woodhall talks to a comedian and teacher.
James Cook isn’t an eighteenth century explorer, a middleweight boxer, the bass player with the Arctic Monkeys, the BBC’s Scotland correspondent or a character off Skins*. He’s a Birmingham comedian about to embark on two long-running shows at the Edinburgh Festival.
Isn’t doing two shows unfair on some poor struggling comedian who can’t get a gig up there?
“Er, no. That’s not how Edinburgh works. There’s a thousand comedy shows and the only reason a comedian can’t get on a show would be if they didn’t have the will to do it.”
Your shows then. What are they about?
“Adventures on Air, which I did for a week there last year and I’m taking back in a more polished version. That’s about a former job I had, I used to work on commercial radio and I tell a few stories about what happened and the difference between how the job is perceived and how it is. People have ideas about how it’s all wacky and fun, there’s loads of people there and the reality is you and a security man. I worked for Mercia FM in Coventry, Trent in Nottingham, and BRMB, none of which exist now. Read into that what you will. I tell a couple of stories about surreal things that happen and talk a bit about the component parts of a commercial show, there’s a bit of audience interaction as well. We do a competition on stage with a willing audience member and the chance to win £100 every show. It could potentially be bankrupting.
Always be Rolling is a new show I’ve put together about one of my hobbies, which is board games, and about the perception and the reality again. Board games have a bad press because the games we grew up with playing tend to be the ones that out us off playing ever again. There’s more audience interaction, we play some versions of Buckaroo and Hungry Hippos live on stage. Not with real animals, you’d need all kinds of licencing, stage reinforcement, it’s just not worth it. Everyone who comes to see the show will get a copy of the rules of a giant board game that can be played on the streets of Edinburgh.”
You’re doing something like 23 days straight. How can you possibly do a comedy show for that long and stay fresh?
“I really like both the shows. I’m saying that now and by the end of August it may have changed but I’m having a lot of fun putting them together. From reading interviews with comedians I respect, they all tend to say that you have to enjoy it, and if you don’t the audience won’t. I’m proud of the shows, I think there are bits that are really funny, bits that the audience will get a kick from. I’m having a whale of a time writing and previewing them and I hope that’s infectious so the audiences come away having enjoyed them as well.”
Then you return to Birmingham. God knows, we debate the city’s music scene often enough but what’s it like for comedy?
“It’s doing pretty well. There’s the big weekend clubs, and for new acts starting out there’s plenty of well-run clubs like the Fat Penguin and Pod, good places to see the newer end of the circuit. If anything’s missing it’s more mid-range gigs, for comics who’ve outgrown the new act nights but aren’t ready to headline the circuit clubs.”
You also run stand-up courses.
“Yes, at the Midlands Art Centre and now in its fifth year. It’s not just for people who want to become comedians, it’s also for anyone who wants to boost their confidence, maybe they have a job where they need to learn presentation skills, and meet a bunch of like-minded people to hang out with. It starts again in September, there’s courses on Monday and Tuesdays and information is on the Mac website.”
The obvious question must be, how do you teach someone to be funny?
“You can’t, but stand up and funny aren’t the same thing. If you’ve ever laughed at something you’ve got a sense of humour, you know what funny is. If you’ve ever made anyone laugh then you know how to use your sense of humour. Stand up is an incredibly contrived set of circumstances where you have to stand on a stage in front of a bunch of strangers and make them laugh. It’s not about teaching people to be funny, it’s about getting them to use the humour they already have and then fit it into this unusual context. Then it’s developing who they’re going to be on stage and how they’re going to put that across.”
It’s a given that actors go to drama school, while musicians tend to look down on anyone with a musical ‘education’. What’s the attitude of comics towards the graduates of your courses?
“They don’t seem to care very much. A course isn’t a head start, it won’t elevate you above anyone else. The other way to start stand up, which most people do, is by showing up at gigs and doing open mics. That way you learn by making mistakes in front of audiences but the course helps you to avoid those mistakes. Anyway, most people on the course aren’t interested in being comedians, they just want to do something that’s fun and exciting.”
Apart from how funny the acts were, what impressed me about the show I saw was that there wasn’t a trace of nerves, they all came on as though they were seasoned pros, which was really impressive.
“Obviously we deal with confidence and nerves, and public speaking is a big chunk of the course, so they learn techniques in dealing with this. Of course they were nervous but the trick is hiding it. I can teach them how to mask it, and it’s lovely when that comes off. The show at the end isn’t mandatory because some people are interested in how jokes work but they don’t want to do the show. But they’ve been working for three months, towards the end they’re putting everything into it, and what is lovely for me is seeing the audience’s faces during the opening act when they realise they don’t have to pretend they’re having a nice time. It’s actually going to be good. The relief and delight, a lot of them are friends and family of the people on the course which is great but it’s like a kid showing their mother a painting that they’ve done. Their mother is always going to say it’s great and put it on the fridge door, but imagine if the kid showed up with the Mona Lisa. It’s like that.”
What happens once the course is finished?
“We’ve had a few who’ve become regulars on the circuit. Some of them have done okay, getting work. There’s a few who’ve one the course and now run comedy clubs which is nice, so the comics who complain that I’ve put more comics around, I’ve also put more gigs on the circuit. Jay Handley did the first course, he’s up in Edinburgh this year, Lindsey Santoro is doing very well, but there’s also stories like the woman who e mailed me after the course to say that she’d been promoted at work because of a presentation I’d helped teach her. Then there was a guy who had a stand-up gig on his bucket list. Someone else quit this job, moved to New York and now he’s study improv comedy. These stories are all incredibly rewarding. I’m not claiming that if you do the course your life will change, but if you do want your life to change the course can be part of it.”
*This will become clear if you visit www.jamescookcomedian.com
Details of James’ stand-up courses are available at www.macbirmingham.co.uk