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M CHALLENGE: It's no joke: can you learn how to be funny?; We likes a laugh we do. So, in the interests of a titter-fest, we sent M writer Nikki Bayley on a comedy improvisation course. But would she have us rolling in the aisles?

Byline: Text by Nikki Bayley.

It's all my own fault. After a night out with the M team, I revealed my tragic secret: I can't tell jokes. Rambling set-ups and confused punchlines. Stories that make you laugh, no. So as revenge for the one about the golf buggy and, um, either a dog or a duck, M packed me off to an improvised comedy course. The idea is I can learn to be hilarious and spontaneous all at the same time. God help me.

I spend the night before watching old episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway? with that funny-looking yank Greg Proops and Josie Lawrence. They make it look easy but I'm sure standing with a gang of strangers (or worse, by myself) trying to be funny about colanders (or whatever we're given) will result in an un-funny mess.

I wake the next day with long repressed memories of being sick from stage fright before playing Third Shepherd in the school play. Still, as long as one of the improvised things is Be A Crying Woman Hiding Behind A Chair, everything will be fine.

The Spontaneity Shop is a bright, airy studio space in Camden Town in North London. There are 12 other pupils in the class, aged from late teens to 40-something. Half are aspiring actors and the other half amateur-nervous- nellies like me. It seems the actorly faction want to learn new skills while the amateur mob are here to boost their confidence. Some even fancy themselves as Eddie Izzards-in-waiting. Yes, they really do want to be men who dress in ladies' clobber and tell gags in French. Crazy.

We start with warm-up exercises to tap into our Inner Comedy Kid. Our first is pointing at various objects in the room, then shouting out what it isn't. The actorly lot stride around bellowing, while the rest of us look on in horror and try not to draw attention to ourselves. I find myself by a chair, pointing speechlessly, my mental thesaurus rejecting everything from Aardvark to Xylophone. You know those `Go to work - realise you're naked' nightmares? This is worse.

Eventually Deborah, our teacher, calls a halt and tells us why it's so hard. And why we're so rubbish. We all want to say something dazzlingly witty and are trying too hard. Apparently we need to just stick to what's obvious. Which is easier said than done.

Over the day we play games to teach us Improv basics - each one needs a volunteer so I improvise myself into the background. I've found a kindred spirit in Marion. She confides: `I wanted to leave after the first exercise but was terrified of drawing even more attention to myself.' A 43-year- old charity worker from Muswell Hill, she's on the course to get ideas for a humorous novel she's about to write. `I didn't think we'd have to do things,' she hisses. But ten minutes later we're trying to improvise a holiday scene. Marion and I babble about Cuba and nuns in The Sound Of Music. It makes us giggle although I'm not sure if we're laughing at each other because it's funny or because we're just plain hysterical.

Next we have to suggest a scene where our volunteer Alex - who's clearly an actor as he doesn't keep going `erm' like the rest of us - has to ask us: `What am I doing?' We shout suggestions which he acts out. It feels cringey but ideas come thick and fast. Alex acts out milking a cow... that kicks him... then he falls over... then a giant jelly falls on his head... then the phone rings. Oh dear. We're not very good at this. There's a lot of embarrassed laughter. Deborah says we're making the classic beginner's mistakes. The audience will like us if we're not too surreal. We need to keep it simple.

This is tricky as there's a few over-active imaginations in the class. One guy in particular is incredibly funny. The class is in hysterics as he improvises a mad scene about a homeless man who finds a box of gold and buys his heart's desire - a sperm whale - which ends with him mixing a chicken egg and whale sperm in a coke bottle. Brilliant.

My embarrassment fades as it's clear I'm amongst fellow loons. I finally feel confident enough to do a scene in front of the class. I get paired with David Capstick, an aspiring actor from High Wycombe. He's a nice bloke with a dry sense of humour and a splendid beard. We play a game called `Word At A Time' where we take it in turns to tell a story adding just one word each. Our scene is robbing a bank so David and I start to creep towards the `bank'. Have. (Huge pause.) You. Got. The. (Glances exchanged, sniggers stifled.) Gun. Yes. I. Have... (Gusts of laughter.) Get. Your. (David waves his hands at me, I scrabble for the right word) Hands. (Yelp in relief.) In. Front. Of. You. We wind up on the floor in a shoot-out and actually get a laugh for our over-the-top eye-rolling and leg-waggling death throes.

The next day's class is easier. We play a great game where we shout out words to make up proverbs - we're in fits and vow to stick to `Never wash your hands in drains' and `Always ask a blind duck on the tube for your ticket' forever more.

Over lunch I chat to Peter Walter, 35, an events manager from South London, who came along after seeing one of the Spontaneity Shop Improv Troupe's shows. `I was so nervous but you get such a buzz,' he says. `I've signed up for the next course already.'

By the end my nerves have gone. Marion has even revealed a Sandi Toksvig- like genius for deadpan humour. We've come a long way and it's done wonders for our self-confidence. I wouldn't bother keeping a lookout for me at your local comedy club but next time I tell a joke I won't get so flustered. I know a great one about an egg cup, a giraffe and a, no, hang on, that's not right...


1 Write your own material You need five minutes' worth to secure an unpaid, open stand-up spot but it must be original. Most stand-ups are obsessive anoraks and will know if you've nicked it.

2 Practise your set Once you've got your material, practise it loads - in front of a mirror or into a tape recorder. I spent the week before my first gig constantly muttering my set under my breath. This meant I was very confident but people have avoided sitting next to me on the bus ever since.

3 Don't worry if it goes badly Every one of us has `died on our arse' at some point. But if you enjoyed being in the limelight keep going - you may get better. And if you are really talentless, you can apply for the next series of Big Brother.

Catch Lucy at the Edinburgh Festival from 31 July


Nikki (in red top) and her fellow students `play a great game where they make up proverbs'. Hmm, think you had to be there. Left: a nerve-busting warm-up. Below: improvising with the `splendidly bearded' David
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 28, 2003
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