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Gagging for a laugh


With demand for stand-up classes booming across London, Nirpal Dhaliwal puts his own funny bones to the test

Kicks and giggles: Nirpal Dhaliwal has long fantasised about becoming a stand-up
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With demand for stand-up classes booming across London, Nirpal Dhaliwal puts his own funny bones to the test...

The capital is seeing an explosion of comedy courses. Inspired by an avalanche of acts appearing on television and in clubs throughout the city, Londoners are taking to the spotlight to pursue their dreams of being a comedian. And I'm just one of them.

For the past three weeks, I have attended an intensive three-hour evening class taught by Harry Denford at the London Theatre in New Cross. A larger-than-life professional comic, this ex-airline pilot tours the circuit performing as a gold-chained, potty-mouthed, south London chav. He also runs a class at the London Comedy Course - one of the most established schools in the country. In fact, classes are so popular I could only get on a specially arranged midweek course set up to cater for excess demand.

But while I've long fantasised about being a stand-up, the transition from being quick-witted among friends to performing in front of strangers still daunted me.

My fellow students had enrolled for all sorts of reasons. Kate and Steve, two middle-aged City professionals, wanted to challenge themselves. "I want to feel scared and have fun," said Kate, who runs management training courses. Matt, an unemployed, recovering alcoholic, was doing it as a last hurrah, "in case the prophecy about the world ending in 2012 is true". Later on, he confessed that comedy was an opportunity for him to make something constructive of his experience, rather than simply writing off those lost years as a complete waste.

The mechanics of comedy are intriguing. The first class taught us to walk on stage, take a microphone from its stand and greet the audience - much more complicated than it sounds. Just doing this before a handful of other pupils was unnerving - it took us all almost two hours to get it right.

For the untrained, the merest hint of public attention is enough to make them fumble and make a fool of themselves. Harry also taught us that the standard introductions, two-syllable greetings - 'Hello' or 'Evening' - will always elicit an identical response, while anything more will engender silence. Stand-up suicide.

The knack is to keep the audience with you. "They're like sheep," said Harry. To prove this, he taught us to leave the stage after a stinking performance in a way that reaps some applause, and salvages dignity. Loudly thanking the audience for being wonderful, raising an arm and proudly declaring "Goodnight!" will get you just enough of a polite handclap to stave off any recourse to pills and a bottle of scotch in the dressing room. Comedy, you quickly discover, is the science of psychological survival.

We analysed the structure of a joke, learning what its essential bits were. We also gave our honest first impressions of each other. Everyone agreed that my colour, beard and on-stage reserve were my most prominent features.

These then became the basis of the act I was to write for and perform in our graduation ceremony, before an audience of our friends and families. Harry told us to make fun of ourselves first; we could then move on to other topics. He himself is overweight, so making a fat gag will deal with the obvious straightaway and pull the rug from under potential hecklers.

For my routine, I decided to kill all three birds with one joke. My opening lines were: "People say I look shy. But that's just because I'm scared of white people  When I was little, you lot used to beat me up. But now that I've got a beard, you're scared of me."

Hearing the laughter of the students, I felt the addictive tingle, the abusive, anonymous love of the mob that keeps a comic coming back for more. We also practised improvisation. Harry asked me to riff on why England fans shouldn't wave the English flag, given that St George was, in fact, Turkish. I heard the laughter once more and felt again the near-erotic thrill that compels a comic. I was hooked.

Harry added more tricks of the trade to our repertoire, schooling us in how to deal with a difficult audience. Although a comic must command his audience without attacking them, when he does he must be merciless.

"Always assume," said Harry, "that every club you're in has one bloke at the back who's off his head on cocaine." Acts have to be constructed to minimise the possibility of someone intruding into your routine - never ask an open question of the audience.

Finally, last week, I was ready to perform my set, along with other graduates. Luckily, my girlfriend was encouraging, as were my classmates. So much so that I've already written new material and want to try it out on the capital's burgeoning open-mic circuit. This might lead to more funny times ahead or, indeed, a brick wall of dejection. But I'm prepared.

Comedy Courses in London

London Comedy Course Six-week course, £230. New Cross, SE14. 020 8694 1888, londoncomedycourse.com

The Comedy School UK Seven-week course, £240. Gloucester Gate, NW1. 020 7486 1844, thecomedyschool.com

The Amused Moose club 12-week course, £375. Soho, W1. 020 7287 3727, amusedmoose.com

Laughing Horse Comedy Two-day course, £99, four weeks, £145. Across London. laughinghorsecomedy.co.uk

The Spontaneity Shop Eight-week improvisation course, £235. Camden Town, NW1. 020 7788 4080, the-spontaneity-shop.com

The City Academy Six-week course, £117, eight weeks, £144. Across central London. 020 7042 8833, city-academy.com

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