With a seemingly endless stream of negative stories about the state of the economy, it is not surprising that people are turning to standup comedy for a little light relief. Going along to watch a comedian pull apart famous figures and ruminate randomly on subjects ranging from cats drilling to garlic bread is an excellent way to dispel the doom and gloom. At the University of Wolverhampton, talented students are learning how to win over an audience, spin an entertaining tale and even deal with the dreaded heckle.
Drama students at the School of Sport, Performing Arts and Leisure have the opportunity to specialise in comedy as part of their degree course. The University is one of just a few higher education institutions in the UK that offers this, and it has proved popular with budding Eddie Izzards and Victoria Woods. Two such students who are hoping to make their way on the comedy circuit are final year students Sami Cornick and Natalie Sharrock, known as Sami and Tilly.
The duo perform musical comedy, with Sami playing the piano while they both sing. Their first song, which still proves popular with audiences, is about how much they love pizza, while another song re-visits a fairytale to imagine the real reasons for the seven dwarfs’ characters. The pair are lucky enough to have never been heckled on stage – although they recognise that this will happen to them at some point. But their upbeat approach seems to win over audiences, and they have so far reached the semi finals of the English Comedian of the Year and the Laughing Horse New Act of the Year competitions. “We get nervous beforehand, especially at competitions,” Tilly explains. “But once you’re on stage, you soon forget about it and it is like no other feeling in the world when people laugh at you – it’s amazing
When it comes to on-stage nerves, Tilly has a wealth of experience to draw on for advice. Her godparents are actors Denise Welch and Tim Healy, well known for Coronation Street and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet respectively, her dad appeared in a famous Alan Partridge sketch. Sami and Tilly say their brand of humour is not really like a specific act, but parallels have been drawn with French and Saunders as another female comedy double act, although the students say that is where the similarities end. Sami has focused her dissertation on Bill Bailey, who also incorporates music into his act, while Tilly is a fan of Ricky Gervais. But, given the relative scarcity of female stand-up comedians, there are few to serve as role models.
Dr Ruth Shade is Head of the Drama Department and runs the comedy stream of modules at the University. Her research has focused on female comedians and she says it is very unusual to have a female double act, either in the UK or America.
“Research suggests that audiences tend not to laugh as much at women as they do at male comics – not even female audiences.
So women comedians have to be 10 times as good as men to succeed. It is a tough life, having to drive yourself up and down the country, often late at night, while you are trying to establish a profile.
“It is extremely competitive, but it is a good omen that Sami and Tilly are winning a lot of competitions at the moment. In this, they follow on from last year’s third year comedy undergraduates, who reached the semi-final of the BBC’s Upstaged competition. They have done lots of gigs on top of being full-time students and they have the potential to do this professionally, as you have got to be entrepreneurial and organised.”
Having the ability to think and act like an entrepreneur is a crucial skill for anyone entering the world of work, especially at the moment. But Dr Shade says that times of recession often see resurgences in popular entertainment, such as stand-up comedy.
“Research shows that when there is an economic depression, popular culture comes to the fore. The 1920s depression in America coincided with the development of film, and music halls were booming in the 1920s and 1930s between the wars,” she explains. “What people want more of is comfort. They want comfort food and laughing as a comfort. The cliché that laughter is the best medicine rings true.
“In some ways it is easier to create your own work in times of recession and, as a stand-up comedian you are making your own work and can be versatile. I think students who use their initiative to develop acts like Sami and Tilly have a lot of potential.”
Dr Shade and her colleague Peter Cann started the comedy branch of the drama course about five years ago. At level one, students start by telling funny stories in small groups. The aim is to learn basic comedy techniques and how to engage a crowd, as audiences will not laugh at someone they don’t like. They progress to doing stand-up comedy as a solo or double act in their second year, including live performances with a fee-paying audience of up to 200 people. Then in their final year, students specialise in an area and focus on researching that for their written work and performing their own material at the Arena Theatre on City Campus.
Although not every student will go on to be the next Billy Connolly or Jo Brand, the course does give them all transferable skills for other careers. Ruth says a lot of students go on to do teacher training for example, and Tilly agrees that the course is a real confidence booster.
And there is one clear reason why someone would put themselves through the heckling, the late nights and the lonely car journeys to gigs.
As Tilly says: “The best thing you can do is put a smile on someone’s face.”