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An undercover journalist walks into a comedy club...
Jack Dulhanty’s quest to master stand-up in six weeks flat
My sister is scrolling TikTok and swilling beer. Saturday afternoon is on the verge of easing into evening when I burst into the room, dropping my bag on the floor with a bang.
“What is the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me?”
Unperturbed, she reels off a dozen examples without pausing. What about when I was 13, walking with friends, and a car screeched to a halt beside us? A man hanging out its window pointed at me: “you will never get a bird.” Then it screeched off again.
Or what about that time I pulled the cord in a disabled toilet thinking it was the light, instead setting off an alarm? I cried so hard I began to retch because I thought the building I was in — a church — was on fire and I was trapped in its pitch-dark bathroom.
Wait! She says, jabbing a triumphant finger skywards. What about the time you stepped in that kid’s shit?
Ah, I say. That might work.
I don’t want to be a standup comedian. You see, I’m an undercover journalist. Or at least I was until just then. I was sent by an editor, who I won’t point out, because I don’t want you to blame her for what’s coming…
Rewind a few hours: I’m stood in the Frog and Bucket – a comedy club on the border of Ancoats and the Northern Quarter – in a cold sweat. In front of me are four other men: Craig, a burly, bearded salesman; Mo, an entrepreneur who always wears button-down shirts; Dillan, a clinical psychologist with huge, boyish eyes; and Kami, a bespectacled pharmacist who smiles at everything.
The task we’re given isn’t exactly Mount Everest: get up and say something funny. I opt for a classic — well, “classic”, it’s convoluted and heavily dependent on context — about the one time I tried mountain-biking. There are no laughs. Their feedback is consistent in its thrust, which is essentially: we have no idea why you thought that would be funny. I call myself a dick, which gets a laugh from Kami, then sit back down.
It’s my first session of a stand-up comedy course I never had any intention of enrolling on, and my creeping suspicion that maybe, just maybe, I might be a natural has evaporated.
I first heard about the course via my editor. Sophie had become frustrated by the one-note quality to our pitches: death, depression and desperation were all themes that prevailed in our ideas meetings. “Can’t one of you pitch me something cheerful?” became her rallying cry. When we failed to do so, she threatened to come up with ideas herself, which would then be doled out to us like gruel.
But while I didn’t choose comedy, being allocated the stand up course felt sort of fitting. Cosmic, really. I have an odd relationship with humour. On the one hand, I would like to be an abundantly funny person, but on the other, I don’t want to try to be funny. To try means you aren’t.
Which isn’t to say I haven’t fallen into that trap — “Jack, we heard you the first time, we just didn’t laugh” became a refrain in my household when I was a child. Not that hearing this would deter me; I’d kill a joke, bleed it dry and wear its teeth as a necklace for the rest of the day to remind people it was mine.
And I can see what you’re all thinking: this isn’t the type of guy who would spend £300 learning how to be funny! Look at him! Tall, classically handsome, modest…
So when Sophie suggested that I take a stand-up comedy course and write about it, this little bit of cognitive dissonance – wanting to be funny, not wanting to try – was put to the test. I protested much in the way you do when offered a second helping of cake you know you will definitely eat. I emailed the organiser that same evening.
But sitting with the other students, my mountain bike anecdote – once hilarious, adored by all my friends – now wilted and useless, I wonder if I made a mistake. Dillan, the clinical psychologist, performs. I say perform because he is saying things in a coherent and orderly way, not jumping back and forth to remind people why this or that was important.
His polished delivery reminds me that I have started the eight-week course a full two weeks late. The course culminates in a five-minute performance in front of a live audience. So, I have six weeks to cobble together five minutes of stand-up, and need material. Which brings us neatly back to my sister, her TikTok and beer. What is the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me?
The Frog and Bucket is ruthlessly air conditioned, smells like a Wacky Warehouse and its ceiling is painted the colour of baked beans. On the walls are pictures of previous performers who went on to stardom: Peter Kay, Sarah Millican, Steve Coogan. Students sit at the tables crowding the stage, stirring cups of tea and coffee.
I grew up in Salford and I think it gets a bad rep. Salford has plenty to see and do. It has a lot of Subways. And I don’t mean the subways that smell of freshly baked bread, I mean the ones that smell of freshly pissed piss. And, I remember going under one of these subways with my late father, he isn’t dead, just stuck in traffic…
This course – the 24th since its inauguration in 2016 – comprises ten. There’s me, Craig, Kami, Dillan, Rishi, Mo, Nick, Joe, Jordan and Sarah. “We do normally have a more even split of men and women,” says Dave Williams, a tad concerned.
Dave is our course leader — our sherpa through the dusty foothills of comedic travail. He’s been a comedian for as long as I have been alive and, to paraphrase his website, while fame has eluded him, he hasn’t starved.
The course is by no means an industry course, it isn’t meant to churn out new comics. It’s designed to give people somewhere to dip their toe in, a kind of water-birth into show business. One far comfier than the alternative: piloting material on the stand-up circuit.
I turned to my dad and said: “Dad, it stinks of piss and dogshit in here.” I was five at the time. And he turned to me and said: ‘Jack, it’s not all dogshit…” and when he said it there was a clap of thunder outside, so I knew he was serious…
Nick, known professionally (so to speak) as Jules Whittaker, takes to the stage. It’s week four, week two if you’re me, and students are beginning to practice their sets and have their material critiqued.
Jules goes on a kind of surreal one-liner spree. There’s Latin sex jokes and long-winded plans to be tattooed, stuffed, and put in the window of Clinton’s Cards. Beside me is Craig, the salesman. “I’m trying to work out a way to keep the little funny on the way to the big funny,” he says of his own set, meaning he wants to sow little jokes into his monologue to keep the audience listening in the build-up to the punchline. I nod.
I haven’t slept much. In fact, the week following my first session has been generally fitful. I’ve taken to watching stand-up comedy between and indeed, during, virtually all other tasks. Every now and then, the date of my upcoming performance scrolls through my mind, for no reason whatsoever: the 21st of August 2022, 2:30pm matinee. It’s like knowing the exact date and time of your own death.
Jules is doing well. There’s a few belly laughs from Dave. Generally the students’ jokes skew vulgar and their routines risqué. Topics include cuckolding – it’s better for us both if you just Google it – sperm donation and Jesus Christ’s latent homosexuality.
And this scared me because my dad knew his shit. He was obsessed with dogshit. If I stepped in dogshit as a child, he’d take it as a personal betrayal. ‘Do you do this on purpose?’ He would ask me. Believe me, if you want someone to put some serious effort into avoiding stepping in dogshit, accuse them of enjoying it…
Those watching sit stroking our chins and furrowing our brows at what could possibly be improved. “You’re saying you’re using the cat as a javelin, but when I think cat, I think more hammer throw, y’know?” We see where jokes could be shorter and punchlines punchier. And, where we can avoid offending substantial chunks of our audience.
Jules exits the stage via stairs that seem deliberately constructed to embarrass: too steep, too narrow. We applaud and Dave leaps back onto the stage and seizes the microphone. In the style of a sadist addressing an abattoir, he says: “Alright! Who’s up next?”
So far, I have survived this question by swerving eye contact until someone else volunteers, but now no one else is left. Dave summons me to the stage (“It’s Jaaaack!”) and I climb the stairs. The lights burn hot, and through the glare I can see my fellow students, prepped and primed to dissect my jokes like frogs.
But one day I fucked up. It’s funny because I was telling my illiterate friend this story the other day. And he turned to me and said: “God Jack, you just couldn’t write it.” And I said no, you couldn’t, actually…
What immediately strikes me as I perform my material is how truly awful the whole experience feels. Imagine the worst flu of your life: tongue strangely heavy, but limbs pumped with helium. I’m only four feet off the ground, but I may or may not have vertigo. It becomes impossible to know if what you’re saying is funny or not, because even if it was, all you’d be able to make out is the sound of someone writing something down.
“I tell every group that it's harder in many ways than getting up in front of the proper audience,” says Dave, regularly throughout the process, standing beside a large notepad with nothing written on it. “At the showcase, you’ll feel great.”
Fast forward to the showcase, I do not feel great. It could be contextual: lights swoop across sticky tabletops, Asteroid by Pearl & Dean plays as a sumptuous voice intones, “ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Frog and Bucket”. As the audience settle themselves in their seats, I loom above them on the balcony like a hateful bat.
Over the intervening weeks we’ve been working on our material, tightening, polishing, trimming the fat. I worked out how to cut my set down to five minutes, while still delivering on the delicate sociopolitical factors that led me to step in the shit of a child.
I’ve decided to take my sister’s advice and use this story to form the basis of my set. Pull up a stool: one day, I finished a long high-school day. On my walk home, passing beneath an old subway, I stepped in the, er, excrement of a kid. It was so fresh the kid was still present to laugh at me. It was horrifying but formative, or at least it became formative when I ended up on this stand-up course.
I pass the subway smokers and find another group. Not subway smokers but subway natives, dwellers. One emerges from the group pulling up his trousers. I’m distracted and step in something…
As I was saying, we polished our routines. Each session of the course was identical to the one previously described, apart from one that entailed a lecture from the club’s general manager – so boring it bordered on hallucinogenic – about how the business works and the likelihood of us making it. Synopsis: the odds aren’t great.
Thankfully, most of the students are just doing this as a bucket-list item. It’d be pretty bleak if they were secretly harbouring ambitions to headline Live at the Apollo, so it’s a good thing none of them are!
Or are they? Honestly, I have no idea. Each time I ask I get suggestive “well, I suppose we’ll just have to see what happens lol” shrugs. It’s a thinly veiled nonchalance that begins to remind me of my own core dilemma: not wanting to look like I’m trying.
But, I begin to realise that not trying might actually work for me. After all, my secret weapon is knowing that my set means nothing. Unlike the so-called bucket-listers, I know I’ll never perform another stand-up set. This will be a comedic debut and a farewell tour rolled up into one, so who cares if I bomb?
I swear to God, this is what I hear: ‘HA, that ginger kid just stepped in the shit,’ and I think ‘the shit,’ no brand? And then my dad’s face swirls before me: ‘it’s not all dogshit’ and a slightly smaller face says: ‘do you do this on purpose?’...
The running order for the showcase arrives the day before. I’m sitting in a Starbucks after our last session with Jules Whittaker, Craig and Sarah. “Oops! Got the running order!” she says, skipping first to where she is, right after the second interval. “Ooof, interval opener.” I’m second to last. I toy with getting enraged by this but then remember I’d be sad regardless of where I was. So I just drink my coffee instead.
The lights dim and the music fades out. Dave, now our compere, takes to the stage. He begins picking off members of the crowd and talking about his penis – this constitutes “settling them down”, apparently. I shuffle through pieces of A4 scribbled with looping, illegible swirls that must have looked like notes once.
Dillan and his brother Rishi, who took the course together, are geeing themselves up, stretching like they are about to run a 200m hurdle. Craig is keeping his cool, while Jules Whittaker is just plain excited. Joe, a big redhead in a trucker’s cap, sinks a few pints.
When Dave calls our name, we are to descend from the balcony via a half-spiral staircase, like comedy Cinderellas. Then, we will bestow an amiable fist-bump on Dave, shuffle the mic stand out of the way, and from there, who knows. Blather incoherently and collapse? Get a few laughs, but mostly taste mediocrity? Deliver the most innovative routine the North West has ever seen — comedy’s answer to the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976?
You’re probably thinking now: is that the end of the set? And, it is! Because it’s hard to find a satisfying ending to a story about stepping in the shit of a child in a subway, but I’ll try my hardest to find a moral…
Dillan is up first, and as I watch him take the stairs, the delusion that I’m going to get out of this somehow, perhaps on a motorcycle, has dissipated entirely.
One glass of whiskey and a lifetime passes. Dave is on the stage and I’m halfway down the stairs. “Shall we get our penultimate act on stage, ladies and gentlemen?” He raises his arms, the audience sounds. “Let’s get the love in the room going.” I gag. “Would you welcome the wonderful Jack?” It’s only occurring to me now that that is technically a question.
My brain feels like it’s had its processing power quadrupled, I can see every little twitch of a nose or rise of a chest. I say hello, and coax the mic out of the stand.
I think the moral is this. Sometimes in life you stick your foot in one thing, and it turns out to be way worse than you thought it would be. I thought I stepped in dogshit, and it was actually the shit of a 13-year-old named Kyle; I thought I’d just be a news journalist, and now here I am, doing this.
“Ah! That’s it!” I say a week later. “The subjective expansion of time!” The conversation has moved on but I’ve been Googling relentlessly. Craig and Sarah pause their conversation, and Nick and Dillan look up from their drinks. I’m trying to explain that feeling I got on stage, where everything seemed so much more defined.
“It’s the same thing that causes traumatic situations, like car crashes, to feel like they’re in slow motion,” I say, not exactly reading the room. “Oh,” everyone says, nonplussed. We’re in the back room of Gulliver’s, an old-school pub on Oldham Street.
Despite their patter about bucket lists, the four of them, along with a few others, have thrown themselves — hurled themselves, really — into the open-mic circuit. They’re running with the same sets they perfected over the eight weeks of the course, and they’re trying to enlist me. “You’d barely have to change any of your material,” says Craig.
Now, a chunk of my material covers how I don’t want to be a stand-up comedian, and am instead an anguished vessel for the ideas of my dictatorial editor — worth noting here that these are jokes — so that would probably have to go. But the rest could probably work, it could even be spruced up with a few other one-liners, keeping the little funny on the way to the big funny.
And, for all my moaning, and there really was a lot, my comedic dabbling had positives. The people, mainly. To the last they were good souls, if in parts a little spikey (I entered one very brief roast battle and must say I wasn’t keen). Watching them progress and sharpen their material, knowing how much more it meant to them than me, was easily more satisfying than seeing myself improve.
Which is weird because — in case you haven’t noticed — I’m a bit cynical. When I thought of the kind of people I would meet on the course, the type to spend £300 to try and learn how to be funny, I shuddered at the idea of a mob of bloodless desperados. The Great Unfunny.
But if I learned anything from the course, it’s that comedy can’t be taught. However, it can be coaxed out of people and refined. Now, this isn’t to say some people on the course didn’t have much to refine in the first place. But by and large, watching my fellow students perform, it dawned on me that there wasn’t anything there that wasn’t there before. They were always funny, already naturals, they just needed the space to realise it.
So yes, I look forward to following them round the open-mic circuit, up into the attics of houses in Chorlton and the back rooms of Oxford Road Tiki bars. I look forward to hearing their new stuff when they get around to writing it. And, if my debut and farewell tour are already done, I wouldn’t rule out a comeback.
Much to Jack’s chagrin, we’ve had him link to the video of his set - for all of you to enjoy!