Training to Stand-up  

Susan Elkin delves into the world of stand-up comedy to discover an MA course in Canterbury to help you refine your skills

Stand-up comedy doesn’t, at first glance, seem the sort of thing you could train for in a university. Surely, if you have the innate talent you’ll just get up and do it? Then you talk to Dr Oliver (“Olly”) Double who runs the MA in Stand-up comedy at University of Kent at Canterbury (UKC) and realise you’re quite wrong.

Olly was himself a stand-up comic out on the road. Then the arrival of a family meant that he needed, by his own admission, a reliable job with a regular income. So in 1997 he went into academia, first at Liverpool John Moores University and now at University of Kent, where he is Deputy Head of the School of Arts. But he’s still an entertainer, through and through. His open lecture “Stand-up Comedy – Who is the person we see on stage?” is on the UKC website and is enjoyable as well as informative.

Moreover, Olly developed a one man show in 2006 called St Pancreas, based on the experience of being father to two children with type 1 diabetes. And, in 2015, he did a show at The Gulbenkian Theatre Canterbury about recovering from a fractured ankle.

So why the MA? “Well stand-up is very well established and successful strand of popular theatre in this country” he says, adding that therefore you can hone your skills in it as with anything else. “Stand-up comedy was, and remains, a strong element in our undergraduate acting degree. The one year MA, which launched as such in 2012, grew out of the final part of our old four-year degree which we’re phasing out”.

“We aim to recruit about ten to twelve people each year with ten being the ideal number. We can’t really make it any larger because there’s a great deal of practical performance work and, given the nature of the genre, it’s all individual. There can be no group work so the marking/assessment burden is quite heavy” explains Olly who is actively recruiting now for September 2018.

He continues: “There is a fairly strong stand-up tradition in the US and Canada and, more recently, it has begun to develop in mainland Europe too, so we also get quite a few applications from overseas.”

Most applicants have a first degree but not necessarily in drama. Olly tells me, chuckling, about a former student who taught in a sixth form college in Kent. “His first degree was not in drama but he was very interested in stand-up so he did our MA. We’re now beginning to see applications from his former students!”

There is, it seems, quite a lot of academic work in this degree which is why a first degree is usual. “Although we consider every application individually it would be remiss of us to recruit people who lack the skills to do academic research and write essays. There’s a dissertation too” explains Olly who is himself the author of a number of publications.

UKC holds the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive in its Templeman Library so the opportunities for detailed research are outstanding.

Once they’ve achieved their MA, graduates have, in the past, gone on to do a variety of things. “Some become professional comedians – in all sorts of comedy, not just stand up” Olly says. “Others become teachers. Some go on to further study such as a doctorate. One former student told me the other day that he’s training to be a policeman!”

Those famous “transferable skills” for real then? “Well yes” says Olly, seriously. “Training for stand-up comedy really helps when you have to deal with anything difficult. If you can stand on a stage alone, deal with hecklers and assert your authority you’re pretty well equipped for most situations.”

I ask Olly what advice he’d give to school students interested in stand-up comedy. And what should their teachers be advising them? “Get a first degree and I stress that it need not be in drama. But our three-year drama BA has quite a strong popular performance strand which could be a starting point. Or direct them to, for example, the degrees at Liverpool John Moores, Kingston, Salford or Middlesex. Then, later, if the interest is still strong, come and refine your skills, knowledge and understanding though our MA.”