School for laughs

Logan Murray's courses in stand-up do more than teach comedy - his students discover themselves.

"You are completely in control of your own destiny." Logan Murray stands in front of a small audience in the basement of the Washington pub in Primrose Hill, north London. He leans against the wall, folding and unfolding his arms as he speaks. The ceiling hangs low and heavy over the group watching from plastic chairs in the dark. "It's your turn to be empowered," he says. "You hold the power." He catches himself and laughs. "I sound like He-Man."

The audience laughs, but hangs on his every word. These people have come to change their lives by doing what they always dreamed they might. Murray is the teacher at Stand Up and Deliver, the Amused Moose Comedy School's course in stand-up for beginners, and this is an orientation for prospective students. Most of those in the audience have already paid £375 to secure a place at the next fully booked 12-week session.

The course encourages students to participate in improvisation workshops and joke writing exercises and, at the end, to perform a five-minute routine at a showcase evening. After that, it is up to them. Murray estimates that two-fifths of students are working as comedians two years after completing the course. However, he emphasises that it is perseverance that guarantees improvement, and not weekly classes.

Stand Up and Deliver is designed to allow students to explore who they want to be as comedians, to learn about putting jokes together and to help them understand what it is about themselves that is funny to a paying audience. It gives them a safe forum in which they can experiment and fail, saving them from the horror of doing just that in front of unsympathetic strangers at open-mike nights. For Murray, the course teaches people "to get rid of all the notions of who they think they are and to be themselves. That's the thing that will make them funny for the rest of their careers."

The strategy has enjoyed considerable success. Some of the rising stars of the UK comedy circuit have studied at Amused Moose, including the Perrier Award-nominated Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert and the prize-winning sketch group We Are Klang. Naturally, many other alumni have simply continued working their day jobs in law firms, IT departments and banks. But Murray insists that, even if a career in comedy remains elusive, there are more subtle benefits to be reaped. "I didn't believe it when I started doing this, but everyone is funny," he says. "They simply need to allow themselves to be."

He focuses on chipping away at his students' inhibitions and insecurities. By breaking down the affectations of adulthood, many thirtysomething students experience a second coming-of-age. Typically, Murray says, a quarter come because they are serious about stand-up, another quarter because they are interested in other areas of comedy. For the rest, comedy performs the same function as an adrenalin sport: "It's either this, fire-walking or bungee jumping." Often there is a particularly dedicated best man tucked in to the group.

After the Saturday-afternoon class in week two, the students hang around for a pint at the Washington. Emma Jarvie had been thinking about taking up comedy for a long time. "I've always been one of those people that has made people laugh," she explains. "When I hit 35 I really want to give it a bash - to see if I can do comedy properly."

Emma's friend Peter Ely, who works in the "security industry", had always wanted to do stand-up. He had been writing his own stuff alone for years but had not dared to take it any further. Emma coaxed him along to Amused Moose. Like many of the other students, he was at first intimidated by the prospect, but now is determined to push himself through it. "I realised that if I didn't do it now, I'd never do it."

James Agha joined the course after a period of depression, during which comedy was a solace. He has kept the fact that he is doing it a secret from his friends. "It's a very bold thing to come up and say, 'I'm funny,'" he says. He describes the course as "therapy". Many of his fellow students similarly talk about the experience as a deeply personal journey. "You look at everything differently," says Emma. "I'm finding I'm more interested in life again. I've started to take a keen interest in politics, whereas I couldn't give a fag about politics before.

"It's given me a voice, and made me feel like looking at the brighter things in life."

Peter says people have already begun to notice a difference in him: "I don't see it, but my friends say there has been a change. It's only the second week and it sounds so pretentious, but it's not. Friends have said I am more willing to say things that I wouldn't have said in the past. Before, I was petrified. Now I'm more willing to open myself up to new ideas and people and thoughts."

Students past and present form a closely knit group around the course, and around Logan Murray himself. A Facebook group called Logan's Children has been formed, and its members speak of the middle-aged comedian as a guru figure. Five years after Murray first agreed to teach Stand Up and Deliver as a one-off, hundreds of alumni extol the virtues of the course with the fervour of the newly converted. Just as important as what they learn about comedy is what they learn about themselves.

"I always say it's not therapy, it's comedy," Murray says, "but I'd like to think that if you're doing comedy you have to examine things." He won't guarantee success on the comedy circuit, but promises his students that the course will "help you to find out who you actually are". And if they are able to give up the day job, that's a bonus.

For more information on courses at Amused Moose, log on to:

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide