Funny man

Stand-up - Trooping around the comedy circuit was not Miranda Sawyer's idea of fun - until she fell

A good sense of humour. The single most attractive quality a man can possess, apparently, though I don't think it's his one-liners that make Flavio Briatore so attractive to supermodels. Still, while millionaires may feather their personalities with bank-notes, and the handsome have nothing to worry about, those chaps whose assets aren't so immediate have the good fortune of being allowed to be funny, and thus transform themselves into sex magnets.

Bully for me, then. I'm dating one of the country's most eligible men. I live with a comedian - and before you chime in with "Who doesn't?", I mean he's a professional. He's a working stand-up, performing every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night in venues across the country. Sometimes he does gigs abroad, sometimes he acts in plays or on TV, but his everyday, pull-in-the-rent job is behind a mike, in front of an audience, making people laugh.

No, I can't think of anything worse, either. But, for some people, stand-up is a vocation. Before I had been to a lot of comedy gigs, I was snooty about comedians. As a writer, I thought jokes should be crafted, clever, constructed. Having seen more stand-up than I can bear to tell you about, I have changed my mind. Any hack can write a funny line. It is delivering it that's the joke. True comics relax on stage, enjoy themselves and the crowd, whether rowdy or attentive. Some present you with gags you can tell your mates. Some make you laugh without saying a word. Some are so dry, so cynical, so rotten, so filthy, that you hate yourself for laughing (though you still do). And the best give the highlights of their personality - their background, their secrets, their take on the world - then gift-wrap them in humour and seal the package with some soul.

Jobbing comedians work a national circuit. Stand-up has exploded over the past decade, so that in every major city, on every night of the week, you can go out for a giggle if you want. The two biggest franchises are the Comedy Store and Jongleurs, which have venues in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leicester, Nottingham, Oxford, Cardiff, Bristol, Southampton and Portsmouth. At these gigs, jokes form just part of your evening, with food, drinks and a disco afterwards all available for your £15, as well as four comedians, a compere and a half-spot (someone who's learning their craft). Each comic performs for between 20 minutes and half an hour. It is considered bad comedy manners to go over your time for too long, and an act that steps on another act's toes, by working a tired audience until it's dead or straying into topics known to be the headliner's stomping ground, will be given short shrift in the dressing room afterwards.

I rarely went to comedy nights before I met my boyfriend. When I did, I was shocked. I had thought: small tables, low lights, a cool crowd who listened quietly and appreciated the performers' virtuosity. In short, Ronnie Scott's. But comedy is mainstream now, and the mainstream comedy audience is - how can I put this? - pissed. Hammered. Absolutely mullered. There are always a couple of hen and stag nights in, and usually (in particular around Christmastime) a work do. With a Friday-night audience, the comedian's job is less telling funnies and more crowd control. People don't heckle, they shout random words. They don't concentrate, they gossip. They get up, go to the toilet, get a drink, have a fight, fall over - do everything except focus on the supposed reason for them being there. The difference between a comedian on the circuit and one who's famous enough to tour a solo show is all in the audience. Circuit comedians can deal with anyone. You could drop them behind enemy lines and they would make everyone put their weapons aside, sit down, shut up and laugh. After a post-rugby Cardiff crowd, it would be like dealing with dozy kittens.

But what about off-stage? Are comedians funny? Yes, they are - though they're just as often quirky or thoughtful or obsessed with music, or sex. Which leads us back to where we started - though I should mention comedy groupies, aka gag hags (yes, really). Like any travelling performer, a comedian has plenty of opportunity for some extra-curricular. Gag hags are the girls who provide it. And if you accept that funny is sexy, that witty attracts pretty, then you can't blame them for having a go. Still, I'd like to point out to any woman making a move on a comic that living with one is a laugh in a different way from what you'd expect. Comedians' girlfriends see their mates at weekends and keep weeks for their other half. You go away together when no one else is around, you meet up at two in the morning and you live your life as a couple when the world is at work. Funny peculiar, anyone?

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The happiness industry