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.

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