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12 January 2022

Angie Belcher on prescribing comedy on the NHS

The comedian discusses how laughter can be used to treat patients suffering with trauma.

By Sophie McBain

When Angie Belcher is teaching comedy, her students often worry that they don’t know how to write jokes. But you don’t make people laugh just because you can land a funny punchline, Belcher always tells them. The first step to becoming a comedian is self-awareness: Who are you? What do you want to say about the world? “Comedy is a political act. Even if you’re not a political comedian, people will ascribe politics to you,” she told me, when we spoke via Zoom. “I’m always saying to people: the more authentic and vulnerable you are on stage, the closer your audience feels to you. The closer they feel to you, the more believable you are. And the more believable you are, the funnier you are.”

Belcher is 46, blonde and energetic; ask her how she is, and she’ll usually answer, “peachy, thanks!” She is the comedian-in-residence at Bristol University, a published poet and comedy performer, and has been teaching stand-up for over 15 years. She often teaches university students, theatre companies or corporate clients but is now opening up her courses to less privileged groups. She believes comedy can change the world. Belcher says she’s witnessed how learning stand-up changes people: her students often gain in confidence and self-understanding. There are parallels between the psychotherapeutic process and comedy writing: both can be about reframing your personal narrative. Comedy can act like armour; the right joke can defang a horrible situation. She explains how telling your story on stage is a way of claiming ownership of it, of saying: “I decide what my story is, and I’ve decided to be the hero of it.”

From this month, GPs in Bristol will be able to prescribe Belcher’s six-week comedy course to patients who are struggling with trauma. Her first series, which has 15 participants and is being run in partnership with the Bristol Wellspring Settlement Social Prescribing Team, started on 13 January. By the end of the course, it’s hoped that participants will be able to perform five minutes of stand-up based on their own life. She’s also working with a suicide prevention charity that sees the course as a good way to help young men open up about their feelings, and with another charity to teach comedy to those in recovery from addiction.

[See also: “The parish system is a kind of spiritual NHS”: Anglican priest Alison Milbank on saving our churches]

Belcher is often struck by people’s ability – and need – to find humour in the most painful or desperate circumstances. She had recently received an email from someone who was the victim of medical malpractice and now required a stoma. This person wrote of how important it was at support groups to be able to laugh together. Joking was a way of talking about the problem and breaking the taboo.

Of course, being able to find the funny side can take time. Belcher often spoke on stage about her mother’s dementia, but when her mother died in July it took four months before she could talk about her again. Crying in class is to be expected, crying on stage is not a good idea. “You don’t want your audience to pity you – you want them to feel like they’re on the same journey with you,” she said. “It’s about deciding you’re now strong enough to say the words: ‘This happened. It was awful. However, a really funny thing happened at the funeral…’” 

Her latest initiative was mocked everywhere you would expect it to be: “Comedy classes on the NHS? You’re having a laugh… and the joke is on us,” the columnist Richard Littlejohn wrote in the Daily Mail. “I don’t give a shit to be honest with you Sophie, I know what I’m doing works,” Belcher told me. “But when you’re reading those pieces, sometimes you can have a bit of a dark moment.”

In fact, the courses are not funded by the NHS (Belcher has an Arts Council grant), and they are intended to complement rather than replace traditional talking therapies. Belcher has a master’s degree in psychology, and will be evaluating the impact of the course with input from social workers. She hopes, if she can prove its effectiveness, to roll the course out more widely, and to work the results into a PhD thesis: “I would quite like to be called Dr Angela Belcher!”

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[See also: Bernard-Henri Lévy: “Defining oneself by an identity is an impoverishment of what you are”]

Often, Belcher will invite her students to define their personal struggle: what is the thing you grapple with every day, she asks them. What is it about being bipolar, or having PTSD, or being vegan, that is hard for you? One struggle she often returns to in her writing is her working-class background; her feeling of being an outsider in her middle-class, academic circles. Belcher grew up on a council estate in West Bromwich in the West Midlands, one of the most deprived towns in the country. She watched a lot of comedy on TV, but the idea of pursuing a career as a comedian still seemed laughably unrealistic. She loved watching Lenny Henry, who hails from Dudley, only a few miles away. Even then, she felt inspired by how he mined his background as a working-class, black man from the West Midlands, for jokes. Belcher found out that Henry’s comedy hero was Eddie Murphy, so she started watching him too, and then when she found out Murphy’s hero was Richard Pryor she developed a lifetime love for the American stand-up. That’s another comedy tip: study your heroes’ heroes.

Belcher has a three-year-old son and remembers struggling with her change in status as a new mother. “When you become a mum, people think you’re not a useful person in society anymore,” she said. She remembers attending a joyless mother-and-baby session in a draughty church, where she was given a “Bourbon biscuit, but no cup of tea, in case I dropped it” and thinking: “I used to go to gigs and to the theatre, what’s happened to me?” It gave her the inspiration to set up Aftermirth, a daytime comedy club in Bristol that parents can attend with their babies (she suggests a cut-off age of 18 months, after which the babies are more likely to pick up swear words). She advises the comedians who come to perform not to hold back. These mothers have been through “nine months of obesity, three days of unbearable pain and a lifetime of looking after this thing. Do not censor yourself! You’re doing them a disservice if you do not give them your best swearing and mature, edgy material!” she tells them. Last year she also became a comedian-in-residence for Can’t Sit Still, a theatre company working with mothers who have postnatal depression.

Comedy is an act of generosity, Belcher believes. “Often, what stand-up comedians do is they give themselves. They hold themselves up to be vulnerable so that it can be OK for other people to be vulnerable.” One thing she teaches her students is how to bring out their “inner comedian” in stressful moments. The inner comedian, instead of closing down or getting angry, seeks playfulness and connection with others. Belcher uses the technique herself, noticing when her anxiety or discomfort brings her back to an “inner bullied teenager”, and then consciously changing her responses.

She’d recently had her Covid vaccine in a shopping centre and felt awful sitting in a Perspex booth awaiting a jab while passing shoppers stared at her. The bullied teenager felt scared and exposed; the mature comedian turned to the man in the adjacent booth and said: “Cor, doesn’t it feel like you’re in [Channel 4 dating show] Naked Attraction?” The tension was broken. “My inner comedian can bring joy and love and playfulness. She has a much better time. She creates connections for people so that, hopefully, she can save a life,” Belcher said. She thinks your inner comedian can too.

[See also: “Class has dropped out of the feminist picture”: Amia Srinivasan on The Right to Sex]

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This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage