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My idea to improve the world: force everyone to try standup comedy | Jack Bernhardt

The benefits to society would be profound not least that people would learn the difference between a joke and a threat, says comedy writer Jack Bernhardt

We all like to think our chosen profession is the most important. Firefighters will tellyou that they save people from burning buildings. Scientists working at Cern will tell you they pushthe boundaries of human understanding and achievement. They are wrong. The most important profession, objectively and definitively more so than soldier, than paramedic, than the social media intern for Southern Trains is standup comedian.

Right now, we need them more than weve ever needed them. Which is why I am proposing compulsory standup lessons for every single person in the country so that we can all think more like comedians and save our society.

It would work like jury duty. You would get a letter in the post that would summon you to the back room of your local theatre/pub/bingo hall/converted cotton mill that is now a trendy bar, where you would do an intense week-long course in all things standup: how to hold the mic close enough so people can hear you but not so close that you accidentally make out with it; how to deal with hecklers without resorting to screaming, You think this is easy, mate?; and how to alternate your material depending on your audience.

For example, a your mama joke during a Royal Variety Performance in front of the Queen is not suitable, but a your mama joke during a Royal Variety Performance in front of just Charles is to be actively encouraged.

At the end of the week, you would have to perform a 10-minute set in front of 50 randomly selected audience members. Depending on the difficulty of the class, the audience has either been given a free pint each and theyve been warmed up by Angela Barnes (beginner class), or its in a non-air-conditioned room, the show has started 25 minutes late and the warm-up act is a man reading out a list of the dead from the second world war (expert class).

On the face of it, this sounds like a dystopia, up there with Jacob Rees-Mogg becoming prime minister. Hour upon hour of first-time open-mic night sets from every single person in the country? People who hate comedy would dread getting on stage; people who love comedy would dread having to watch it. The only people who would actively enjoy it are people who love performing comedy but also actively enjoy the suffering of others. So, Andrew Lawrence.

But standup is unlike any other artform. With music or theatre, there is something else to keep an audience entertained: a story, a melody, other actors. With standup, it is just a microphone and a comedian. Think of the assumed arrogance of it: a standup is telling the audience that their point of view deserves your undivided attention for at least five minutes their jokes, their observations about Donald Trumps hair, and nothing else.

That power you can hold over an audience is intoxicating. I once span around in a circle on stage for 40 seconds for a joke. It was as underwhelming as it sounds. But I kept going, because I knew the audience had no choice but to indulge me. What were they going to do, leave? Nice try, but I was in front of the only exit. I had the power. Why else do you think every MP tries to cram in a tedious joke about the Mars rover or Andy Murray during PMQs? Because they love the sound of their own voices? No! Its the power.

If everyone was made to have a go at standup comedy not just white middle-class men from Notting Hill, but elderly black women from Birmingham, farmers from Somerset, Bangladeshi teenagers living in Mile End they would feel like their words mattered, if only for a moment. They deserve to have that confidence of a mediocre male politician flow through them, even if only once.

And the words matter. No one standup comedian is the same because no one standup has the same angle on the world. Standup is intensely personal I cant do a set of jokes about growing up delivering Hovis in Yorkshire, or about living as a fabulous drag queen in New York, as much as I desperately want to. I have to stick to tedious middle-class white guy jokes about why Waitrose avocados are squishier than M&S avocados (its something to do with how theyre transported, I think).

Joan
Joan Rivers performing in Hollywood in 2002. Photograph: Larry Marano/Getty Images

Not enough people stop and think about what their take on the world is. We just assume were all unremarkable or worse, that were all the same. Identifying what makes us unique not in a bad HSBC advert at an airport kind of way, but actually analysing who you are, and what our biases, privileges and limitations are, makes understanding and empathising with other people easier.

Comedy is as much about making a connection with an audience as it is about self-expression: my jokes about squishy avocados from Waitrose are going to go down great at a corporate event for M&S, but theyd bomb in a working-class suburb of Detroit because no one would be able to recognise it, and even if they did, it wouldnt be relevant. Moreover, if the audience is randomly selected and diverse, jokes that rely on sexist or racist tropes would bomb. Its the same reason Roy Chubby Brown wont ever do a show in Brick Lane, or why the men tweeting tedious jokes about Jodie Whittaker becoming the new Doctor Who will never, ever have sex with a woman, ever.

These are all pretty good reasons, but the most compelling is simple: a lesson in standup would let everyone know what a joke is and isnt. Over the past few months, it has become increasingly hard in this country to tell whether its the disgusting hate speech of Rhodri Colwyn Philipps against Gina Miller, poorly disguised as irony, or Trumps use of a gif of him beating up CNN, or basically anything that comes out of Boris Johnsons mouth to do with the EU. After each scandal, each gaffe, someone inevitably offers up the defence that it was just a joke.

The problem is that more often than not it wasnt originally presented as one its a veiled threat that is retroactively bestowed with the status of a joke when someone challenges it. Its intent wasnt to amuse or to satirise, but to intimidate and ultimately silence. Maybe, just maybe, if were all forced to craft our own comedy, well be able to spot the difference between a joke and a threat masquerading as a joke.

Perhaps next time more people would be able to look at the death threats and racism that Philipps spewed out online and realise that it doesnt have a set-up and it definitely doesnt have a punchline. Unless you count the fact that Philipps is now going to prison which, to be fair, is a pretty solid punchline.

Yes, it may be arduous. Yes, the idea of listening to millions of five-minute sets on why self-checkout machines are so hard to use fills me with dread (its because theyre a machine that replaced actual humans. Try replacing your mortgage adviser with a toaster, see how that works out). But for the good of society, we have to try to think more like comedians to spot those bullying threats, to empathise with our fellow man, to give confidence to those who have none. So please, dust off that Letterman-style jacket, grab a microphone, and start asking what the deal is with those compare the meerkat ads. Its our only hope.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/31/everyone-forced-stand-up-counted

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