“When you sign up for Arthur Smith’s Comedy Workshop, expect the unexpected!”
This is what Skyros Head Office told me when I rang them shortly before leaving for my first holiday in a decade with my great friend, Penny*. (Not her real name)
She hadn’t had a proper sun and beach jolly in ten years, because training to be a psychotherapist is nearly all work, no play and very pricey.
“Why not come with me to the Greek island of Skyros for a week if your family can do without you” she said back in March. Arthur Smith is doing a course out there in September and it sounds like a lot of fun”
“Oh God, comedy! What if I’m not funny in real life?”
“Don’t worry”, said Penny. “I called Skyros and told them I just wanted a holiday with a week of belly laughs. There’s no compulsory homework or exercises and it’s basically a group of people cracking jokes. It sounds bloody good fun and not really serious. Anyway, have a think about coming, you’ve not left the nest for nine and a half years – it’ll do them good to be without you for a bit.”
Six months later, after many long distance arrangements and putting in place half a dozen childcare back-ups for the week, Penny and I meet at Heathrow Airport.
We live in different cities and hadn’t seen each other for nearly a year but she welcomed me with, “Hiiiii! Our flight’s been called and I’ve seen Arthur. He must be on the same plane”.
And so it was that the funny man himself in trilby and canvas rucksack was waiting in Departures. He looked just like he sounded on the radio.
“Oh Hello! Are you two of my students?” quoth he not looking that impressed.
“Yes!” exclaims Penny, “and thank you for replying to my letter. I’m the one who wrote …”
(We’d been asked to send him an interesting fact about ourselves. Penny sent the story of her life on a sheet of A4 which I secretly thought was quite a flamboyant thing to do. I wished I’d sneaked a few more facts of my own under the wire.)
“Oh yes” says Arthur, “it was a lovely letter, I’d better be careful what I say then. Now, he said turning to me, “which one are you?”
“Um, I’m Jo and I did write to you with a couple of facts. But, never mind they weren’t very interesting.”
Perhaps Arthur was thinking,
“Why are these people coming on my comedy course?” Anyway he was very gallant and professional and didn’t say anything. Perhaps he was even relieved we weren’t carrying a joke book between us. He even laughed out loud at one stage, but it might have been poorly suppressed hysteria.
The rest of the week was pretty much the best holiday I can remember without any horizontal dancing or taking my kit off.
Here it is in glorious technicolor.
Improvisation – you don’t have to wear check shorts, but clearly it helps.
Half of the dozen people on the course didn’t want their pictures to appear in public due to them being on the run from the authorities, members of the secret services or psychopaths, and in one case, all three.
I think we had to sign the Official Secrets Act or something in case we were tempted to steal each other’s jokes.
So, sadly no photos of their gags being put to the test.
She’s a comedy writer and this is her hilarious sketch about sandwiches.
If you can succeed at that, you can succeed at anything.
How we wanted Arthur to laugh like THAT at OUR jokes.
She was bloody funny though. And lovely to boot. God, some people.
This is me doing an impersonation of Arthur on Day 2. At least it’s what I WOULD have looked like if I’d had a photographer.
I thought the impression was remarkably good, given it was my first ever stand-up performance in front of more than two people, and the first time I’d smeared breakfast cereal on my face in about 40 years.
“I’ve seen a couple of professionals do me really well. Yours was ok.”
Now tell me. Is that a compliment or not?
This funny business doesn’t run in our family. Apart from the late, great Alan Coren, who was a cousin on my Mum’s side.
Being a bit in awe of him and extremely shy too – though he was a really nice bloke – I’d belt up whenever we were in the same room. Poor guy never did get to hear my chicken joke.
By Day 3, if one of us came up with something seriously tedious, Arthur had the grace to listen until the end and find something positive to say like, “Thank you for reciting the first draft of your entire novel. The title is good. Now, I think it’s time for a coffee break, don’t you?”
However, there were exceptions …
Given the casual, conversational nature of the course, we were asked for impromptu stories and rhymes and jokes and limericks. I’ve never heard so few people describe in so much lurid detail how they’d like to exterminate so many members of their family and friends in such a variety of gory ways. Glad I was doing the comedy and not the creative writing course.
Linda from Australia gave our teacher a make-over. Leonard Cohen, you’d better watch out – Arthur’s just as good AND he has better jokes. Do go and see him on his world tour. I might even see you there.
The bougainvillea would welcome us each evening on our walk into town.
Not the ‘Goat and Chips’ AGAIN !
There’s only so much fun you can have on a Greek island. Time to check the football results.
I hadn’t realised being funny isn’t always that easy…
Sometimes you have to get away from it all on the beach or in a bar with a Margarita ….
… to help alleviate the stress. Me and Nicky one afternoon visiting Rupert Brooke’s grave.
We also went to see the ‘Springs of Niffy’ which apparently give you eternal youth if you dip in your foot in the water.
Either that or athletes foot.
While we were waiting for our drinks, there was a chance to buy some genuine souvenirs:
stones; mixed stones with gravel; gravel with sand; separate gravel and Grandma’s ashes.
One of the participants had a birthday during the week and this was her present.
Just what you want from a Comedy Workshop – Buns on Seats.
Our last day and a few of us went sailing around the islands.
This is Pauline Curtin, a well known Irish stand-up comic with the dryest wit. Why is she dressed like this? Not many women can waft around on a yacht looking like the scientist from Bikini Atoll rather than the designer. But underneath the hat and glasses is one glamorous woman. Find out where she’s performing and go and see her. It was she who hosted our cabaret on the last night. I never realised the amount of work that goes into preparing a show.
A bit like cartooning, the hard graft is hidden under sleepless nights and behind torn-up drafts. She had me giggling all week and, along with Arthur and a few others, helped give me the confidence to perform in public.
Here I am with The Skyrettes at the last night’s cabaret, singing – well, what else? ….
…. The title song from CABARET of course.
My friend Penny loaned me her electric curling tongs-cum-hairdryer (seriously) to lend the number a little zest. It looked roughly like the one I’m holding above. Ryan Air would have charged about £80 in extra weight so our BA flights paid for themselves in a way.
Several people asked her whether she was from Lesbos. Knowing her romantic past, strewn with hosts of abandoned male lovers over the last 25 years, I nearly snorted into my Retsina.
No one asked ME this question even though we were sharing an apartment, but given I was still dressed up in my Queen outfit from an earlier sketch on the Scottish Referendum, they might have thought twice before making personal assumptions about my private life.
I wouldn’t mind, and some of my best friends are thespians, (actually, I only know two) but my husband would be more than a little surprised I think.
Rock ‘n Roll Richard was running the centre with his gorgeous wife, Clare, and was good enough to sing and play a guitar intro and outro to my cabaret performance – Bridge Control to Major Liz (with apologies to David Bowie). Then, I was on my own and performing my first ever ‘proper’ sketch in public. So in thanks, here’s a plug for their own singing courses which they run in Shropshire. I’ll be going myself if I’m let out again in the next 10 years.
What I learnt last week:
1. Keeping sane requires time out
2. Treasure your close friends
3. Don’t take yourself too seriously
4. Skyros is a long way away:
(Plane, bus, ferry, bus, ferry, bus)
5. But it’s worth it
6. Arthur Smith is a surprisingly good teacher …
7. … and funnier than Leonard Cohen
8. Take a risk. What’s the worst that can happen?
Finally, here’s my certificate to prove I escaped for a week to a Greek island and even kept Arthur mildly amused for some of it. Or did I imagine it all?
BTW, the name Jeff is a pseudonym and is based on the chicken hero in the book my son wrote.
Contrary to popular belief, my real name is Jo.
This is not a sponsored post, though I did get permission from Arthur to wear his moustache.