Francesca Green wasn’t doing anything to mark her 41st birthday but she was completely fine with that. She got up at her usual time, did her normal Saturday food shop and had a call with her mother. She prepared a cheese sandwich for lunch, sat at her kitchen table, and picked up her single item of post.
Inside the envelope was a gift voucher for a stand-up comedy class. With growing despair, Francesca read the leaflet that accompanied her shiny gold coupon. ‘Get all the tools of the joke-making trade. Enjoy hysterical exercises. Elevate your funny!’
Francesca had never attended a stand-up comedy class before. She had zero interest in elevating her funny. Quite frankly, she was loath to spend an evening in the company of grown adults who considered such a pursuit to be a worthwhile use of their time.
Francesca was not entirely without a funny bone, but a well-timed quip or sly observation illuminating the folly of others was the comedic comfort zone of a woman educated in Library Science to the advanced level of MSc. She possessed what her ex-husband once described as ‘a stinging wit’. Although this wasn’t meant as a compliment exactly, it was better than being an ‘utter bore’. The latter was finally muttered by Jeremy – a tax inspector of all things – as he slammed the door at 1:06pm on a sunny Sunday during the dying days of their 11-year marriage. Francesca was lying in bed, unable to muster the mental strength to face the scheduled lunch with the in-laws. The rot of fertility issues had ravaged their marriage with months, and then years, punctuated by hope, appointments, disappointments, blank, blah, blah, blah. Rinse, repeat.
What did Shelly, the friend who had given her the voucher, think she had to laugh about?
On the day of the class, Francesca took one of her yogurt pots labelled ‘FRANCESCA’S’ from the communal fridge and slipped on her trainers, leaving the office just after 5pm. Shelly insisted on escorting Francesca to the community centre venue across town. She harped on about some professor she’d heard speak at the university’s Mindful Mondays meet-up who had apparently found conclusive evidence for the positive correlation between laughter and enhanced psychological wellbeing. Shelly told Francesca that this was where she got the birthday gift idea.
‘After the couple of years you’ve had, this class could be just what you need,’ she said.
‘I can tell them one of my divorce jokes,’ Francesca muttered.
‘Do you have divorce jokes?’
The women walked in awkward silence for a couple of minutes before Shelly tried again. She had sat through many staff meetings with Francesca over the previous seven years and was familiar enough with her terseness not to be silenced for long.
‘I just thought the class might increase your positivity, that’s all. Help you get back out there and meet new people.’
The words stung. Was this how Shelly saw her? As a lonely, negative person?
‘Don’t you like your gift?’ Shelly asked, stopping dead and staring at Francesca.
Francesca contemplated honesty, but instead apologised to her well-meaning friend. She vowed that the second Shelly was out of sight, she would turn and run as fast as she could, carried by the wind of the inevitable fart jokes soon to be emanating from that draughty community centre.
At the door, they were met with the physical manifestation of all that Francesca had been dreading about the class. The man was in his early 50s. He was puffing away on a cigarette while the yellow-stained fingers of his free hand were scratching at the hairy wasteland between his bottom lip and second chin. He looked like he was either deep in thought or grappling with an infestation. He shoved his meaty hand at Francesca.
‘I’m Barry. Are you girls here for the comedy class?’
Francesca took Barry’s hand, managing a faint smile. Before she had a chance to answer, Shelly said, ‘This is my friend, Francesca. She’s the one here for the comedy class. It’s her first time.’ Shelly nudged Francesca, as if geeing up a nervous child at the school gate, and said, ‘See, making friends already.’
‘Don’t worry love, we’ll look after her,’ Barry said. ‘I bet she’s full of absolute filth once she gets warmed up. She can sit next to me.’ Shifting his gaze to Francesca, Barry added, ‘How does that sound, Frannie?’
Francesca’s eyes widened. She trailed Barry through the double doors of the community centre. Shelly gave Francesca a thumbs up, but her face was tense, like she was on the cusp of an apology.
In a corner of the large hall, ten chairs were arranged in a circle. At the centre of the circle stood a long, lanky man with bright blonde hair. He was wearing a clerical shirt, complete with dog collar. A small group was huddled around him, hanging off his every word.
‘The peroxide-dependent over there,’ Barry said, pointing at the vicar, ‘that’s Leo. He runs the class.’
Francesca was intrigued. ‘I thought the class leader was a professional comedian. I didn’t realise he was a man of the cloth.’
‘Ha! Come on, let’s get you baptised.’
Leo strode towards them with an outstretched hand. ‘I’m Leo. You must be Francesca. Welcome!’
Drawn in by Leo’s kind blue eyes, Francesca shook his hand and smiled. ‘So, are you a vicar as well as a comedian, Leo? Interesting combination!’
‘Erm…nope. Just a comedian. What made you think I was a vicar?’
‘Well…’ Francesca indicated her own neck.
‘Ah, I see. I forgot I was still wearing that. On a Thursday afternoons I run a stand-up comedy class just for vicars. I teach them how to inject some humour into their sermons and whatnot. Helps them to connect with their flock.’ Leo turned to the group. ‘Please welcome Francesca, our new member.’
A chorus of welcoming noises poured from Francesca’s classmates.
From outside the circle, Francesca spoke: ‘I’m not a new member. I’m only joining you for this evening. So I don’t mind just standing here and watching. Or lea—’
‘Nonsense!’ Barry roared, leaning over to tap the chair next to him. ‘Come and sit yourself down in the circle, woman!’
’Why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself, Francesca?’ Leo said. ‘What made you want to join a comedy group?’
‘Well,’ Francesca started, ‘I don’t, actually. My colleague – a friend of mine – bought me this… this experience, as a birthday present.’
‘What a great gift idea!’ said a woman with curly red hair. ‘You could always join the group if you enjoy yourself this evening. We need more women to keep these blokes in line. I’m Mandy, by the way.’
‘I’m usually quite busy on Thursday evenings, I’m afraid,’ Francesca said.
‘Doing what?’ Barry asked.
‘I have a stressful job at the university. So, I’m busy during the week.’
‘Should we be calling you Professor?’ Leo jumped in.
‘No more than we should be calling you Reverend,’ Francesca quipped. The group chuckled. ‘I’m a librarian.’ Francesca returned her gaze to Mandy. ‘I work at the university library.’
‘I suppose you’re stamping books and handing out fines to those naughty students all day,’ Barry said. ‘What fantastic material for your stand-up.’
‘No, I don’t work in customer service. I spend most of my time in the back office heading up a team of information consultants. I’m also the library’s health and safety officer, so I’ve got lots of paperwork.’
‘Fascinating,’ Barry said.
‘Shut up, Barry. What do information consultants do, Francesca?’ Mandy asked.
‘We run training sessions for groups of students mostly,’ Francesca said, a little subdued. ‘We also liaise with the academics. There are lots of committee meetings.’
‘Well thanks for that intro, Francesca,’ Leo said quickly. ‘For our first exercise this evening, I thought we’d tackle appearance jokes.’
Leo explained that comedians have to be brave, ready to acknowledge their flaws and laugh at themselves along with the audience. ‘Be vulnerable,’ Leo said. ‘What are your distinguishing features that your audience might pick up on? Do you look a bit like a famous person? You need to get this out of the way at the start of your routine. After that, I promise, your audience will be putty in your hands.’
‘So you, Leo,’ Barry said, pointing, ‘look a bit like the Archbishop of Canterbury after he fell into a pot of bleach.’
‘Er… yep, not bad, not bad at all,’ Leo said as Barry alone roared with laughter.
Barry turned to Francesca, interpreting her lack of laughter as a lack of understanding. ‘Because of his hair, because of his hair…’.
‘So now, I’d like you to work in pairs,’ Leo said. ‘I want you to each come up with your own appearance joke that you can feedback to the rest of the group. Your joke should start, “I look a bit like…” and off you go.’
‘Sorry to be a spoilsport, Leo, but I won’t be taking part in this exercise,’ Francesca announced. ‘This really isn’t for me.’
‘Don’t be so down on yourself, old girl,’ Barry said. ‘You’re an alright looking lass. You know who you remind me of? Kate Middleton. A chubby Kate.’
Just as Francesca felt all eyes turn towards her, a large woman with dishevelled brown hair burst into the hall. She marched up to the circle and threw her tote bag down with such force that multiple biros, a bouncy ball and a bag of sweets escaped onto the floor.
‘Sorry. Sorry. Sorry I’m late. Did I miss anything? My boss. Right at the end of the day. Bloody questions. Couldn’t wait until tomorrow, apparently. And the trains. What’s wrong with—’
‘Pipe down, Meatloaf!’ Barry roared. ‘Things have just got interesting with our new lady, Frannie.’
‘Meatloaf? Why are you calling me Meatloaf? Bloody cheek-’
‘Please, have my seat.’ Francesca stood up. ‘I’m leaving.’
‘Okay, okay.’ Leo called for calm. ‘Please don’t leave, Francesca. We’ll move on from appearance jokes for now. Working in pairs, I’d like you to think about your traits. Comedians often structure a whole routine around a particular personality trait. What could be your trademark?’
‘Geez, it sounds a bit like therapy, doesn’t it?’ Mandy said, turning to Francesca.
‘I wouldn’t know,’ Francesca lied.
‘I’m sorry about Barry,’ Mandy said. ‘He’s a bit of a handful, but harmless enough. He doesn’t get out much since his wife passed away a few years ago.’
‘That’s just men in general, isn’t it? Reducing women to their looks and their bodies, I mean. As if they’re all such perfect specimens themselves. What was it he called me? A chubby Kate Middleton.’ Francesca shook her head.
‘That’s a compliment! What about poor old Meatloaf over there.’ Mandy gestured to Dawn and they both giggled. ‘So, I assume being given a voucher to a stand-up comedy class wasn’t the best birthday present you’ve ever received?’
‘I’ve always been a bit of an introvert, I suppose,’ Francesca said. ‘I like to keep myself to myself, that’s all.’
‘Ha, yes, and there’s nothing funnier than an introvert doing stand-up comedy. An introvert on stage in such an extraverted setting? It’s what Leo would call “a subversion of expectations”.’
‘Have you ever done a routine, or a gig… on stage somewhere, I mean?’
‘God, no. I just come along because it’s nice to do something light-hearted once a week, to play with different versions of myself. I can laugh at things that bug me, and then they don’t seem to matter so much.’ She gave Francesca a sidelong glance. ‘Maybe you’ll come back next week?’
‘Maybe I will.’
Francesca did return the following week, and the week after that, and then she officially joined the group. She started to smile more and felt lighter. For the fifth class, she wrote and performed a cathartic rant about colleagues who leave out-of-date food in the communal fridge at work or help themselves to other people’s food.
‘Better than therapy,’ Francesca whispered to Mandy as she sat back down, basking in a weird, buzzy and totally addictive feeling.
The following Monday, Francesca responded to sour milk in the fridge at work with a chuckle and happy thoughts about her Thursday evening fun. But her blossoming friendship with Barry was perhaps the most surprising development of all. He still insisted on calling her ‘Frannie’ or ‘Kate’, but she didn’t rise to it. Sometimes, on a Saturday morning in a quiet café in town, they met for a coffee and a chat. Barry spoke about the death of his wife and Francesca told him about her marriage breakdown.
‘Not that it’s the same as your loss,’ Francesca said.
‘Loss is loss and grief is grief. You got to feel your feelings, Frannie,’ Barry replied.
Francesca felt all her feelings when, after six months of comedy class, she carried a stool onto the stage, placed it in front of the mic and sat down. She took a deep breath, just as Leo had taught her. ‘My name is Francesca and I’m a librarian. I’m a bit of a geek, actually. In my spare time I enjoy reading, reading and er… reading.’
Francesca looked out at a sea of bored faces. ‘Utter bore… Utter bore,’ Jeremy’s words rung in her ears. Why did she think this would be funny? Why had she thought she could do this? Cracking jokes on stage? My God!
‘The current book I’m reading is a real page-turner, actually,’ she continued. ‘It’s full of drug abuse, violence, explosions… Yep, health and safety manuals are definitely my favourite genre.’
The crowd came back to life with splutters of laughter.
‘Nothing excites me quite like a risk assessment. They have me on the edge of my seat. Which, according to Page 36, Section 2, is actually very bad for the lower spine.’
‘That’s funny, Kate!’ Barry hooted from the front row where he was sitting with Mandy, Leo, Dawn and Shelley.
The laughter rose and rolled as Francesca finally found her stride.
Susanne Forrest is new to creative writing. She has completed a PhD in gender studies, tried her hand at stand-up comedy and currently works in the careers service for a London university. On twitter @SC_Forrest