A little while ago, I was asked to contribute an article to a renowned Teacher blog and website: along the lines of how stand-up comedy might be compared to supply teaching. It didn’t make the cut. No biggie, really. The exposure would have been nice but given that I work as a stand-up comedian, rejection and failure are an ever present reality. While I can’t claim to enjoy those sensations any more than the next person, they are – thankfully – a minority outcome, and when they do happen, one learns to get philosophical fairly quickly.
In fact, like a supply teacher, as a stand-up comedian you reach a point – in most cases – whereby you see yourself as someone who is doing a job, and if the persons gathered in front of you don’t like what you do, so be it. Unless you say or do something truly outrageous, it doesn’t mean they have a problem with you as an individual; they just don’t like the cut of your jib. Mostly, they are indifferent to you as a person, beyond the confines of the given environment. Experienced comedians, like experienced teachers seldom talk along the lines of how much ‘they hated me’ unless it’s with an ironic after-the-event-type-smile. They talk in terms of how the situation might be improved for all concerned.
‘They need to shut the place down. They don’t pay me enough to put myself through that sort of nonsense. Not now, not ever.’
Setting facetiousness aside, are there genuinely any links that can be made between stand-up and supply teaching, however tenuous?
If anything, stand-up comedy is easier. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had people say to me ‘Stand-up comedy? I couldn’t do that. That’s so brave’ but think about it, a comedy audience have paid to see you, and have an expectation that you will justify their investment. That’s a long way away from the potential ‘Great, we’ve got a cover teacher, let’s create mayhem’ outcome that is an ever present possibility at the outset of a day’s supply work. I know which the trickier situation to negotiate is by far.
And anyway, conflating the idea of stand-up comedy and bravery is a trifle excessive, is it not? While there have been instances of boundary-breaking comedians who set out to challenge convention, broaden the cultural palette, and in so doing faced a great deal of hostility, in the majority of cases, stand-up comedy is populated by a certain type of – albeit talented – narcissist who’s initial motive is an abiding need to have their existence validated in the immediate moment, by virtue of laughter. The better ones are aware of this of course, and concentrate on getting good at the craft. Whether they regard themselves as brave or not is a matter for the individual psyche, but I’ve yet to see a stand-up colleague featured on ‘The Pride of Britain’ awards; unless they’re the one presiding over the event.
Given then, the accepted belief that that we have a relatively short amount of time in which to make an impression, my experience suggests one is much more likely to receive a heckle from a student in a ‘supply’ situation rather than an audience member in a comedy club, irrespective of how much confidence is being exuded: ‘Sir, you look like Billy Connolly’ being a frequent contribution at one time, in my case. I don’t but what are the chances eh? And I’ve lost count of the number of times my surname has inspired a succession of poor but good natured Gollum impersonations.
In a comedy setting any dissent (i.e. heckling) is dealt with in the form of highly amusing spontaneous counter remark, or in many cases, a potentially brutal put-down. You can’t do that at the beginning of a day’s supply.
‘Sir, you look like Billy Connolly’
‘In which case, so will you one day, given the extent to which I know your mum’ (I assume we understand the thinly veneered and highly ‘hilarious’ comedy subtext being implied here?)
Any retorts, witty or otherwise at the start of the school day are likely to backfire. It’s too early, you haven’t won over the kids sufficiently, and anyway, you’re not being employed to provide entertainment. No, the approach that is required is to respond with an air of relaxed but controlled authority, and do your best to avoid clichés along the lines of ‘It’s your time you’re wasting. Any time we lose now, you will have to make up for, at break time’. If for no other reason than you don’t want to talking in terms of surrendering your own break time already, in the process.
And what of the material you might ask? Well, in a comedy situation, much of what one offers, is a bunch of ideas you’ve taken around the place already, polishing them as you go. Which is why, whenever I get complimented and an audience member asks me if I just made it up off the top of my head, I always tell them ‘yes’. I wouldn’t want to disappoint anybody.
Conversely, on a supply job, if the plans you’ve been handed by a helpful TA – always an asset – are any good, you’ve got about 10 – 15 minutes, in a primary situation, to reduce the first lesson to a series of bullet points, before the kids come in, and you have to hit the play button. Less so, in some secondary situations whereby you might have to absorb them at the top of the lesson, with the students already present in the room.
If anything it’s more akin to the semi-spontaneous skills required of the comedy MC: the individual who performs the thankless task of keeping the audience on track between the acts, and when not being met with indifference, meets with suggestions along the lines of ‘You were pretty good as well. You should have go at it’. Duh!
Teaching supply can also be like the role of the MC in that you to have to keep going back to the scene of the awfulness, if you’re having a rubbish time. If a comedian ‘dies’ on a gig, they’re out of the building. Dying as an MC is much worse: ‘Hello, it’s me again. Yes, I’m still terrible, it would seem’. And so it is with supply. Start badly, and not only is there a chance that will continue, the likelihood is that it’s only going to get worse, as the kids get more animated, and you get more tired. And that’s before we factor in the possibilities of the high sugar content lunchtime, and ‘difficult to control’ open spaces such as drama studios and fields. Yup, there’s nothing quite like arriving at a supply job, and realising that there’s a lesson or two of PE on the agenda. If you ever thought PE teachers looked vaguely ridiculous encircling the throng with their whistles and their tracksuits, you want to try doing the same in a suit.
Overall though, in the case of both stand-up and supply teaching, it’s true to say that if you do well, you’ll get invited back. Obviously, there can be an element of ‘the face don’t fit’ in both instances but, for the most part, merit wins. So much so that in both areas of endeavour, you can build up a bit of a portfolio of potential work outlets, and choose how to balance the two, or further, choose one over the other. Over the same period of time, you may even get to grips with the sometimes trickier business of negotiating both the dressing rooms of the comedy world and the staff rooms of the teaching world. But those are a couple of other comparisons entirely.