This second episode of our new podcast You’re Up Next features Áine Gallagher, the former creative director of Bright Club, with our host Jessamyn Fairfield. Listen here or read through the transcript below.

Jessamyn Fairfield: When I was a kid, I used to practice telling jokes. I loved puns, shaggy dog stories – I had a jokebook that my dad used to read to me, instead of bedtime stories. We would practice the same bits to each other over and over again, doing the Abbott and Costello classic, ‘Who’s On First’, or telling long jokes with elaborate punchlines… then doing the same jokes again but getting each element of the punchline subtly wrong, and presenting the mangled punchline as if it were a triumph of comedy. We were ridiculous and we loved it. 

But when I talk to people about Bright Club, and say they can use comedy as a means of communicating their research, I get the same answer a lot of the time – oh, but I’m not funny. This from people who enjoy comedy, who probably do make jokes in conversation – there is something intimidating about saying you are going to do comedy, to tell jokes with intention and forethought. There’s a promise being made when you say you are going to tell a joke now, and an understanding that if the joke doesn’t land, then that promise wasn’t kept. In my mind it’s a pretty small leap from having a sense of humor in private or with friends, to having a sense of humor in front of people you don’t know – but it can be scary, it’s a confidence thing. 

So how do you train someone to be funny? To make that leap into standing up in front of people and telling jokes, without dissolving into a puddle of sweat and terror? We do this in our Bright Club training sessions and people are often surprised that it’s possible, they think you either are funny or you aren’t. 

But one thing, that people who haven’t studied comedy might not realize, is that there is actually a structure to good comedy. There isn’t a formula to make a joke funny, but there are definitely elements you can use to make it more likely to be funny! I mean, there’s very basic stuff about how to write a punchline – looking for the surprise, looking for a place to flip the script on the story you’re telling, a pivot point. Learning how to add more jokes onto a good punchline too – comedians call this ‘tagging’ a joke, to ask, if this is true then what else is true? You can also use callbacks, literally just referencing previous jokes that you have made – it seems crazy but saying something that people have heard before makes them laugh in recognition, and having threads through your comedy that seem to keep coming back and fitting together leads to deeper laughs. The rule of three is another thing that seems crazy but works – that lists are always funniest if there’s three items. It’s like our brains are designed to think that the third thing is what completes the set, and if that third thing is funny then it’s extra funny. It’s a cheat, a hack, but it works.

Áine Gallagher: Hello, I’m Áine Gallagher, and I am the former creative director with Bright Club. I’m also a professional comedian. And yeah, in my role with bright Club, I would have been responsible for doing a lot of the training with speakers, people participating, and then producing the events as well. 

Yeah, the training is always always, like, so much fun. And it’s really nice to work with people because 99% of people are just really excited to be there. It’s a totally new experience. They’re really nervous, but, you know, in a good way, and it’s just a really, really positive space. And people always managed to channel the nerves in a really positive way, and in terms of the skills that we try to give people in the Bright Club training, there’s kind of two main things for me. I think is the first one is to realize that this is possible, right? It’s not a crazy thing. Every, like, a lot of people have done it before. They’re all normal people, the people in the audience are normal people, you know, is no one is trying to be like an asshole or to just be mean. So yeah, it’s to kind of instill that sense of confidence. And that everyone is on your side. And this is a totally possible thing to do. Many people have done it before you, you can do it. And then the other thing is for people because people come to the training and they’ve prepared what they’re going to say already, so they have their story. And it’s generally about the type of work that they do, but it’s often also just about their experience. So, you know, for example, it’s a lot of PhD students, and they just talk about what the experience of doing a PhD is like, which everyone seems to relate to that it’s awful. And it’s really, really stressful and all of that. But anyway, people bring these stories with them. And the main thing that I tried to do in the train and they practice them, and then I just really try to hone that own that person’s voice, like the true genuine voice that is there is the way that they would tell a story naturally, without trying to throw in jokes because they think this is a comedy said, Oh my god, I have to be funny. I have to watch what, Ricky Gervais or Deirdre O’Kane does and I have to copy exactly what they do. It’s not about copying what you think comedy is. It’s about finding your own way to tell the story. And if that comes out in a long form narrative about your morning routine every day because going to work is is so stressful or how you have to drop into the lab every three hours over the weekend, and it’s like having a child but it’s not, you know, whatever your story is. It’s that you tell it your own way and you don’t like you know, you avoid the cliches of comedy. 

Yeah, and then like, there are aspects of the training that I think are most useful. And definitely, like I said, already, people come with a script that’s prepared for what they’re going to say and through talking to people And hearing their kind of reflections on the process. What a lot of people say is having that space to prepare the script is really, really useful for them. Because with Bright Club, we don’t say you have to do exactly this, it has to be exactly about your research, you need three points on what your research topic is, blah, blah, blah, we say you can talk about anything. So people say that they find that kind of freedom to think about it really useful. And it also lets them kind of reflect on their own practice, whether they’re a physicist or social scientist or mathematician or whatever, kind of helps them to realize what they find interesting about their work because if you’re given seven minutes to talk about anything about your work, inevitably you’re going to pick what you find most interesting or most strange, or you know, so it helps it gives people a space to think about that more, which they maybe haven’t had before. And it also people also say it helps them understand their sense of humor more, which is really like nice. Because, you know, they kind of figure out how they’d like to tell a story or how they’d like to tell a joke. Obviously, people are always going to be nervous and you have to be nervous to get the most out of it. I think for me, when I’m doing comedy, I love being nervous, and especially when I started doing it, I was so nervous, but that made it so much more exciting.

Yeah, and then other aspects of the training that are really good. I think I see have seen it so many times where people are coming together from different disciplines, most of the people do it taking part in you know, a one off Bright Club event have not met each other before they might be from the same university. But more often than not, they’ve never met each other before. And they’ll be from different disciplines as well. And, yeah, so it’s just creating that space for people bonded. If that’s a one off, it’s still really valuable, but I do knows other people who have kind of made connections and made friendships through that space as well. So I think that’s really good. 

That kind of sense of we’re all in this together, we’re all a team for the night, it’s that normally the training happens three or four days before the live event itself. So we’re, I always try to foster this idea that we’re leaving and we’re all in it together. We’re kind of a team, we’re going in and we’re going to the event and we’re going to be a team and we’ve all got each other’s back and we’re all supporting each other. And we’re all going to have a great time. 

Jessamyn Fairfield: The community aspect is so important in comedy. But actually a lot of these tips on how to write good material actually come back to how our brains work, what we expect to hear and how we can be surprised. And yet you can write comedy that’s structurally sound but still feels uninspired, if those tips were all you had to go by. I think the really key thing, at least to lots of the comedy I enjoy, is point of view – the person explaining a unique angle they have on the world, articulating things that other people might have thought about but not put into words in exactly that way. It’s what differentiates Hannah Gadsby from Eddie Izzard – they’re both masterful performers but their outlook on the world is different flavors, and so is how they express it. We try to encourage that in the Bright Club training and ask, what are things about your research or your field that are unusual, that no one else would know but you? And in terms of style, what feels comfortable and authentic to you, what do you enjoy?

Because I’ve seen comedians who are trying to be another comedian – to imitate someone else’s style. It’s funny because, there’s something that feels artificial about it, but if the comedian is good it can actually be hard to detect. I think though, people are very sensitive to when it feels like someone is putting a mask on – to bad acting, to social lies. The audience might not know consciously why they aren’t enjoying a comedy set, but subconsciously they can often detect a phoniness or a lack of genuine buy-in from a performer. So there’s really nothing to be gained by trying to be someone else in comedy.

The audience can also detect a lack of confidence, and this is the real key. It’s not to say people only want to watch really confident comedians – it can be very funny to watch people analyse their own anxieties onstage. But they want the performer to own their presence onstage, and if a comedian seems scared then the audience may stop laughing, even if their material is funny – because they’re scared too! We are social creatures and laughter can be a way to bond, but only if it seems like everyone is safe to laugh. So I think that’s really the most important thing in training someone to get up and do comedy – to help them find that confidence, that what they have to say is interesting, that only they can say it, that they have every right to get up and do comedy.  

And then that confidence comes into other areas of life too – people often tell me that after doing Bright Club, everything else feels easy. It’s almost like we aren’t training people to be funny – we are helping them see the ways in which they already are, that they already know how to use humour and talk to people. The only trick is to get up and do it!