What's the Difference between Gaza and Gazza?

Fancy a crack at stand up comedy? Peter Geoghegan finds out if he's got what it takes  

‘The role of the comedian is to make the audience laugh, at a minimum of once every fifteen seconds,’ the late, great Lenny Bruce once said.

Sounds like a tall order. Lucky, then, that I’ve got two hours with top comedian Owen O’Neill.

Sandwiched between his lunchtime and evening stand up shows at the Out to Lunch Arts Festival, Tyrone-born O’Neill is my (and 25 other wannabe comics assembled in the Black Box Café) comedy tutor for an afternoon workshop.

Garrulous, laconic and disarmingly frank - ‘My name’s Owen, and I’m an alcoholic’ – his remit is to impart some of the lessons learned during his 25 years on the circuit.

‘I never had a day job,’ O’Neill remarks of his employment history. After a couple of years as a brickie in London he became a full time comic in the early 80s and has gone on to success at the Edinburgh Fringe and countless TV and film appearances.

Not that he always wanted to be a stand up. ‘I was a poet in London,’ he explains of his circuitous route to comedy. ‘One evening I was going to do a reading in a café when I left by poems on the Tube. When I got there I went on stage anyway and just said "I forgot my poems". Everyone laughed and it sort of took off from there.’

Before starting the workshop O’Neill asks if anyone has stand up experience. Half a dozen hands pop up – though mine remain by my side. ‘Well hopefully you’ll all get a bit of a taste of it today,’ he says encouragingly.

True to his word, first up is some on-stage improvisation. A young lad in a t-shirt that features a dog and some sexual innuendo – a good third of the participants are guys in their early twenties, maybe comedy is the new rock and roll after all - plays a dentist and an excitable older woman a pornstar in for a check-up. Cue much guffawing over a lovely pair of incisors and ‘coming again some time’.

Next, O’Neill invites participants to come up on stage and speak about themselves for 30 seconds – with the proviso that the comic will start yawning if it’s boring.

There aren’t many takers so I decide to have a crack. ‘Eh, hello. I’m Peter. I’m a journalist.’ I’m looking at my feet, listing from side to side like the Titanic in its final throes, mumbling along as best I can. ‘I’ve always wanted to, eh, try stand up...’

And before I know it the buzzer’s gone and my time is over. I managed to raise a couple of laughs, and receive a decent round of applause for my efforts.

Back in my seat I feel exhilarated. I've been bitten by the comic bug, and all I want to do is be back on stage, but O’Neill is moving on to the next phase of the workshop - developing a comic persona and writing.

‘Think about who you are, what you are… If you are starting off the best thing to do is to make it personal,’ is his main piece of advice for aspiring comics. 

And start gigs with a timely one-liner – ‘I’m so sad that Woolworth’s is gone. Such a loss. Now where are all our children going to learn to shop lift?’

‘What’s the best way to handle the microphone?’ asks Joe, an overweight and overenthusiastic Yank whose 30 seconds on stage ended when he jumped off ‘to get closer to my audience’. The question leads to a rather long Q and A session during which O’Neill gets slightly lost recounting tales of great comedians past and present along with his own best – and worst – moments.

Just before the interval the comic announces that there will be a joke competition. We have the break to provide a punchline for ‘what’s the difference between the Gaza Strip and Paul Gascoigne?’

Gaza. Gazza. Israeli tanks. Getting tanked. We’re all too busy working on our punchlines to talk much to each other.

When O’Neill calls us back I proffer my line - ‘There’s no difference. They’re both bombed to pieces.’ I know it’s lame but when he sincerely complements me on my timing I feel great. A real comedian is praising my timing – maybe I have a future in the business. No more CultureNorthernIreland. Edinburgh here I come…

My comic dreams are all too quickly brought back to earth as O’Neill, in the last half hour, talks us through the darker side of the comic life - agents (‘evil bastards’), other comics (‘mental’) and hecklers (‘always there’).

Two hours isn’t enough to learn how to be a comic – but plenty of time to realise you aren’t cut out for the funny man life.

This is one amateur who won’t be giving up the day job.