Comedian Angie Belcher has developed a prescription comedy course to help people recover from trauma. It’s been so well received, that it will now be offered to people at risk of suicide
You’re on stage. Mic in hand. The audience is watching, waiting. You’re the main act, but your mind has gone blank. The heckling starts. Quick, a joke, any joke. “Knock, knock…”
Public speaking rivals spiders and heights as one of society’s most prevalent fears, but for standup comedy no yardstick exist: it’s simply too terrifying.
Yet, not for Will Reynolds. A resident of Bath, Reynolds is already a veteran of the south-west comedy circuit, eschewing his natural shyness to take to the stage and – hopefully – raise a laugh or two.
“When people say: ‘I’m not funny’, it’s just not true,” insists Reynolds, who was born with cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain). “Everyone has a decent 10 minutes in them, regardless of whether they want to do standup or not.”
His unshakeable belief in everyone’s “inner comedian” comes from a chance encounter with fellow south-west comedic talent and pioneer in art therapy, Angie Belcher.
Having seen Reynolds perform, Belcher invited him on a course she was running for people starting out in comedy or just looking to give it a try. Describing her sessions as “a bit like creative writing courses”, Belcher walked Reynolds and his fellow students through the basics of observational comedy: everything from how to find humour in everyday life, to tips on reading a room of strangers.
Nominally, her courses are geared towards preparing students for a short set, but Belcher is largely indifferent to whether they do or not. What matters to her is the internal changes that comedy can bring about.
“It’s not about becoming a pro performer,” she says. “It’s just about enjoying the idea of being on the stage and going: ‘Hey, I want to talk about my being bipolar or having dyslexia’.”
With a background in psychology, Belcher knows the benefits of airing experiences or feelings that we’d sometimes rather keep hidden. Find humour in them and those benefits grow. What’s Mickey Mouse’s line? “To laugh at yourself is to love yourself.”
I’m hoping this will be a way for people to learn a new way to talk about themselves
Hence, the examples she gives of bipolar disorder and dyslexia. But there’s also a reason why the conditions are top of mind. Together with the NHS-backed Wellspring Settlement Social Prescribing unit in Bristol, Belcher kicked off a pilot course aimed at helping trauma survivors. It was deemed a success and has now won NHS funding to help men at risk of suicide in London.
“Using comedy as therapy is not entirely new, but this is the first time, that I know of, of a social prescribing team applying it specifically to trauma,” she explains.
The ‘comedy on referral’ class employs group work, games and one-to-one coaching with Belcher. The idea? To “explore blocks” and address emotional issues in participants’ lives through the art of standup.
Common emotional problems for which the course is designed include postnatal depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety disorders.
One of Belcher’s main aspirations is to help participants see joy in dark moments. Ask any comedian and they will tell you that the best jokes stem from when things go wrong. An idyllic beach holiday is not funny; an idyllic beach holiday spoiled by a blaring all-night disco could be.
Obviously, trauma is not to be taken lightly, and Belcher is at pains not to push people to go further or faster than they feel comfortable with. That said, once a relationship of trust is in place, she’s frequently surprised how eager people are to open up.
In every terrible situation, there’s invariably one thing that makes you giggle
“In every terrible situation, there’s invariably one thing that makes you giggle and think: ‘Gosh, this is really awful, but it’s also kind of funny’. That’s the one thing that people always want to talk to me about,” she laughs.
As well as the benefits to the individual, Belcher believes the social prescription of comedy could have positive knock-on effects, for example helping remove the taboo around discussing mental health conditions and other sources of trauma. To go, in short, from sharing to caring. “I’m hoping this will be a way for people to learn a new way to talk about themselves,” Belcher says.
She offers the example of US comic Tig Notaro, who famously told a live audience in Los Angeles about having breast cancer just a day after her diagnosis. Notaro opened her show with the line: “Hello. Good evening. I have cancer. How’s everybody doing?”
Dubbed “instantly legendary” by Rolling Stone, recordings of the set have since been heard by millions. “I suppose that’s what we do as comedians,” reflects Belcher. “We professionally share our lives and report back on all the awful things that have happened to us – and that way, we create a new dialogue.”
Back in Bath, Will Reynolds couldn’t agree more. The comedy course, he attests, has given him the tools to further his own cause of bringing more visibility to disability issues.
He also just loves the buzz of making people laugh. “I’ve had morphine,” says Reynolds, who has just returned home after a long stint in hospital, “and it’s way better than that!
Main image: Damien Hockey