Harnessing the power of laughter

Woman in Groucho Marx mask
Woman in Groucho Marx mask

Performing stand-up comedy is notoriously nerve-wracking but a scheme in Scotland has harnessed the power of laughter to build the confidence of service users.


Like others suffering from ME, Michael* often found everyday tasks overwhelming. Physical activity resulted in chronic fatigue that left the 40-year-old exhausted for days and, unable to work, he found himself increasingly isolated and depressed.

To lift his spirits, Michael signed up for a course of comedy classes at a local community centre run by Universal Comedy, a charity that delivers comedy workshops and training courses across Scotland for people experiencing depression and anxiety, employment problems or anyone who would benefit from a laugh.

Because the workshops were offered on a drop-in basis, he knew that if he didn’t feel well enough to attend one of the sessions he wouldn’t have to explain his absence.

At the end of the eight-week course, his energy and interest in life – along with his social circle – had increased beyond his expectations.

“Comedy has given me something I can do to push myself beyond my condition,” he says. “I still suffer from the effects of ME but the joy and confidence the workshops have given me make it worth the pain.”

Crossing barriers

Training in new skills is traditionally seen as one of the keys routes back into the job market for the long-term unemployed.

But the unseen side-effects of unemployment and ill health, such as isolation, anxiety and depression, often create barriers to accessing the training on offer.

Universal Comedy’s workshops for socially excluded adults offer a means of bridging this gap, improving the confidence and outlook of participants and helping many, like Michael, prepare for further training or employment.

While comedy is the focus of the workshops, the aim is not to turn participants into professional comedians. Instead, comedy is used as a vehicle for personal development, social interaction and to increase participants’ ability to think creatively.

Founder and managing director of Universal Comedy, Patsy Morrison, says that developing this kind of personal toolkit can lead to radical change for the unemployed and those with hidden ill health.

“Our workshops teach people how to work around their problems,” says Morrison. “When you teach people basic skills such as how to create ideas and how to put these ideas into practice and develop outside interests, they become much more outgoing and actively involved in their communities. When people are isolated, they have nowhere to turn when they experience setbacks. We use comedy to teach our participants to think outside their own situation and this develops resilience and a positive approach, which in turn enhances their ability to do well in the future.”

Established with National Lottery funding as a charity in 2004, Morrison used her own experience of ill health to develop Universal Comedy’s methodology.

Groups of about 10 adults work with professional comedians over the course of eight weeks to develop their own comedy routines.

At the end, participants are encouraged to perform their material in a community setting in front of an audience of family and friends.

Morrison emphasises that this is a developmental process. “It’s about moving people’s psychological goalposts, getting them beyond their comfort zones in a controlled and supportive way,” she says.

“Once people see how others react and respond to their work and experience, and the sense of empowerment that brings, they get a rush of adrenaline and tend to want to experience that feeling again.”


While participants initially self-referred to the project, for example after seeing posters in doctors’ surgeries, the success of the workshops has led to interest from a number of health, social care and employability organisations.

The project now works in collaboration with the NHS, local authorities and regeneration agencies to deliver tailored workshops for specific client groups, most often hard-to-reach adults affected by anxiety and depression, addiction recovery and ill health.

Morrison cites her own and her team members’ experiences of ill health and social exclusion as central to the project’s success.

The workshops are designed in a flexible, non-pressurised format and participants are clear that there are no expectations on them to finish the course or to engage in any of the public events.

Clients are discouraged from talking about their problems during the course so that their engagement with other participants is based around a shared creative endeavour, rather than a shared sense of disempowerment.

One of the greatest challenges the project initially faced was dispelling misconceptions about the workshops.

“When people think of comedy they think of stand-up in a pub or even laughter workshops and we’re not about either of those,” says Morrison. “We know what we do is working but the challenge was to get other people to understand why it works.”

After five years and having improved the confidence of hundreds of hard-to-reach adults in Glasgow, the project can now rely on the evidence of their success to explain the role it plays.

“There are a lot of people who are unemployed and isolated from their communities and their outlook is very poor. Our workshops intervene and challenge this, but we do it in a way that’s fun, sociable and creative and with a genuine understanding of the problems people face.”

More details from: www.universalcomedy.co.uk

This article is publlshed in the 24 September issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Something to laugh about

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