I had been asked by a lot of people in the past if I would meet with them to help them get better at standup. I have always tried to be nice about turning them down, but I just knew the time involved to really make this happen and I have a busy enough life as it is, so I just offered a couple quick suggestions and left it at that.
So 8 weeks ago I decided to try an experiment of me teaching a 4 week writing comedy class and 4 week performing standup class. Crackers Comedy Club was my partner in the class. I knew people would benefit from this, but I had no idea how much. I also had no idea how many people would take the class. Since I’m on the road doing standup most Wednesdays through Saturdays and that Crackers is not open on Sunday or Mondays, this left Tuesday nights. I knew that Tuesday wasn’t the optimal night to do it, but enough people signed up to make it seem worthwhile.
I spent a lot of time putting together how I wanted each class to go, so each session went pretty much the way I expected. The big surprise was how much was gained between each class. I encouraged each person to email their material and I would try to tighten it up and punch it up. The mixture of theory and practice in the class with actual individual instruction through email I think made the class the success the people who signed up for it said it was for them.
I feel the 4 week writing class was where the biggest growth happened. Learning how to be more personal with your material and learning how not to waste words and time in getting to what makes the joke funny was key. When you are a young comic, it is only natural to write material which is scatological in nature. I like some of that, but comedy clubs decision makers don’t want to hear it. I pushed the class to find the most original stuff they could produce while still being funny. I was really impressed in how after a couple of weeks between the class and the email everyone started to get better and better at recognizing this.
The next 4 weeks was about translating this material on to the stage. Just getting a chance to be on a comedy club stage week after week is vital in getting better. The more comfortable you get with the lights and working with a mic, the better prepared you will be for when you hit a stage in front of an audience. I have a lot of ideas on how to increase your stage presence and how to accent certain words to make the jokes pop better.
So the big night happens where we would find out if the class members would sink or swim. I was nervous for them. Standup comedy is an individual game, so this was a new feeling for me, rooting for my team. One of my class members went up the week before and had a great set at the open mic, so I knew at least one of the class was in the win column. Well each one of them that went up this past Tuesday all did great. I was relieved and more importantly, really proud of them. Only the people in the class know how much growth they had during the 4 to 8 weeks they took.
The thing that was most remarkable to me was that all but one of the class members had either never been onstage before or at most had been onstage only one or two times. None of the class seemed nervous and they were all tight with their presentation. Now this didn’t come without them working hard on their own, but I will take credit for pointing them in the right direction and helping them skip the mistakes that newbie comics make all the time.
The only disappointment I had with my experience was that outside of one comic, none of the more experienced open mikers/MC types took the class. I see comics make the same mistakes time after time at open mics and I will be honest in saying that I feel they missed out on a great opportunity to make a step forward. I get so many of these people tell me they want to become professionals or even ask me to take them out on the road, but too many of them don’t do enough to get better, in my opinion. I’m not saying that I will make a person a full-time comic, but I do know they would have benefited from the class.
I have been doing standup for 20 years and been writing for TV for 9 years. I’m still striving to get better and I feel that is going on. Anyone who knows me realizes I have a healthy (I’m sure to some they would see it as an unhealthy) ego. Having said that if someone who I thought had something to offer me was teaching a comedy class, I promise you that I would take it. It is kind of remarkable to me that open mikers will spend years kicking around not making any headway at the career of comedy and then when they get an opportunity to actually get better, they don’t take advantage of it.
Now I never made any promises with the class that I will make you a professional comedian like some other comedy classes do. My promise was that I would work hard to make you better and give you the instruction to skip so many pitfalls that get in the way when you begin. I’m glad to say that I feel 100 percent confident that this happened for each person in the class. I know professional comics have mixed feelings about comedy classes, but I feel any of them that would have sat in during my classes would have felt like I was on the right track.
I love standup and it’s rare when I don’t like someone who is a succesful comic, as I respect the differences that manifest themselves onstage. I worked hard in shaping the class for each person, instead of just saying everyone needed to fit a certain mold. I’m happy to say my first time as a standup professor was a success. I judge that success from the growth each person in my class had and the comments they gave me during and after the process.
NOTE: If the class had not gone well, I promise you I wouldn’t be writing about here, as it is a public forum and any class members who felt ripped off would have the opportunity to slam me. Sorry, but there is no way for me to write this without seeming self-congratulatory. Actually, if you are an enlightened person the next time you will see me you should pat me on the back and tell me “fine job, sir!” If only I wasn’t an agnostic, I would be able to say I was doing the Lord’s work.
2nd NOTE: I want to thank Ruth Anne Herber and Chris Miller for helping make this class happen. It turned out to be a great collaborative effort. I also want to thank comics Jeff Bodart, Bill Gibson, Shane Mauss, and Dan Cummins for offering GREAT advice at different classes that they made guest appearances at.
3rd NOTE: Besides the comedians listed above in the photo, other comics who attended some or all the classes were Nathan Gropp, Jacky Pawulich, Ryan Shipley, and Jo Ellen Roberts.