Lots of people in every major city are charging money to take a standup comedy class. While I know comedians who have benefited from such classes, the majority consensus among fellow comedians are that these are of dubious value. They may help a little with some fundamentals or with building courage and comfort on stage, but they will neither replace the time you will have to spend in Open Mics nor are they worth the hundreds of dollars they normally cost.
There is no homework in standup comedy. You may practice your jokes at home until they are very polished, but you will not know how funny they are or the proper way to time your delivery of these jokes until they encounter a live audience and you see how people who expect to laugh react to them. An artificially supportive environment full of fellow paying students can’t teach you this any more than your bedroom mirror can.
So, I am now teaching a comedy class. On tumblr. For free. Your class room will be real Open Mics. Your text book will be this blog. Your guest speakers will be some of the best comedians in the world, via video links I have selected. This is week one.
Find out where the open mics in your town are. Find out how many you can go to this week. Write five minutes of material and perform at them.
What sort of material? This is up to you. Think of what you may have said that made your friends laugh. What additional info would strangers need to have to laugh at that? There’s a joke.
Don’t spend more than five hours writing this material. Don’t prolong that first performance. That will only make you more nervous. It very well may be nerve wracking. Best to rip the band aid off. Your fear will be much diminished once the experience is no longer a scary unknown.
Do this same five minutes at your first three open mics. Don’t adjust anything yet. Ask yourself the following questions in a notebook or Notepad file. These questions will remain the same after every three open mics. So get used to them, you will be answering them a lot.
What jokes got a laugh?
What jokes didn’t?
Why do you think the jokes that did work worked?
Why do you think the jokes that didn’t work didn’t?
What could you change about the ones that didn’t to maybe make them work?
What could you change about the jokes that worked to make them work even better?
Watch the following videos. They make up one complete special:
Answer these questions in your Notepad file or notebook. Like the above questions, these will remain constant with every video or audio file you encounter in this class.
How would you describe Mr. Giraldo’s stage character, that is to say, the personality he presents in his act?
Were the jokes presented as true stories from his life? Or clearly false “jokes?”
What made you laugh in his act? Why?
What didn’t work for you? Why? Why do you think it may have worked for others?
How did he use his body to get laughs?
How did he use his face to get laughs?
How did he use his voice to get laughs?
What did you notice that makes his act unique?
How did he structure the jokes that he wrote?
Cool. That’s week one. See you again next week. E-mail me any questions you may have. I will answer them here. Kill ‘em!
Some of you may be already asking, “Wait! What if I don’t want to write ‘jokes?’ What if I want to do characters or tell stories or just talk to the crowd? Why can’t I get laughs that way?”
Stories and character monologues work a lot like “jokes.” Just modify the questions about jokes you wrote and replace “joke” with “character line” or “story beat” and the principles are the same. But understand that a standup story has to have laughs peppered throughout. It can’t just pay off at the end. No matter what approach you take, you are still going to have to make the audience laugh at the rate they are accustomed to. Standup is both the widest and the narrow-est form of performance there is. You can do anything you want…. as long as the audience does one thing over and over again.
Improv and talking to the crowd are a little tougher to teach. They rely much more on you being funny in the moment. They are much more a product of your own pure “funny-ness,” and the amount of practice you’ve had at it, the way an athlete must practice being in the moment to perform better in those moments.
If you want to go this route, just start getting up there as many times as you can. Taking a traditional improv class will also help.
Keep in mind though, that even improvisers and crowd workers like Rory Scovel and TJ Miller need something to do on TV sets where they don’t let you wing it, and having jokes that work to fall back on when the improv isn’t catching them or the audience members are boring or scared never hurts. Later in the class, there will be a whole week devoted to crowd work and improv. For now, follow the joke writing exercises and develop written material anyway. It is the best way to learn what makes a series of words funny.