Magazine article American Theatre

Can You Train to Be Funny? If Comedians Are Born, Not Made, Why Are Comedy-Training Programs Thriving like Never Before?

Magazine article American Theatre

Can You Train to Be Funny? If Comedians Are Born, Not Made, Why Are Comedy-Training Programs Thriving like Never Before?

Article excerpt

THE BEGINNER STANDUP COMEDY COURSE AT THE Hyena Comedy Institute in San Francisco was hurtling toward its climax. Each of the nine novice comedians in the class was gearing up to perform eight minutes of original material in front of a live audience--but one student was having a particularly hard time. Steff Casella had, in fact, been suffering from an enduring stretch of writers' block since the eight-week course began. Now she watched, with a mixture of awe and dismay, as her classmates asked the teacher penetrating questions about the quality of the lighting; mused about whether the concept of sleeping with Arnold Schwarzenegger was funnier than the idea of sleeping with Donald Rumsfeld; and queried whether it would be okay to invite 65 members of the local leather community to the course's final performance.


Casella's self-doubt first made itself apparent in week three during an exercise meant to develop the comedy fundamental of "writing jokes involving the element of surprise." The teacher cited the Stephen King funny, "I still have the heart of a little boy ... in a jar on my desk," as an example of the form, and the students were given 10 minutes to come up with their own. Perching on a stool in a lilac dress and matching crushed velvet boots, Casella reluctantly shared her efforts with the class. "I can't even make up a bad joke," she said, fiddling with the microphone stand. "Here's all I could come up with: 'Time is irrelevant ... Sprint PCS.' That's just stupid."

But as the weeks rolled on, things began to change. As the rest of the students relentlessly primped their scripts--honing lines and delivery until jokes that had once received guffaws from other students barely prompted a snicker--Casella's turns on stage, though rambling and incoherent, made everyone laugh. Following the self-flagellating attack that kicked off her routine each week, she would loosen up and start riffing about whatever popped into her head--from ad hoc observations about B-movie vampires to disapproving remarks about celebrity yoga teachers. When Casella finally stepped out in front of the audience in the graduation show, her performance made people laugh precisely because it came close, in its flamboyantly unpolished way, to being spontaneous conversation with the audience, rather than staged shtick.

From the fat lady slipping on a banana peel in a 19th-century burlesque show to the aggressive behavior of a Manhattan soup-seller in the "Seinfeld" TV series, jokes have always turned upon the element of surprise. But the ability to pass the art form off as casual conversation, rather than a choreographed routine, has become almost equally important--a phenomenon that dates back to when Lenny Bruce knocked standup comedy sideways, rejecting the stiff, snare-drum-roll-punctuated one-liners of the vaudeville tradition in favor of yanking the mike off the stand and making fluid small-talk with the audience. This fundamental shift in the way comedians perform has created an interesting paradox for anyone trying to learn or teach comedy today. Disguising artifice beneath the medium of everyday chitchat, comedy is widely regarded as the most innate of all art forms. As a result, it resists the notion of pedagogy, especially in the traditional, analytical sense, because many people simply believe you are either born with a talent for making people laugh or you aren't.

"I don't think you can learn to write jokes," comedian Woody Allen is quoted as saying in Larry Wilde's book Great Comedians Talk About Comedy. "Not good ones. You can learn certain mechanical things--to create variations of other jokes written, even good variations, but it's nothing you can learn. It's purely inborn." And, in a recent interview, Tom Sawyer, co-owner and booker of Cobb's Comedy Club in San Francisco, took the same position. "Some people work and work at comedy and are never going to make it," he said flatly. …

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