By Paula Marantz Cohen
I recently sat in on a colleague’s course on stand-up comedy—an odd course, perhaps, but one that is gaining traction on college campuses. I was skeptical about it at first, but I no longer am. It seemed to me that more was taught in this single class than during the entire semester in some more traditional college courses.
The instructor, Bruce Graham, an accomplished playwright, began his career as a comedian and has designed his classroom like a small theater. There were about 10 students in the class who had, earlier in the term, watched clips of famous comedians and analyzed the “art” of stand-up. This use of the word is correct—stand-up, as I’ve come to understand it, is one of the most nuanced and difficult arts in the performance repertoire.
During the session I attended, the students had been asked to prepare a five-minute bit to be performed and critiqued by Graham and the rest of the class. They had previously spent time honing a persona, pacing a joke, and learning about the arc of a routine. Waiting their turns, the students showed a combination of fear and anticipation—the necessary recipe for anyone willing to engage in this level of vulnerable self-expression. Getting up to perform alone in front of a live audience (even if for only five minutes in front of one’s peers) has got to feel like diving off a cliff. A certain level of fear is required for the adrenaline rush that pumps up the act. The second ingredient, anticipation, is that ineffable desire that certain people have to create something original and funny out of the material of their lives. Getting other people to laugh at their observations is what makes stand-up comics come back again and again, even if they bomb again and again.
All the students in the class seemed to have some germ of comic artistry in them. I don’t know whether this was because they were a self-selected group of talented people or because we all have the germ in us, whether or not we choose to nurture it. In any case, Graham teaches his students to understand how humor connects to personality. They seek that connection in themselves so that they can harness and release it. What went on in the class was akin to a therapy session. The students tried to find their own voice—to jettison what didn’t fit and amplify what did. I use “voice” broadly because it also includes physical mannerisms and even dress. Some students had to decide whether they were more comfortable seated or standing. In short, the class is about comedy as the outer manifestation of one’s comic core.
Whether these students will go on to make careers as stand-up comics seems irrelevant. The insights they gained about themselves will be invaluable, whatever work they choose to do—and in other facets of their lives as well.
One moment in the class particularly impressed me. A male student was about to close the arc of his performance (the portion of the routine, as Graham explains, where you put your funniest bits), and apologized that he would be moving into off-color terrain. He hadn’t known I would be in the room (i.e. an older woman, obviously a professor). He then went on and did the bit, which was, if not tasteful, certainly very funny. Afterward, Graham noted that apologies should never be given prior to presenting material—but then again, he said to the student: “you carried it off; you apologized with charm.” I can vouch for this, and even say that the apology somehow made the bit funnier. The lesson? Not to apologize, but sometimes to break the rule and do so. I was reminded of George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” which contains his rules for writers. The last rule is to “break any of these rules sooner than to say anything outright barbarous.” Here, “preventing the barbarous” may mean adding a cushion when a woman your mother’s age happens to attend your stand-up comedy act.
I’m sure there are people who will question the validity of paying tuition to learn stand-up comedy. But they need to reconsider what constitutes a good education. I am not, in general, a fan of applied courses, which I think can be better learned on the job. But when dealing with an art form—whether it’s poetry, painting, or, yes, stand-up comedy—what must be taught goes beyond the craft into a realm where all kinds of knowledge come together. There is, in short, a great deal to be learned from stand-up, if it only means learning where the craft of comedy ends and the artistry begins.
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and the recent What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.
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