you can’t teach that

For the first time in a while, I’ll be teaching again this weekend. Before you start congratulating me for re-entering this most noble of professions, it’s not like I’ll be teaching about the towering figures in modern literature, or advances in higher mathematics, or, really anything with practical value. I teach stand-up comedy.

There are some problems with this as a way to make money. First, I’m not sure why anyone would take a stand-up comedy class, since the stand-up ‘boom’ ended in the early 1990s. It seems rather like studying to be an apothecary, or a blacksmith. Yeah, there are still comedy clubs, and a few hundred dive bars that might have a ‘comedy night’ in which they move the karaoke machine out of the way for an hour and a half (“You guys have to be done by 9:30, because the Metallica tribute band needs to set up”).

But it’s not like it was in the eighties, when every town with a sewer system offered a place to perform in front of a faux brick wall to an audience of drunk twenty-somethings. Sadly, the golden days of stand-up ended when it got over-exposed on TV and—sorry, I almost turned into an old vaudevillian bemoaning how radio killed his career.

More to the point, although I’ve taught comedy classes in the past (even taught ‘advanced stand-up’—and what the hell is that? Really complicated jokes? Longer…segues?), I’ve never been convinced you can actually teach stand-up comedy.

I think you can teach someone how to hold a microphone, and you can teach some tricks about putting jokes in a certain order (‘Don’t end your set with a joke about abortion,’ or ‘Don’t open by mentioning the Holocaust’), but you cannot teach someone to be funny. You need to bring funny with you to the first class.

However, I guess there will always be people lured by the prospect of a fifty-dollar Thursday gig in Dickinson, North Dakota, and for these brave souls, I offer four two-hour sessions, culminating in a three-minute performance at one of the local chuckle joints. The real problem is that if you want to be a comic, you should be at a comedy club, not in a classroom. You should be showing up at open mics trying out your shit in front of an audience (I’m really not selling my class very well—must learn how to market myself better.)

See, comedy’s different than other forms of ‘art,’ say, violin playing. You would never hear a violinist at Orchestra Hall say “This is something I’m just kinda trying out—it’s new–not sure if it’s gonna be any good.” But with standup, the ONLY way to know if something is funny is to say it in front of an audience—you can’t practice it in front of a mirror or say it into a tape recorder (are there still tape recorders? must update references…).

So the demographic that would sit at home and think “I want a more theoretical approach to the whole comedy thing, and I want to learn in an environment that’s entirely unlike any place comedy might actually happen” are people who, by and large, aren’t toting a lot of funny around with them. They’re taking my class for the same reason they might take a class in bungee jumping, or macramé—something they always thought about trying, because it could be fun.

In my experience, there are certain types of people who take Introduction to Stand-up Comedy.

The Frat Boy Type: believes he’s funny because he can make his ‘bros’ laugh at a kegger by doing a drunk impression of his boss followed by armpit farts—sadly, this doesn’t always translate in front of a real crowd

The Cubicle Guy: wants to try something different to shake up his nine-to-five life, but prior performing experience limited to emceeing the raffle at the company picnic, during which he attempted part of a Bill Cosby routine

The Hipster: watches too much Comedy Central, thinks he could do comedy because ‘they’re just saying a bunch of random shit anyway’

The Saucy Mom: has read a lot of Erma Bombeck, and now that kids have moved out, finally is trying what she ‘always wanted to do,’ but mostly wants to say inappropriate things and swear a lot

The Comedy Writer: has none of the personality required to be a performer, but has a chapbook filled with wacky ideas, most of which are only funny to him

The Toastmaster: Unclear on the distinction between public speaking and stand-up; would ideally prefer to read from note cards at a podium (tells people what he’s going to tell them, then tells them, then tells them what he’s told them)

Another challenge in teaching the ‘rules’ of comedy is that almost by definition, comedy is about seeming like you’re breaking the rules—saying those very things that you’ve been trained to suppress since fourth grade when you were sent home with a note saying ‘cuts up in class—always disrupting lessons with jokes.’

Of course, there will always be the stand-up student who simply wants to be like whoever the hot comic is at the moment, and I essentially have to beat that out of them so they find their own comic voice, and so the world isn’t overrun with clones of Dane Cook. But every so often, I come across students with a spark, that ineffable flair that makes you want to listen to whatever they feel like talking about.

It’s what my beatnik friend Eugene used to call ‘the thang.’ And though I try my damndest to give every student the tools they need to pull a few laughs out of increasingly jaded audiences, it’s that one in twenty, the one who has that ‘thang,’ who makes me want to teach comedy. Just don’t expect me to teach you to be funny.