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.

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you can’t teach that

For the first time in a while, I’ll be teaching again this week. 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 harpsichord repairman. 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.

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the comedy trenches

Thought I’d give you a comic’s-eye view of your basic road gig…

I’m on a bus headed to Minnesota. On Saturday night I begin my return to standup comedy, with a performance for the Rotary Club of Buffalo, Minnesota. On the surface, none of that exactly screams ‘show business’-not Rotary Club, not Buffalo, not Minnesota. But, it is a gig. I feel a bit like Michael Corleone in The Godfather–no matter how many times I try to leave standup, “it keeps pulling me back in.”I’m not even sure how I feel about getting back in the game. Excited, sure. And, in a weird way, a little resigned. So now I’m playing catch-up with all the hipster, alternative and most importantly, young comedians working today. And here I am, the Grandpa Moses of comedy.

First thing I have to do is throw out a chunk of my material, because I used to do topical jokes, and a lot of those are past their freshness date. Back in the day, I used to have bits about an out-of touch, incompetent president risking American lives in wrong-headed military action motivated by oil, while the economy stagnated and inner-city violence soared. Well, maybe I don’t have to rewrite that much material.

I also need to figure out how to market myself . Used to be if I wanted work as a comic, I’d send a VHS tape of a show to the club owner. Now I need to have a website, a clip on YouTube, I probably should have a MySpace page and I’m sure there’s some way to implant a microchip in the heads of prospective audience members so they’re forced to watch my show in an endless loop. Well, at least I’ve got the website and the clip, which you can view here.

I realize I’m sounding like an old vaudevillian here (‘why, if radio hadn’t come along I’d still be somebody”), but it’s a little scary getting back on the horse. I was lucky enough to get into standup when it was booming, in the eighties, when every town with a sewer system had ‘comedy night’ at the local bar. If you had twenty minutes of material and a car, you could make a decent living. Then comedy got devalued when the market was flooded with 18,000 mediocre twenty-something comics who realized it was easy money and you got to work in bars and occasionally get laid because for forty-five minutes in Cedar Rapids, Iowa you were a star. Yeah, I’m a little bitter. But it’s good to be back.

Now, to get to Buffalo, you drive west from Minneapolis (which is an actual city) about 45 minutes, past the suburbs, past all signs of civilization, until you see the lights of a town. That town isn’t Buffalo. You keep driving.Interestingly enough, for the 20 or so miles before you get to Buffalo, there are no signs along the freeway saying ‘Buffalo–20 miles” or “Buffalo–next exit” or…anything. The only signs you see tell you to watch your speed, because you certainly wouldn’t want to get to Buffalo too quickly. Also on that stretch of freeway, they’ve painted white dots in the middle of the road, with signs saying “2 dots equals 3 seconds.”

So you keep driving and counting dots until you see the Menard’s, take a right, and there it is–the Buffalo Civic Center. However, whereas ‘civic center’ implies a rather grand structure, where…big events might happen, this place looks like an aircraft hangar built on top of a high-school gymnasium. An old gymnasium with god-awful fake ‘turf’ duct-taped to the floor. Guess my ‘comeback’ had to start somewhere.

This was the Buffalo Rotary Club’s yearly fundraiser, during which they raffle off a new car. Now one of the fundamental rules of comedy, along with “Always Be Nice To The Guy Paying You” and “Don’t Make Fun Of The Girlfriend Of The Guy Paying You” is ‘Never Follow A Raffle.” See, everyone is there trying to win something, and when you go on, they realize you’re not giving away any prizes. You never want you introduction to start with the phrase ‘and don’t forget we still have a comedian.’

The three hundred or so people who didn’t win a new car dejectedly head for their own car (I mean it was almost ten o’clock in Minnesota after all) and I’m left with fifty or so people, who thanks a prime rib dinner and an open bar are either drunk or napping. The head guy of the Rotary Club then spends five minutes trying to get the drunk people quiet enough to hear my show, and to get them really pumped, gives me this introduction:

“Alright, so we’ve got a guy here from Chicago to entertain you. Here’s Michael Dane.”

The ‘audience’ is seated at gigantic round tables, thereby making sure that two-thirds of them aren’t actually facing the ’stage’, which is not really a stage but a three-inch high riser made of unfinished plywood. I start off playing with the crowd a little, and I had been given some notes on a few of the notables in the group to riff on. Unfortunately, none of the people for whom I had notes were still there. So I play with some people at the front tables, and I see a woman with big frizzy hair, and suggest that she was “the victim of a tragic home-perm accident.” Not brilliant, but the kind of line that loosens up the crowd before I get into my material. Well this crowd wasn’t too clear on the notion that comics…make shit up. No real grasp of sarcasm. So, a woman next to the frizzy-haired woman felt compelled to yell in the middle of my next joke “that’s natural–that’s her real hair!” I clearly had entered some sort of bizarre Literal Land, so I decided to just get to the act.

Although a core group in the crowd was clearly digging my routine, I spent much of my contractually-obligated hour essentially babysitting. Apropos of nothing I would be talking about, someone would announce loudly “I’m getting a drink–anyone need anything?” or “I gotta take a piss.” If I turned to the right, the people on the left would start talking. If I turned to the left, a canasta game would break out on the right.  On every other joke, if I didn’t yell the punchline, they seemed unable to tell that it was the end of a joke, and their cue to laugh. And, since it was an room full of Minnesotans, when they did laugh, wasn’t able to tell. The innate Lutheran-ness of Minnesotans doesn’t exactly lead to boisterous response.

It was also the whitest group of people assembled outside of the Republican National Convention.  The only person of color in the auditorium was the black security guard. Not even sure why he was there–Rotary Club events don’t tend to draw your rabble-rousers and troublemakers, even when they have an open bar.

I pushed through, though, eventually got to most of my actual jokes, and at the end, quite a few people said the had a great time (again, not that I could tell they had fun). Did my political stuff, did my pot stuff, even did my bisexual stuff (now I know why the security guard was there). Afterwards, I went to the open bar, had a gin and tonic in a plastic cup, got my money in cash, and headed out of Buffalo. Showbiz, baby! Bottom line–I got as much out of a Rotary Club raffle crowd in Western Minnesota as any comedian could have.

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