I Just Took My First Stand-Up Comedy Class and I Already Want to Sabotage It
In Death by Microphone, local Brit and barbecue blogger Gavin Cleaver attends stand-up comedy classes at the Dallas Comedy House and reports back for our amusement. Check back next week to see how his first bit goes.
So then. Learning to be amusing.
I am nervous. Especially at the Dallas Comedy House. I was once asked to leave this place after misjudging the volume at which it was appropriate to discuss the improv show happening in front of me, mainly thanks to an afternoon and evening spent consuming alcohol. So when I arrive for my first Thursday night course in stand-up comedy, I'm worried I'll immediately be re-thrown out.
Thankfully no-one sees through my cunning ploy of being hairy and English.
My fellow potential funnymen, whose beard and sneaker quotient is well above the national average, are led around the back into a pretty bare room. We wait there in awkward silence -- not a good sign for a group of people soon to make their stand-up debuts -- until our teacher, Dean Lewis, arrives, having apparently spent five minutes introducing his new iPad to a Deep Ellum pavement.
Lewis is a local comic of note, having appeared on NBC's Last Comic Standing. He leads off by telling us that 75 percent of local Dallas comics have been through these classes, then gives a little run down of the class, of the way we'll build jokes from scratch.
Most of the example jokes he uses involve the interaction of his iPad and the floor. He's pretty quick-witted. This being an orientation of sorts, no one really talks. I'm pretty sure the only thing any of us can think about is our desperate struggle to come up with something even vaguely amusing to large numbers of people.
I went into this, like I do most things, with a snarky attitude, but as Lewis talks, I find myself surprised about how interesting it is, and how much sense it makes when Lewis explains, in straightforward, almost algebraic terms, how to construct a basic piece of satirical observational comedy. How to build it, how to build on it, how to build on that, and even how to look at things to create a punchline: He's like a comedy Bill Nye. It all seems so easy when it's explained by someone who knows what's going on.
It's amazing the levels to which you can boil down great comic routines. For instance, within the first few words of every set-up, you'll get a word like "hate" or "annoying" or "weird" or "stupid" or "angry." That's so blindingly obvious now I feel ridiculous, but it's true. Positive emotional words are only used sarcastically.
At one point we listen to a routine from Brian Regan -- a comic whose work, like that of most American stand-ups, I am completely unfamiliar with. Honestly? I don't even find it funny. But sitting there watching it, I do realize that no one could criticize that routine on the grounds of it not being good stand-up. I begin to conclude that these classes are, essentially, an exercise in damage limitation.
If you're going to do stand-up, they seem to be saying saying, here's how not to embarrass yourself. We can't make you funny, but we can help you not die horrifically out there.
Throughout the class, a voice chirps in the back of my head, counting down to the debut of my not-at-all-great comic routine. You know, the bit where I actually by myself have to come up with something that isn't totally shit, and then not urinate in fear on stage in front of everyone. That ain't going away any time soon.
For the next class, I have to come up with three pieces of original material using the recipe offered to us by Lewis, then perform them in front of my fellow students. No pressure there. Currently in the lead in the imaginary horse race of comic ideas in my mind is the notion of talking about being a Brit in Texas, the single comic crutch I have been pounding for the last six months. Set-ups like "DON'T YOU HATE IT WHEN TEXANS DRIVE LARGE CARS?!", the sort of crap that will get me through the whole performance with the fewest mental and physical scars possible.
Second in the race is the idea of simply being a dick to everyone in the audience, glorying in their boos, and drinking the tears of their frustrated, impotent rage using an exaggerated drinking straw. LET'S SEE.