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So you think you're funny?

One woman's adventure into stand-up comedy.

By Kim CampbellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2002



My palms were sweating and it was only Tuesday.

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My stand-up comedy debut was still five days away, and already I was envisioning "bombing," as they say in the business.

When I'd signed up for a comedy class a few months earlier, I wasn't trying to land my own sitcom or an appearance on David Letterman's show. I was more interested in answering the question many people bring to a course like this: If I can make my friends and family laugh, does that really make me funny?

Actually, there are plenty of other reasons to take an adult-ed course in stand-up – to learn how to tell jokes well, to write with more zip, or even to be a better public speaker.

But that's not enough to make the class appealing to everyone. Tell people you are trying stand-up comedy and they say things like, "I could never do that," "It sounds like torture," and my personal favorite: "I would rather bungee jump."

That didn't keep me and my 12 classmates from exploring the world of comedy each week with a funnyman named Steve Calechman. He's been doing stand-up in the Boston area for a decade, more recently teaching his craft to wannabes who've decided to see if they have what it takes.

What he knows, we learned: It takes a lot of work to make what comedians do look spontaneous.

Throughout the six-week class, we were guided by an observation he made early on about the difference between an amateur and a professional: One makes you think, "Yeah, that's right"; the other, "Hey, I never thought of it that way."

Comedy calisthenics

In the beginning, Mr. Calechman had to prod us to think beyond the obvious about common topics.

That's where the exercises came in. Call them comedy calisthenics. We began by filling in the blanks as if we were on the classic game show "Match Game." (My therapist is so tough, instead of tissues in her office she has ... "sandpaper, aluminum foil, a laugh track," we responded.) We typically had to answer three times in a row, which forced us to dig deeper than the first thing that came to mind.

And then there were the analogies. "Essentially, most of comedy is making an analogy," Calechman says. So in our second session he asked, "How are driving in rush hour and dating alike?" Among our better responses (and those fit for a family newspaper): You always get cut off – and it's best not to do either one drunk.

Pretty soon, I was making analogies of my own, like the one I thought of when people started wanting me to be funny on the spot: Asking a new comic to tell a joke after three classes is like asking someone who's been to the gym for a week to show you her abs – nothing is firmed up yet.

After a while we started getting the hang of the techniques, even if they didn't bring out the comedian in everyone. "Those exercises were helpful, really, but I stunk at them," says Mary Beth Cowan, who admits she took the class partly because of a reputation she has in her family for always giving away punch lines.

What she found most helpful came later: Watching other people do their material and then having Calechman critique it.

Each week we were full of questions about stand-up: Do people steal jokes from each other? (Yes, but sometimes unintentionally.) Do you memorize the whole act at once? (No, usually in bits.) What's the best way to hone my material? (Write it down.)

"I find that when I write it down, it goes from OK in my head to really sucky on paper," says Jeff Roche, the son in a father-son team taking the class.

Though Calechman could easily turn any subject into something humorous, the rest of us had to work hard at making material out of things we were sure were funny – Boston drivers, our mothers, the Olympics. "It's really about asking the right question," he would remind us. "You have to think about what's funny about it." It was a struggle we shared with plenty of others who had gone before us.

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