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My 15 minutes as a Jay Leno

The writer takes an eight-week comedy course and then performs at the Hollywood Improv, drawing laughs – then a blank – on stage.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff Writer / February 6, 2009

FUTURE SEINFELD? Writer Dan Wood listens seriously during a class on how to be funny. (Joshua Sudock/Special to the Christian Science Monitor)

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Hollywood

I arrived at the Hollywood Improv two hours before show time and began loosening up by telling jokes to the walls. I wasn’t as nervous as I probably should have been.

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I paced the hallowed halls past autographed photos of Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, and David Letterman, conjuring up fantasies of tomorrow’s headlines – everything from, “Local man stumbles on stage, lodges microphone in esophagus,” to “Rookie comic offered ‘Tonight Show’ after first performance.”

Then the loudspeakers shattered my reverie.

“And now, put your hands together for a very, very funny man, Dan Wood.”

I made my way through the swinging doors, between tables and chairs, to the spot-lit stage.

“Hello, my name is Dan, and I’ve never heard of any of you people before, either.”

Whatever happened next was swallowed up in the cottony stillness of what felt like a silent dream sequence. I could see my hands gesturing, and I figured my lips were moving because people at tables were nodding and laughing. Next: a visit from my other personality, complete with interior dialogue. “Hey, this guy must not be half bad ... some people are laughing.”

“Pay attention, wiseacre, you are this guy.”

“Then why are they laughing? These lines aren’t that great. I know, I wrote them.”

My moment on stage was the culmination of an eight-week comedy course I had taken to learn more about the world of mirth and to see if I could transition from being tired journalist to the next Jerry Seinfeld. As you can see from this piece, I’m still doing B-grade journalism.

I did, however, learn a lot about doing stand-up comedy – principally, that it is very, very hard. Also, that I’m not as funny as my mother always told me I was. I even experienced one of the most dreaded moments in live performance – I froze and forgot my lines.

• • •

My journey to becoming the next Tina Fey began last fall when 11 of us – from teens to retirees – gathered in a basement theater on the Sunset Strip. We spilled our life stories as a way to begin building a five-minute comedy set that each of us would perform by course’s end.

Guided by Cary Odes, a 20-year veteran comic, we went around the room identifying ourselves: TV production assistant, elementary schoolteacher, bodybuilding instructor, journalist, waitress, actor, pregnant mom, city engineer. Next, courtesy of course creator Judy Carter – another successful comic – we zeroed in on personal rants, things that really bugged us.

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