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.
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Steve Ducey told of his problematic long-distance relationship with a girl who lives in Kansas. Daryll Mackey recounted tales of being a divorced dad who is trying to date again without half the income he gives in alimony to his former wife. As everyone related their life story, we could hear the moment that real emotion kicked in – the seed of comedy. “Did you all notice the second Daryll mentioned his former wife?” asked Mr. Odes. “His temperature rose and his voice changed. Daryll, there’s your starting point.Skip to next paragraph
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Finding an emotional hook is what gives life to comedy bits and keeps them from being empty punch lines. It also what connects the material with the broadest audience.
“I think you’ll find that comedy is cathartic because you are mining terrain that you think is very personal and private to you,” said Odes. “But what’s happening is that people in the audience are responding with joy and release because they are suddenly realizing, ‘Wow, that happens to you, too?’ ”
Our first assignment was to settle on a clear topic and meet with a “comedy buddy” assigned from the class. And we got the rudiments of comic structure. Don’t try to be funny. Creativity is not about coming up with funny topics. It’s about making ordinary topics funny.
Then, we had to practice adding attitude. We were given four training-wheel words to aid us: weird, hard, scary, and stupid. For Mr. Ducey, for instance, that meant coming up with as many endings to these sentences as possible: Long distance relations are hard because... Long distance relationships are weird because...
I discarded what I thought would make good comic material – a bit about my parents moving into a elderly-help facility – and instead went a Rodney Dangerfield route: living on a Midwest salary in the middle of two of the richest communities in America, Bel Air and Beverly Hills.
When I met with Ducey, he pulled lines out of me and I pulled lines out of him. “Why is it hard living on a small salary in L.A.?” he asked.
“Because your kids’ friends have stuff way more expensive than you can afford.”
“What’s weird about having a long-distance relationship?” I said back.
“Because you go to pick her up at the airport and she looks way different than the last visit several months ago,” he said. We were off.
At the next class, everyone read their lists. Odes guided us toward material he thought would have more comic potential. To do this, you must know your audience. Hockey-playing Canadians in a bar in Winnipeg are different from teens at a birthday party in Orange County, Calif. For one thing, the teens have all their teeth. Odes asked us to aim for the broadest group. (Fortunately, our audience at the end of this course would be more sympathetic than most – stacked with friends and relatives.)