Learn how to turn your life into a joke

The Humber Comedy Workshop is an example of the kind of training that has helped Canada become such a major developer - and exporter - of comic talent.

The workshop, which covers stand-up, sketch and improvisation, and sitcom and screenplay writing, accentuates the practical: what comics need to learn to make a living with their jokes. When a student complains that the show he saw the night before at a big downtown club was "too safe," artistic director Mark Breslin breaks the news: If you have a 400-seat hall to fill night after night, "you've got to fill it up with bus tours"; you can't afford to be too close to the edge.

Stephen Rosenfield of the American Comedy Institute in New York runs the sessions on stand-up comedy. He is an understated, patient-sounding man, who makes careful notes of everyone's best lines.

In one routine, a performer speculates whether the windchill factor ("It will be 4 degrees but will feel like minus 10") could be applied to speed limits: "Was I doing 140 [kilometers], officer? It felt like 80."

Another apprentice comic has a very funny bit about his button-down father, who, in retirement, launched an unlikely "career" as his wife's hair colorist. "He went from 'Les,' " he says, suddenly embodying male stolidity, "to 'Hair Color by Mr. Les,' " he concludes with the flick of a wrist.

Mr. Rosenfield encourages the self-revelation that a routine like this represents. "Look inside for where your comedy is," he advises. "We all share being shocked, embarrassed by our parents - but this is [uniquely] yours."

Rosenfield counsels his charges to trim back the setup for their jokes so the punch lines come faster. A great comic like the late Henny Youngman, he says, could get into a rhythm with his audience so that every other line became a laugh line. "It's almost like a gospel choir," he says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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