So you think you're funny?
One woman's adventure into stand-up comedy.
My palms were sweating and it was only Tuesday.
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."
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.
Everyone from the ancient Greeks to court jesters in the Middle Ages was under pressure to please an audience. Even Mark Twain's traveling storytelling could have qualified as stand-up, according to some scholars. But modern stand-up is more closely related to what came out of the minstrel shows of the mid-1800s, and later, vaudeville.
Comedians were well known in the early and middle part of the 20th century, when going out to night clubs became a common form of entertainment. And radio brought the comedy of people such as Jack Benny and George Burns into people's homes. Eventually stand-up peaked in the 1950s and early '60s in places like New York.
By the late 1960s, TV was taking hold of American imaginations, and night clubs started waning about the time when Woody Allen and Dick Cavett were doing their routines. The first comedy clubs appeared in the 1970s. Stand-up boomed again in the 1980s, when, as Calechman explains, comics could get $300 cash for working on a Tuesday night. Stand-up was everywhere.
Today, while some clubs that opened more recently are thriving, many others that opened during the boom have closed. In the past decade, at least 10 Boston clubs have been shuttered. Steve Rosenfield, who runs the American Comedy Institute in New York, says he remains optimistic about the art which has now spread to the Internet, where comedians have more ability to promote themselves, and even to perform. "One way to look at this is that the venues ebb and flow. The comedy is really constant," he says.
One recent change in stand-up is the arrival of more women. My class, half women, was just one reflection of that.
"I started five years ago, and that's when there was a very large, sudden influx of women onto the scene," says Julia Gorin, a comic and freelance writer in New York whose columns have landed her on Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" several times. "In the '80s there were literally none. Any woman who started did Vegas almost instantly. In the mid-90s, it really exploded."
Now, on any given night in New York, perhaps 30 percent of the comics are women. Still, even though their ranks have grown, they face a boys club, Ms. Gorin says. And anyone who wants to make a go of it male or female has to be ready to work several nights a week and spend a lot of time networking.
We got a sense of the comedy scene by watching Calechman and others perform at local clubs. A favorite spot was The Comedy Studio, a small club atop a Chinese restaurant in Harvard Square, where we would soon stand on the stage for our "graduation." We learned that not everyone who goes on stage is gifted. It gave us confidence.
By then we had started taking turns standing up in class. Some nights we were "ranting" talking in stream of consciousness for a minute about a topic we wanted to make a joke out of. It was meant to help us let our minds go, as Calechman puts it, and to keep us from editing ourselves.
Ms. Cowan ranted about a "Fun Run," which she found anything but enjoyable. He offered her this idea: "Here's what's fun about running: Not running."
I did a bit about being from Nebraska, and later he suggested an analogy that I eventually wove into my routine: Being from Nebraska is like being a test- tube baby people look at you like, "What was that like? Did you have any friends?"
When we struggled with how to open our five minutes of material, Calechman told us to talk about ourselves, to create a rapport with the audience. He also offered us lines to fall back on like: "So, does anyone go to the gym? Can anyone spell gym?"
By the time the night of our performance came, the class had developed a camaraderie evident to those who attended the show. Not content with practicing alone, many of us had met in the days before the Sunday performance to go over routines and offer suggestions.
One classmate, Michele Busby, came to dinner one night and told us her husband didn't think her material was funny. We tried to reassure her: He's British, what does he know?
Another, Sarah Amitay, drew us up short when we were worrying about who would have to go first: "It's not the fact that somebody has to go first, it's the fact that you have to go!"
On the night of the show we were nervous, but we managed to hold it together for the friends and family who showed up to cheer us on.
Diane Raymond, an associate dean at Simmons College in Boston, was prepared for the worst as she settled in to watch the show. "I had imagined that it would be a very painful, slow evening with lots of bad humor," she says. Instead, "the time flew by. I was impressed with the level of the humor, the intelligence of the comics."
While Ms. Raymond was watching, her friend in the class, Erica Cohen, was busy sweating. "I sweat places I didn't know I could," she joked later. "I wasn't nervous about going up on stage; I was more nervous I would forget everything."
That was true for a lot of us, including Ms. Amitay. "I went in the bathroom and did my whole routine before hand," she said afterward.
But once on stage, she experienced what many first-time comics do: "It was just such a high.... I just wanted to keep going." Amitay plans to continue doing comedy. "I just have way too much material. My life is one big joke," she quips.
Dave Drellich expected to be nervous, but wasn't either beforehand or on stage, which he credited to the comfort zone created by our teacher and the class. "And man, having all those people laugh at your act feels dangerously good. It could be addictive," he adds.
Others had a different reaction. Jon Whitney had spent time on a stage before but always with actors or musicians. "You're all alone and the spotlight just floods you. It's a surreal kind of feeling," he says, adding, "I probably wouldn't do it again. It was the mountain that was there that I wanted to climb, and I climbed it."
We drew numbers for our order that night, and I went last, the spot usually reserved for the headliner. It wasn't exactly the pressure-free position I was hoping for (but at least I wasn't first). As I waited and watched the show, it was obvious how far we had come from the first time we tentatively sidled up to the mike in class.
What we agreed on in the end was that the course didn't make us funnier if anything, the labor of it made us question at times our ability to be humorous. But it did provide us with a structure: We now knew how to put together five minutes of material and stand in front of a crowd and deliver it.
Perhaps it was all those exercises to loosen up our creativity that helped me write one of my best original lines just an hour before the show. Like my classmates, I was sure I would forget everything. But when it was my turn, even the new line came back to me. "I just turned 35," I joked in a bit about being an aging Gen-Xer. "That's like 80 in marketing years."
After five minutes on stage, I'm not ready to hit the road just yet. But at least my palms have finally stopped sweating.
When you're performing for the first time as a stand-up comic, you spend most of your energy trying not to forget your material. But you've also got to figure out what to do with your hands.
Much of that gets sorted out naturally as you practice. If your routine requires you to pretend to be on the phone or driving, you are probably going to leave the microphone in the stand. It's easier not to have to fuss with it.
Steve Calechman, a local comic and teacher of stand-up in Boston, made the switch to leaving the mike in the stand a number of years ago, and says it has allowed him to perform better. "I talk with my hands, and now I could act things out with both of them, like riding a horse ... or typing on a keyboard. I just had more options."
Jon Whitney (pictured above) was fairly animated during his turn on stage at the culminating performance of a recent course. His experience as a thespian was obvious, but he did try his gestures and facial expressions out on friends first. "Bring things up randomly," he suggests, "not as a 'routine,' and judge by how those things go."