Comedy club helps teenagers access their inner laugh track

Famous comedians teach teens from rough areas the power of words and jokes.

Roena Tapscott was sure she was doomed for failure – at best destined to drop out of high school as an unwed mother.

Today, she is enrolled in college and dreams of becoming a nurse so she can help children like the one she used to be. The key to her turnaround is a program in the heart of Hollywood, called the Laugh Factory Comedy Camp.

"Comedy Camp helped me to open up to things and let some of the anger I had built inside me come out," says the teen from the South Central district of Los Angeles. "I laughed about things. I didn't laugh about things before. I just kept it all inside, and I was just mean."

Roena was one of 25 at-risk teens chosen to learn what Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada calls the healing power of laughter.

"The most important thing we do is give them a little bit of confidence," he says. The format of the program is simple. The teens – selected through auditions, personal recommendations, and input from social services – assemble on Saturday mornings for 10 weeks, searching for their inner laugh track with the help of famous comedians like Bob Saget, Paul Rodriguez, and Jamie Foxx.

"Our purpose isn't to get these kids to be the next hot star on The WB or UPN," says Mr. Rodriguez, who has helped run the program for its 17-year history. The most important thing he hopes to teach the children is the power of words.

"They do most of their communicating with their fists, with a gun, with a knife," he says. "We teach them that a word, a joke, is as powerful as a gun."

He says the results are the reason he stays with it, not publicity or turning out new talent. "Because I won't read about these kids hijacking and winding up in my next San Quentin special. That is the real success."

Mr. Masada says he created the program because he felt humor was the life skill that kids from rough neighborhoods were least likely to develop.

"We look for people we can help and give some self-confidence to, because some of them can't even get up on the stage and talk," he says.

On Sunday, PBS will air a documentary about the program, "Stand Up! A Summer at Comedy Camp," (check local listings) detailing the success stories the club has turned out.

During the 90-minute program, viewers see the teens learning first to see the details of their daily lives, then develop the confidence to talk about them, and finally to laugh about them.

During Roena's first few sessions at the mike, talking about her life in a group home, she realized that, in the past, the only way she could be funny was to be mean.

That process made her realize the power of a good laugh. "It's easy to make someone cry, but it's hard to make someone laugh," she says, "especially when they're going through things."

In the documentary, one of the youngest participants drops to the floor and rolls around on stage, imitating the homeless man that lives outside his inner-city home. These are the moments Rodriguez looks for because, he says, if you don't laugh about such things, you'll go crazy.

"I've lost two brothers ... friends of mine [have been] shot dead in my arms," says Rodriguez, who adds that he comes from the same inner-city L.A. neighborhood that most of the program participants do.

He got involved in Comedy Camp because he credits laughter with saving his own life.

"There's only one way to survive the kinds of things my eyes have seen," he says, "and that is to laugh before you let it destroy you."

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