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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.)

Assignment for Week 3 was to develop a premise based on our topics. A good premise is an original observation – not something that is too general or trite. We had to do it without using the words, “I,” “me,” or “mine,” so the premise would be universal.

Then we had to act our premises out. It turns out vaudeville-style punch lines (“take my wife ... please”) are out. Comedy is now about dramatizing funny situations. Less Bob Hope. More Chris Rock. Consider this bit on body piercing: (premise alone) “It’s hard to understand what people are saying when they’ve got hardware in their mouth.” (With act out) “Arg, ooh, gump. Excuse me, could you take that bolt out of your tongue and repeat tonight’s specials again?”

For the final weeks, we refined our material and practiced things such as adjusting the microphone without shorting out an electrical substation. We were just getting comfortable when the final performance exploded on us. I had thought it would be after the last week of the course. Turns out it was the week before. I spent days pacing back and forth in my house, reciting lines. Our gerbil never laughed once. I was anxious.

• • •

I was going along fine on stage at the Improv. People other than my wife were laughing with some regularity. “How many of you (raise your hands) are poor? How many are trying to disguise that fact by wearing designer knockoffs and rented clothes?”

“I’m not actually poor. I just feeeeeel poor. That’s because when I moved to L.A. from Ohio 25 years ago, I moved in right next to two of the wealthiest communities in America...”

Yet several things surprised me. One was how difficult it was to carry five minutes of rat-a-tat verbiage in my head while trying to appear casual and unscripted. Another was the audience reaction. They broke into convulsions at lines I didn’t think were funny – and barely guffawed at others I thought were pretty good.

“I’m surrounded by extremely wealthy people. You’ve seen them. There the ones with bumper stickers that read, ‘my other car’s also a Bentley.’ I drive a 15-year-old van with a bumper sticker that says, ‘my other car’s a set of used roller blades.’ ”

Not a great line. But huge laughter.

About four-fifths of the way through my routine, it happened. I blanked. The audience must have either been playing with their iPhones or figured my deer-in-headlights act was intentional. The more I tried to remember my next line, the more they laughed.

Finally, I pulled a slip of paper out of my pocket and finished the routine. Afterward, everyone was supportive, but there were no offers from Leno’s staff.

Which brings me to one final conclusion about comedy: Journalism looks pretty good.

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