The first night of Roger Bates’ standup comedy course begins much like any other class–with handouts. Fifteen of us are sitting two apiece at small tables on the third floor of Charlie Goodnight’s comedy club in downtown Raleigh, in a cozy nook occasionally used for elite dining customers. As Bates makes a circuit of the room, passing out papers and collecting the $120 fee for his six-week “Comedy 101” course, members of our motley crew eye each other curiously. Their looks seem to ask: Why are you here?
Our student body, as it were, is composed of two women and 13 men, three black, the others very white. We come in a range of ages, from 17 to approximately 65, and have driven from as far away as Cashiers and Winston-Salem to make the 6:30 p.m. class. We represent an average cross-section of middle America: There are no Carrot Top hairdos here, no arrows through the head. Our group includes high school and college students, an actor, a jazz musician, a technical recruiter, a “life coach,” a computer programmer, a bartender and a journalist. Our motivations for taking the course are bound to be as various as our backgrounds. The first handout asks us to write them down.
I assume this information is for the teacher’s eyes only, so I have no qualms about scribbling: “to write an article.” At this point, it’s tough for me to imagine another motive for being here. By the end of the final class six weeks hence, all students are expected to take part in a “graduation ceremony,” which entails getting up on Charlie Goodnight’s main stage and performing a short set during Tuesday’s open mic amateur night program, from 9-11 p.m. But where getting behind a mic and amusing total strangers is concerned, I’ve got two things working against me: stage fright, and a self-image that doesn’t include the concept “funny.” I feel like standing up as if I’m at an AA meeting and announcing, “My name is Mark, and I’m not funny.”
Our teacher, who asks that we call him “Rog,” anticipates this. After collecting our papers, he tackles this question head-on.
“Jerry Seinfeld once told me that there are people who aren’t funny,” Rog says. “‘Who?’ I asked.”
“Like the Germans.”
Rog chuckles, tilting his head to one side.
“Now, I don’t believe that–I think anyone can be funny,” he says. “So much of it is what we tell ourselves, how much confidence we have. I’ve had students come to me who said they didn’t think they were funny at all and by the end of the class they were funny. I would go almost so far as to say that anybody could become a standup comedian if they put the time and work into it.”
As he says this, Rog acknowledges the row of framed portraits encircling the nook, featuring an assortment of comedians as motley as our own group. The comics, each mugging some form of “I’m funny!” project warmth and humor as competitively as Olympic skaters launch triple axels. David Brenner smiles down Jerry Seinfeld. Emo Phillips outgoofs Garry Shandling . You can almost hear their teeth grinding with the effort.
We get the picture. Comedy isn’t pretty, as Steve Martin said. Comedy is hard work.
Our teacher ought to know. Rog is an old hand at the itinerant entertainer racket, who’s performed in bands, worked as a full-time studio musician, and coached keyboardists and vocalists. As a comedian, he’s opened for performers like Jeff Foxworthy and done corporate events for American Express and GlaxoSmithKline. He’s also put together a small music studio in his home, written a humor column for the Cary News, books for musicians on how to play by ear, and the text for our class, How to Be Funnier. Now approaching middle age, the performer and teacher has finally settled down with his wife and two kids, in Cary.
Cary? It’s not the first place that comes to mind when you’re thinking “comedy.” But one of Rog’s best customers has been his own town, which asked him to write a song to lighten the mood at a budget-setting retreat for town officials. The result was “The Cary Blues.”
“I found out there’s this band in Cary called The Cary Blues Band, and I’m thinking, what’s there to sing the blues about in Cary?” Rog says. “So I start writing, ‘I was starting up the BMW and it was out of gas/I had to take the minivan to work, there goes my image at SAS/I’ve got the blues–the Cary Blues.”
Rog has skills, and he’s an engaging teacher whose students come back for more, even though the class can be demanding. My tablemate for our first class, Harley Sanders, testifies to this.
“I didn’t realize how much writing was involved in this,” he says. “Some days I’ve spent as much as four hours writing material. It’s almost like an English class.”
A large, gregarious guy who looks like he might be the younger brother of John Goodman, Harley is a student at Western Carolina (where, he tells the class, he’s “minoring in Dunkin’ Donuts”). This is only the second time that Rog has held a class at Charlie Goodnight’s, and Harley has returned to take it again. Other students express surprise over the fact that he’s driven more than six hours to take the course a second time.
“I always overdo it,” Harley says, leaning back and patting his belly.
The rhythm of the class is like this throughout the first night, with personal testaments from students, morsels of encouragement and instruction from our avuncular, mustachioed teacher, and the occasional road-testing of new comedy material followed by group feedback–all intermingled somewhat randomly. The course is loose and relaxed, but that’s by design. As we’ll all discover, putting together a standup comedy routine involves a good bit of self-revelation, so Rog the family man works hard to maintain a safe environment. Although these people are total strangers, they soon come to trust and support each other.
In order to get stage time during our graduation night ceremony, Rog tells us, we’re going to need to put together 3-5 minutes of strong material in the next six weeks. And 3-5 minutes on stage can feel like a long time. The second handout this evening lists some key pointers to keep in mind as we’re writing. These include listening to other comics and humorists, writing for a general audience, avoiding material that’s contradictory to our persona, remaining logical while employing exaggeration, being concise, and choosing topics we care about.
Our first homework assignment plays off pointer No. 2: Use self-deprecation. Rog explains that self-deprecation is safe, because you don’t risk offending anyone in the audience. He asks us all to go ahead and make a list of self-deprecating things, then take them home and write jokes about them.
“That’s easy for me–I’m the poster boy for self-deprecation,” says 40-ish Randy Wyatt, whose unruly curls and twinkly eyes give him an impish look. Randy explains that he’s joined the class because he recently got laid off, and he’s trying to keep busy.
This gives Rog an opportunity to let the other classmates talk about their reasons for taking the course. A few students are bold enough to admit that they’d like to be professional comedians. Some reveal that they may be overcompensating for shyness, hoping that getting up in front of an audience and trying to make strangers laugh will teach them to deal with tough social situations, like business meetings, or dating. Others say they were “always the class clown” in junior high or high school.
“I’ve always been the funny one,” says Yvette Berry, an attractive black woman who works as a technical recruiter. “Now I want to learn to use it for good and not for evil.”
Jimmy Murray, at 17 our youngest classmate, says at first that he’s doing this as an extracurricular activity to list on college applications. “And also to get the attention I never got from my parents,” he adds.
Adrienne Martin, an N.C. State University student, tells us that she’s “self-conscious about being self-conscious.”
“If I’m ever going to get over that, I’m going to have to take some chances,” she says.
When it’s my turn to talk motivation, 14 unfamiliar faces turn expectantly to mine, and I get a taste of what it might be like to be up on the stage on graduation night, facing a sea of expressions that translate as this better be funny. I’m suddenly reminded of a scene from childhood, that moment in our church where the preacher would pick someone to read the final prayer. Dressed in a clean white button-down shirt, blue clip-on tie and dark blue polyester dress pants, I would be sweating in my pew as the preacher scanned the congregation, looking for his next victim.
“Please God, not me,” I’d mutter to myself.
That was my final prayer.
When it’s my turn to talk motivation, however, I skip all backstory. I look forward. I talk about hoping to get an article out of the class.
“I’m curious about the idea that being funny can be learned,” I say.
“Are you going to be your own subject?” Randy asks, eyes a-twinkle.
The question begs a dry, Socratic retort: Well, who isn’t?
I just shake my head. “Oh, no–no.”
My fellow students eyeball one another peripherally, wondering: Well, who is then?
Funny you should ask.
“I’m not a law-abiding citizen because I’m such a good person,” Adrienne Martin says, pulling her dark bob back behind her ears as she bows over a notecard. “It’s just that I don’t want my mugshot taken.”
Martin, a petite, 19-year-old freshman at N.C. State, is trying out new material on the class. It’s week two, and while Rog continues to feed us instructions like vitamin pills, for the most part the class has segued into a workshop phase, during which students pitch new material for others to bat around. We offer suggestions for tightening jokes, getting to the point more quickly, adding surprise.
The class has now moved wholesale to the second floor, into the main stage area. We’re sitting at tables among stacked chairs, next to the stage with its blue neon “Goodnight’s” sign, its mic stand and its checkered floor. Goodnight’s, Rog tells us tonight, is an “A room,” which means that it serves up comedy five to six nights a week, and features nationally known headliners. This is the site of our eventual triumph or ignominy, where we’ll be thrown to the lions on graduation night.
Now it’s time to test out our newly minted, self-deprecating jokes. Besides being safe and inoffensive to the audience, Rog says, self-deprecation makes us more likable.
The already likable Adrienne Martin rattles off self-deprecation like she’s been practicing her whole life. Despite her comeliness–the word fellow students most often use to describe her is “cute”–she says she hates her schnozz, and has built several gags around her “nose complex.”
“I’m traumatized by my nose,” she says, reading from another notecard. “Even my grandmother asks me if I’m Jewish.”
Adrienne is a physics major, who explains that other students in her department are always sharing “nerdy jokes that are way over my head,” and she doesn’t want to “always be making jokes about protons and neutrons.”
“Or croutons,” Rog submits, missing no beats (and beating no missus, Rog might add, in one of his characteristic, groan-worthy puns).
“Or croutons,” Adrienne agrees.
Adrienne confesses to me later that she asked her mother if she could take the class, but was summarily turned down. “She said maybe next time, probably hoping I’d forget about it,” she says. So Adrienne scrimped and saved from her food allowance to pay for it.
Like her parents, none of the students or professors in her program know about her taking this class, and Adrienne says that they’d be mightily surprised if they found out. “It’s not like I’m Jim Carrey at school,” she deadpans.
Watching her during class, this isn’t surprising. Withdrawn, shy, reluctant at first to share her material, she warms up slowly in the supportive environment of the class. As her reticence slowly melts away, a flood of material pours forth, and Adrienne is revealed as one of the purest and most prolific joke writers in the class.
“I don’t like working out,” she says, reading another joke. “My doctor says I have the heart of a 65-year-old woman. I guess that’s why I like older men.” When she’s done with her joke, Adrienne looks up shyly to see what kind of reaction it got.
Like the other students, Adrienne delivers her jokes affectlessly, sitting down, and reading them from notecards or a notepad. Long silences can often follow delivery of a joke in this class, but Rog tells us not to worry about it. “We’re the toughest crowd,” he says.
“My friends disapprove of my dating habits,” Adrienne continues, “but a lot of girls don’t see that a dark parking lot can be a great dating opportunity.”
This moment of personal revelation, in the form of a joke, is the kind of scene that’s repeated throughout the course, as layers of protective accretions are stripped away from many of the students, to reveal a surprising vulnerability.
Which brings me to Eric I.
You’d expect someone with a stage name like “I” to be a bit of a narcissist, and Eric’s first couple of appearances in the class don’t confound expectations. Eric–who ducks efforts to trap him into revealing his real last name–misses the first class and shows up to the second one with the insouciance of a professional who’s slumming it. And to a certain extent, he is. With 70 appearances onstage already, in clubs in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, the 31-year-old self-employed Winston-Salem-based comedian is the most ready for prime time, with a polished act and a camera-ready stage persona.
Eric is originally from New York, and although he’s been in North Carolina for 10 years, he’s also lost nothing of a kind of Bronx nasality and brusqueness. In his first couple of appearances in class, however, our most experienced and irrepressible classmate seems to be stepping on the teacher’s toes, offering sage advice to other students while the mild-mannered Rog reclines in his chair and listens on. At first I suspect that Eric may be a plant, dropped into the class by Rog to keep the pot stirring.
During the second week, Rog warns that if a joke bombs once, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It could be your delivery, it could be the audience, it could be a full moon, who knows. All it takes is for one person to cough and half the audience misses the punchline, he says.
Eric, sitting with one leg under him and bouncing slightly in his seat, one-ups Rog: “Tell a joke three times and if you get no laughs, it sucks.”
By the third class, however, I get to see another side of Eric when I stay after and watch the 9-11 p.m. amateur night through to its bloody end. Rog has deliberately scheduled our classes on Tuesdays from 6:30-8 p.m. so that we can test out material on a real audience during open mic night, which seems to draw anywhere from 50-150 patrons. After our third class, Eric takes the plunge with a handful of other students.
As he does each time he performs, Eric sets up a camera to tape his routine, to examine in minute detail later. He’ll be looking for the flubbed punchline, any swallowing of words, poor timing, enunciation or syntax, or eagerness to get the set over with.
While he awaits his turn, Eric’s center-of-attention persona changes little, but my perception of it evolves. When other students are onstage, Eric is their biggest cheerleader, laughing loudly when no one else does, announcing for the whole audience to hear, “That’s a great joke!” and clapping vigorously when classmates leave the stage. In retrospect, his eagerness in class seems like a corollary to this generosity, a genuine concern with helping fellow students by sharing his experience and expertise.
Of course, he can afford to be generous, since, at a slim 5 foot 9 inches, Eric is, height-for-weight, the best comic in our class. He is that paradox, the man who wants to be taken seriously as a comic, who wants to be seen as a professional at something that few people think of as a real job. And with his professionalism and drive, he may have the best shot of anyone in the class. Eric has polished his material until he can see his face in it.
Onstage, Eric hits the audience with a barrage of witty one- and two-liners, cleverly composed, confidently delivered, and always punctuated by a drawn-out, deadpan “yee-ah” that gets a laugh even when the joke preceding it doesn’t. His jokes are primarily about relationships, his girlfriend (real or imagined), his size, but when he leaves the stage and sees me taking notes, he tells me not to quote them. He’s protective of his still-raw material, and reluctant to see it in print.
At 31, Eric has gotten a late start in comedy. He tells me at one point that when he turned 30 last year, he realized that “life is too short not to spend it doing something that I love.” Since then, he’s devoted more of his energy to developing a standup career.
“I love standup more than almost anything else I’ve ever experienced,” he says, before delivering the punchline to one of his jokes: “And to date, no one has offered to pay me for eating pizza or for receiving oral sex.”
Eric has chosen a tough time to make a go of it as a professional standup comic, though, Rog tells us. “We’re in a bit of a comedy recession, guys,” he says during the next class, explaining that the number of people going out to comedy clubs in the ’80s and early ’90s was so great that the clubs proliferated, and you could “go down to your local Holiday Inn or even a small Italian restaurant and they’d have a comedian performing.” When Rog started more than a decade ago, you could find stage time seven nights a week. No more.
“We’re not coming out of this comedy recession anytime soon,” he concludes.
Eric remains unflustered. “Until recently, I was under the mistaken impression that 20 or 30 comedians became extremely successful, and the rest of them had to quit comedy and go back to their day jobs,” he tells me. “But in the past year or two, I’ve learned that there is room for a few thousand good comics to make a living doing what they love. This makes me very happy.”
Of course, Eric may have some competition, even in our class. Jimmy Murray, our 17-year-old classmate, has already done a gig out of state–at church camp in Maryland, last June. The bespectacled Green Hope High School student remembers being onstage in a wool pinstripe suit that had him sweating like an aerobics instructor. What’s worse, he couldn’t be certain his material was clean enough for the audience.
But Jimmy’s best friend Ryan had a backup plan. When he heard that Jimmy wanted to do standup, he asked if he could be his heckler, and they worked out a heckling routine.
“I told a joke about getting lost in the woods, and when I came out on a road I saw a sign that said, ‘Welcome to Florida,’” he remembers. “So Ryan would say, ‘Ya shoulda stayed down there!’ And I would say, ‘I should of had a girl with me!’”
The experience taught Jimmy his first important lesson about performing, when two girls bounded onstage with him after this snappy comeback.
Jimmy is the purest illustration of Rog’s observation that when we’re onstage, we’re not just telling a joke, we’re sharing experience. Jimmy’s jokes come straight out of his experience as the product of a broken home. A recent transplant from Maryland, where his mother still lives, he’s picked up each night from the club by his father, who lives in Cary. A couple nights, Jimmy’s dad stays after class to watch his son try out new material during open mic night.
Week four is one of those nights. Before Jimmy goes on, House MC LeRoy SeaBrooks delivers his instructions to the group of 10 amateur comedians who’ve scratched their names on the sign-up sheet.
“If you see a representative of the club flicking a lighter, that means you’ve run over your time, and need to get off the stage,” LeRoy warns.
“And keep it clean,” he says, adding some off-the-cuff guidelines: no more than five “fucks,” no “pussy,” no “ass-munching.”
“Be reasonable,” he says. It’s hard to tell if he’s joking.
Most of the comics ignore the no obscenity rule. While Jimmy’s father sits with his hands in his lap, in the darkness to the back of the performance space, behind a railing where the comics are instructed to sit, it’s difficult to tell whether or not he’s blanching at the language his teenage son is hearing.
When it’s his turn, Jimmy opens with one of his favorite jokes.
“So I told a girl I loved her the other day, and she didn’t say it back. And I was like, ‘Yo, Mom!’”
The joke gets a big laugh, and Jimmy follows it with other commentary on his family life. He mentions that all of his friends are getting their own phones, then says that he just got his own phone too, “Except it costs 25 cents every time I call.”
After a well-received opening, Jimmy stumbles into what would be a disastrous set for most comedians, forgetting most of his material and not making any bones about it. But because of his natural likability, he somehow pulls it off, making use of what Rog has called “savers”–lines that get a laugh when the joke doesn’t. As he shifts nervously from one foot to the other, hemming and hawing, Jimmy tries desperately to fill the dead air with something, anything.
“Um–anybody got a funny joke I can tell?” he asks, spreading his hands out beseechingly toward the audience.
“Now it’s time for me to trash my dad,” he says finally, setting up another joke, then adding after a long pause, “Uh–I forgot how I was going to trash my dad.”
When I ask Jimmy after his set what his parents think of his family-centered material, he says simply, “They think I’m a funny kid.” His dad, Jimmy explains, encouraged him to take the standup class because he thought it would help him with his writing skills.
“Well, it’s improved my joke-writing skills,” Jimmy deadpans.
Jimmy is followed onstage not long after by fellow classmate Aaron Scott, a 27-year-old Raleigh-based actor who has written so much material that he has stayed after class more than once to test it during amateur night. Each time Aaron takes the stage, my palms begin sweating. There is no other time I am more nervous for a fellow classmate, and at first I attribute this nervousness to the fact that Aaron is openly gay, and sometimes uses gay material. Rog has already coached us about reading an audience, about not singling out frat boys or anyone wearing a cowboy hat. It’s tough, because on Tuesday nights, with a $2 cover for students, Goodnight’s draws a heavily undergraduate crowd from the university down the road, N.C. State–which is, one comedy classmate reminds me, “within hurling distance of the club.”
And something is terribly wrong with Aaron’s set this night, but it doesn’t seem to be the gay material, which he opens with, as usual.
“I really like to mess with telemarketers,” he says. “When they call I like to tell them, ‘Hey, you really have a sexy voice.’ I especially like to do this when it’s a marine recruiter. I mean, hey, what’s the problem, they’re looking for a few good men, I’m looking for a few good men.”
This joke goes over well, as do jokes about him being an actor.
“Yes, I’m an actor, but no, I don’t wait tables,” he says. “I’m the best damn dishwasher Chili’s has ever had.”
But when he segues into racially tinged material, the mood of the crowd changes. Aaron complains about the use of Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice in a recent cell phone commercial. “When he said, ‘Let freedom ring,’ I don’t think he had a cell phone in mind. I mean, what’s next? ‘Malcolm FedEx–when it absolutely has to be there overnight–by any means necessary.’”
This material is strong, the jokes well-written, but for some reason a small group of black patrons at the front of the crowd are heckling Aaron. Their rudeness continues throughout his set, until he leaves the stage distraught.
“What the hell was that all about?” he asks after retreating to the safety of the comics’ area. I try to downplay it, confused myself.
“It’s just a strange crowd tonight,” I say, shrugging.
Later over drinks, Aaron and I discuss the crowd’s strange reaction to his set. By this time I think I’ve figured out what the problem is, but it’s such a delicate subject, I’m afraid to bring it up. I’m relieved when Aaron beats me to it.
“I’m just not black enough for these crowds,” he says, putting a fine point on it. And he’s right. Most of the black comedians we’ve seen performing during amateur night have deliberately chosen to play to crowd expectations, exaggerating black stereotypes. The audiences love it, but the effect is sometimes disturbing, a kind of crowd-pleasing minstrelsy that Spike Lee criticized in his film Bamboozled.
And it’s true that Aaron’s humor comes off more upper-middle-class than other black comedians at Goodnight’s. He tells me, in fact, that his ideal is to create a “performance piece” like Whoopi Goldberg’s Broadway show, in which characters share parts of their lives that are important to them, and give it a comic element while still remaining socially relevant. Rog’s comedy class, he indicates, has given him a good head-start.
By our fifth class, most of the students have already ventured once onto the Goodnight’s stage during amateur night in preparation for graduation. As for me, I’ve been reading Rog’s comedy primer, How to Be Funnier, and listening to classic comedy CDs by Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Sandra Bernhard. I’m beginning to feel the first stirrings of interest in trying out a minute or two of material, so when Rog asks me to share a joke with the class, I oblige.
“Fast-food restaurants–how do they get to call themselves that?” I ask. I then describe the drive-thru attendant’s instructions to me when she tells me it’s going to “be awhile on the fries.” Instead of telling me to pull up and wait, she instructs me to pull out of the parking lot, go home, do some laundry, catch up on my television programs, and so on. I provide a list of such things, each more ridiculous than the last, including some errands the drive-thru attendant needs done, until she finally says, “and then come back and I’ll have your fries.”
This joke breaks one of Rog’s cardinal rules, which is to be concise. A long joke is like an expanding balloon, he explains–at the end of it, the audience expects a big bang. Later Adrienne will mention, like Harley, that editing is one of the things she learned in the comedy course. Sometimes it really is like an English class.
“Have you seen how much the new Air Jordans cost?” I ask, trying again. “$200! Of course, they’re $400 with the plastic-explosive soles.”
This is more concise, but airport security jokes are a real bummer. My jokes go over so poorly that the class’ deathly silence is the funniest thing about them. It reminds me of my favorite moments while watching classmates on stage, those uncomfortable seconds right after they’ve told a joke that falls completely flat, and the comics shrug sheepishly, grinning at the audience apologetically. The gesture is universal, performed almost identically by each comedian. I imagine standup comedians in Tokyo doing the very same thing.
I worry that this marks a streak of perversity in me, but that moment of vulnerability is so touching when the comedian drops his exaggerated stage persona and is completely naked on the stage. As much as I enjoy this moment, however, I decide to pass on telling the class my joke about the gay dad who’s raising a gay son.
Another reason for my reticence afterward is that I’ve committed a comedy class social gaff, and so far I’m the only one who’s guilty of this. After one of my classmates offers some ideas for improving my jokes which I find quixotic, I grump, “That’s not funny.”
Throughout the course, no matter how unfunny someone’s joke turns out to be, the classmates have shown considerable restraint in pointing this out, redirecting their comments into constructive criticism and positive reinforcement. For the first few classes, I find this phony, but by the end of the fifth class, I’m appreciating it, since it keeps us from shutting down creatively.
Having broken an unspoken rule, I remain relatively quiet throughout the rest of the class, and just listen.
On our sixth night of class, we climb the painted-black metal staircase behind Charlie Goodnight’s and enter the club by the rear entrance, like real performers. There’s a buzz of expectation in the room as we sit down to go through our new gags. For the first time since class number one, everyone is here: As I’ve discovered, a comedy school is just like any other school–it has its share of delinquents and drop-outs. But tonight, the fullness of the class, the proximity of the stage, and the looming graduation ceremony bring us to a new level of energy. Not only that, but the entire 9-11 p.m. amateur night time slot has been reserved exclusively for Rog’s students. Tonight will be a family affair.
The excitement is furthered by the presence of not one, but two journalists in the room. Behind us, a television camerman is setting up his gear in order to film Randy Wyatt, for a story on what laid-off Triangle residents are doing while waiting for a job opportunity to open up. Rog has arranged for Randy to MC the first half of the show, which means he’ll be getting a ton of stage time–and air time, presumably.
“Oh great, more bright lights,” one of the students moans, as the cameraman tests out his equipment.
Until now our class has been primarily about writing material, not stagework, but with almost all of his charges getting ready to mount the Goodnight’s stage in a single night, Rog gives us advice for handling it. Take the mic out of the stand–it will loosen you up, he says. Use risky material later in the set–if it fails, it won’t turn the audience off to your other material, because you’re almost done. Visualize yourself having a great set.
After class, our television star Randy asks me if I’m going to do a set tonight. Since a couple of other students have begged off, saying they aren’t ready, I don’t feel as bad about admitting that I simply don’t have enough material. Fast-food drive-thrus, airport terrorism and gay fathers just won’t be enough to get me on and off the stage without incident. Already Rog has jokingly told one other student that he’s going to hold him back a semester. As it turns out, it wasn’t much of a joke–the student will be taking the class again.
Before the crowd is let in, House MC LeRoy SeaBrooks, looking like a slightly less-scary Ving Rhames, addresses us like a drill sergeant. Just because we’re in the comedy class doesn’t mean we’re going to be cut any slack.
“Listen up people, this is open mic night, this is training,” he growls. “If you want to stay up there and take a beating, take a beating. But ya got five minutes.”
As 9 p.m. rolls around, the house lights go down and the blue Charlie Goodnight’s sign lights up like a bug zapper. When the Tuesday night crowd rolls in, LeRoy instructs the seated patrons to “keep the table talk to a minimum and the laughter to a maximum.” A pair of young waitresses patrol the tables, trolling for drink orders.
Many of the students have friends in the audience for the first time. When N.C. State student and late comedy class addition Greg Volk takes the stage, his entourage cheers loudly, but it does nothing to still his free hand, which shakes uncontrollably throughout his set. In his other hand, he holds a piece of notebook paper with his jokes written on it. After one joke falls flat, he asks the audience if he’s in the right place.
“I just wanted to make certain I wasn’t in a very large interrogation room where they sell beer and people pay to watch,” he says, shielding his eyes with his free hand and blinking under the bright stage lights.
When Jimmy takes the stage, he adds a new joke to his set, saying that he’s so young that he’s not even allowed to hear his own material. His routine goes better than the last time, and he forgets fewer of his jokes. His dad congratulates him as Jimmy leaves the stage and takes a seat in the area reserved for the comics. Jimmy has graduated from comedy school even before he’s earned a high school diploma.
Adrienne goes up for only the second time in her life, and this time she stands closer to the mic, so more people hear her material. She opens by introducing herself as a physics major, and says that the reason she’s not very good in her field is that “choosy mother’s choose JIF, and their kids turned out to be scientists and engineers. My mother fed me Peter Pan, and I still don’t understand gravity.”
On only her second night onstage, however, Adrienne experiences her first heckler of sorts, when she tries out a new joke about the differences between the way the Chinese and Americans deal with a death. While an American funeral is dour, she says, a Chinese funeral is a celebration.
“I think this is because they’re happy they have one less mouth to feed,” she says. “More rice for everyone!”
At this, a woman in the front row says something to Adrienne, who interrupts her set suddenly to address her. “What? Oh, was that offensive?” Adrienne asks, surprised.
“I’m sorry,” she says, earnestly, then pauses, probably recalling Rog’s directive to stick to self-deprecating humor, since no audience member will find it offensive.
But when Adrienne looks back at the general audience she smiles and shrugs, as if to say, “Why are you in a comedy club?”
Aaron follows, with a well-rehearsed set. After his last time on stage two weeks previously, though, he places emphasis on one joke in particular. Mentioning that directors often expect him to be something that he’s not, Aaron singles out one director who told him, “We need you to be more edgy, more urban, more black.”
“So I stabbed him,” Aaron says. When this gets a good response, he tries out a technique Rog has grilled us in, adding a “topper.”
“It pissed me off because I spilled my malt liquor.”
Some of the students’ material is new tonight, but even the old material seems more polished, and it’s gratifying to hear suggestions made in class being tried out onstage. Some of the students are polished enough, in fact, to attract the attention of another club owner. As the comedians come off the stage, a few of them are approached by Smitty of Bully’s Basement in Durham, who recruits them to perform at a March 23 amateur night there. Adrienne, who has been on stage only twice, is surprised to be invited, but accepts the offer.
“If I hadn’t taken this class I never would have gotten up on that stage,” she tells me.
As Adrienne files out of the club later with most of the other exhilarated students, I wonder how she’ll fare in another club, without her support group-cum-family there to cheer her on.
Around 11 p.m., when it’s all over and there are only three or four of us left commiserating at the club, I break away from the remnants of our group and mount the stage for the first time to see what it feels like. Before the comedians began this night, I had wondered how it would feel for us to hear this familiar material for the second, third or fourth time, and I’m reminded of a story that Aaron told me, about the first time he really “did comedy.”
It was in grade school, and he had an oral book report due for which he had not read the text, and he had to summarize the story in three minutes. “So I did this standup routine about the characters and the teacher loved it and gave me an A,” he recalled. “At that moment, something inside of me said, ‘Hey, if it’s this easy, what’s to stop me?’”
The second time he tried it, however, the result was not as good. “She busted me. … She still gave me a B, but she said, ‘Aaron, just because something works one time doesn’t mean it works every time.’”
Aaron’s teacher was wrong, of course. Rog addressed this in class by mentioning that he had recently seen a performance by Elayne Boosler, who’s set was still funny even though she’s “doing the same material she did 25 years ago.”
Besides, if there’s one thing that this class has taught me, it’s that if practice doesn’t make perfect, it at least makes adequate. And on a night where everyone’s an amateur, adequate is perfectly good enough. Most of the students in our class have come away understanding that if funny can’t necessarily be learned, being funnier can be. And I’ve come away from the class convinced that even if I didn’t get it right the first time, with more confidence and practice, I might the next go ’round.
With the white stage lights shining in my eyes, however, I recall a comment that fellow student Greg Volk made onstage tonight: “What is it about bright lights that makes people tell the truth, anyway?” The joke puts me in the mood for a little self truth-telling: As a standup comedian, I wasn’t even good enough to be adequate tonight. And as a comedy student, I ducked the final. I earned an “F” in funny.
That’s when it occurs to me that I’m finally up to pointer No. 2 on our first class hand-out–self-deprecation.
You gotta start somewhere.