Tonight, I’m going to go see Jimmy Pardo at Cap City comedy club. I’ve seen him before because my friend Mike is a huge fan (In fact, he’s going with me tonight), and I really enjoy him. First of all, he has this persona that feels a little old fashioned or maybe I just feel that way because he talks in what sounds to me like an old time-y radio voice, except that’s how he sounds all the time. But, I also like him because he seems so effortlessly and naturally funny.
Around my birthday, I asked for stand up comedy lessons, something I’d thought about for a long time, but could never quite bring myself to ask for out loud. Finally, I told my boyfriend (who is incredibly supportive of all my weird creative impulses), and he paid for the class as part of my birthday present.
I was totally excited, but it’s not working out. First of all, the guy who teaches the class is not a teacher by nature. I’ve taught off and on for years, and I never thought much about the skills it takes to teach being particularly challenging or obscure. My mom was a teacher, and I picked up a lot of things from her before I was out of junior high, so it just seemed like common sense, but then on the first day of comedy class we didn’t even introduce ourselves until we’d been there for 2 hours. That little thing really made me resistant to anything we did that wasn’t just standing up and telling a little bit about ourselves because that’s what you do first.
We were supposed to have contacted the teacher before the class started, and he could have told us that we were supposed to write and bring some stand up material with us to class. That was me being a lazy student, and I freely admit that’s on me. But, who does homework before the first day of school? Also–and this, for me was the real issue–I didn’t know how to start. I thought this class would help me learn how to develop bits, but I’m not sure that’s what the class is for. This kind of thing is tricky because it’s not really anyone’s fault, but it wasn’t made clear to everyone what they were getting into. The different expectations for me and the instructor really bummed me out because the class my boyfriend got me isn’t the class I feel like I’m getting. It’s also maybe not a class I would have signed up for.
In the first class, the notes I took were few and far between, and even as I jotted them down, I knew they weren’t helpful. Like the mathematical formula for funny, which is: Laughter=setup + punch line². I know what a setup and a punch line are academically, but most of the comedians I really like are not delivering late night monologues. They are guys like Paul F. Thompkins and Jimmy Pardo, who tell some stories that are weird and funny and riff a little bit, but generally the material flows in something resembling a narrative. So, when the teacher said he used to write jokes for Jay Leno, I realized we’re talking about two different things (again). Even in the world of late night, I’m a Letterman girl all the way. Not for his monologues either, but for the kind of caustic mean streak that I find both shocking and interesting.
After the first class, I knew that I had to write some jokes, but I also had no idea how to. Our teacher’s job was more to write with us and collaborate on our material. Finally, I wrote a couple of pages of funny stories and emailed them to him. Here again, he and I are talking about different things. I’m used to a writing workshop, where I turn in material and get feedback on what’s working and what’s not and then I’m left to fix it on my own. He just added or re-wrote things, and it was helpful but also really weird. What I learned was that I wasn’t really writing jokes and I was way too worried about what I did write being accurate rather than funny. So, my nonfiction background showed because when he added a joke, my first reaction was, “Yeah, but that didn’t happen.” Which is dumb.
It also shows that I listen to a lot of comedians who tell what at least seem to be personal stories: Maria Bamford talking about depression, Louis C.K. talking about his kids or masturbating or whatever, PFT talking about working on Best Week Ever and There Will Be Blood. But I could push farther with my jokes, and that is one thing that I will take away from the class. I could also see that the re-writes weren’t in my voice because I have written and told enough stories to have some idea what my voice is. I rewrote the jokes he supplied in a way that captured the energy he was going for, but that felt a little bit more me. So, I learned a few things about how my instincts do and don’t work in a new genre.
I stopped going to class, however. I feel bad that this thing, which was a gift–a gift I specifically asked for–was such a bummer. The teacher in me feels bad for skipping class. I feel bad that I got excited about this idea and that Eric was so encouraging, and then I just bailed after two classes. But, I’m glad that I tried it. I might even be willing to try it again under different circumstances because I am interested in making people laugh and being on stage and talking into microphones. I love those things, but I need a class that will teach me how to build as though I don’t know what I’m doing. Because I don’t.