Another Side of Dave
Being a stand-up comedian is not like making your friends laugh at a party. Your friends already like you. They understand your sense of humor and frame of reference. And if your best material IS greeted with silence, you can always save yourself with this line: "Would anyone like another beer?"
In stand-up comedy, you go on stage in front of strangers, with lights in your eyes, a microphone and no guarantees. Those who do it have great courage. Or they’re delusional. Sometimes both.
The majority of my time, I am a free-lance writer. Three to five nights a week, I’m a stand-up comedian, working around the Northeast. I try to keep the two lives separate, concerned that some angry reader will begin a letter to the editor with, "I knew your reporter was a comedian, but had no idea he’d take that approach to his coverage of town government."
Twice a year, for the Division of Continuing Education at Northern Essex Community College, I teach a six-week class called "Introduction to Stand-up Comedy," which prepares students to perform a five-minute stand-up routine. Tonight (Thursday, May 6) at 8, we hold our "final exam." Six students from New Hampshire and Massachusetts will get up in front of family and friends, trying to make them laugh. Since this will be the nicest crowd in the history of comedy, they will succeed.
You can’t teach people to be funny, but you can provide them with a few fundamentals — keep your setups short, structure your punch lines correctly — and encouragement. You help them edit their material, suggest an occasional punch line (from a former student: "There I was, at a sex toy party with a bunch of soccer moms. It was a fund-raiser for the league."), but the most important thing a teacher can do is pat the student on the back and send them out there.
When I started, the best piece of advice I received came from the late comedian Dave Fitzgerald. He said, "Everybody (stinks) for the first six months." In other words, don’t put pressure on yourself, just work to be better. If someone wants to have a career in comedy, I pass along that advice, plus this:
Get as much stage time as you can (four to six nights a week).
Don’t listen to your parents, siblings or friends, unless they’ve done an HBO special.
(From comedian Kevin Knox) Do material that is funny to you, not what you think the audience will laugh at.
Students may talk about whatever they wish, but are not allowed to say that they’re picturing the audience in its underwear. Some premises are not worth repeating. (And if that rule sounds arbitrary, I tell them, welcome to show business.)
Some former students have become professional comedians, but that’s not the intention of the class. It is structured for this one Walter Mitty moment, when they conquer their fear and do their five. Public speaking can be intimidating, and this involves the additional goal of eliciting an involuntary response — laughter — from the audience. More than one comedian has performed his first set while intoxicated, although I strongly discourage it. One doesn’t want his first TV credit to be an appearance on "Cops."
On my own first night — as part of a Cambridge Center for Adult Education class taught by comedian Bob Gautreau — I paced nervously in the back room at "Dick Doherty’s Comedy Vault," downstairs at Remington’s Restaurant in Boston. I had written the final word of each punch line on a note card. As I looked at the card, not only could I not remember the joke that went with each word, I no longer knew what the words meant. "H-o-u-s-e?" I thought to myself. "What is that? H-o-u-…"
One of my classmates, who went before me, helped calm my nerves.
"I was nervous, too," she said. "But once you step on that stage, it’s really fun."
And it is, the nervousness replaced with an adrenaline rush as you recite your routine. Those who’ve played sports might compare having a good set to hitting a home run, and when you’re good enough, you get to do it for 30 or 45 minutes each night. My friend Bob Seibel, at the end of an hour-and-a-half performance, once told a crowd, "Let’s go to the parking lot. Turn your headlights on me and I’ll do another 20 minutes."
Of course, that’s on the good nights. Sometimes you bomb, and it’s horrible. But why go into that? Some of my students might read this.