Teaching the stand-up ISP was profound for me. Once I secured McCurdy’s as the venue for the final project, I knew the course would be a great challenge for the students. (Read more about the class here.)
College, by its nature, is insular, protective and socially narrowing. At New College, these factors are heightened by it being an honors college, and its peculiar history and character. It’s a freaky little hippie enclave, which is what we all love about it.
It’s a compelling, often intoxicating environment, where stunning intellectual and emotional growth can occur, but precisely because of this, it has a distancing effect on how students relate to people outside that environment.
Having the show at McCurdy’s Comedy Club forced the students to relate to people outside their own peer group. This was a challenge beyond the fundamental vulnerability of stand-up. So I knew everyone who took the class had guts or was nuts — or both. Fun guaranteed!
What I didn’t know was how much could be accomplished in one month given total focus on the task of creating a seven-minute set. Going to open mics every night, putting together your first tight seven can take six months or more. I’ve been doing it 11 years and I still don’t have a tight seven. The biggest surprise people have when they take a stand-up class is how much work it is, and that’s it’s often not fun.
One of the reasons it can take so long to build a set is it takes a lot of trial and error to finally break down your own assumptions about how things should be, and start to see them as they are.
There are a lot of erroneous assumptions that comedians have to work through, but this is the most important one: If something’s easy the first time, you assume it’s going to be easier the second time, and that practice will produce consistent but diminishing returns along a fairly predictable curve. With stand-up this is not the case.
Everyone is funny when they’re being spontaneous, inspired by the moment, friends or a shared experience. The project of stand-up is to recreate the joy of that moment with all of the factors that originally informed it removed. Now you’re working from a script, talking to a room full of strangers who have no context for your material other than what you give them.
It takes time to make the joke as funny, consistently, as the moment of inspiration. However, telling a joke for the first time, the task of communicating this idea in this new format for the first time, is its own source of inspiration. When it goes great the first time, almost as a rule, it does not go well the second time. This is a source of consternation and wonder for beginning comedians.
“Sophomore blues” is the moment all sources of inspiration have abandoned the joke and your performance of it. Now all work on the joke must be technical, which is, by its nature, a grind. How long you stay in the valley of unfunny after your inspiration has died is directly correlated to how much hard, technical work you do on the joke.
The hardest thing to get comedy students to believe is that working through the hard part — when it’s unfunny and you and everyone else is sick of it, and you’re feeling daily embarrassment with no perceivable reward — is worth it. With an open time frame, comics figure it out themselves, or decide to spend their time on something else. With just a month and everyone has to perform at the end, you have to push them.
When you get into pushing performers, especially new ones, there’s a limit past which the pressure shuts down their creativity and confidence. To the credit of everyone in the class, they all responded. I really didn’t know if everyone was gonna make it through the valley of unfunny. By the end of the month I was stunned by how much progress everyone had made. They trusted me and themselves and kept grinding until they produced a really good show — an amazing show for first-timers. I had multiple people who were regulars at McCurdy’s tell me that some of them were better than a lot of the acts they see there, and it’s true.
This result is not an accident. Developing your own voice is difficult, and without someone encouraging you to find a way to communicate what’s funny to you, instead of trying to figure out what makes everyone else laugh, it’s easy to fall into the trap of hacky, predictable, safe humor — because the rewards are more obvious and easier. The rewards of working to find and speak in your own voice were on display at McCurdy’s Feb.1. Each student was unique, fascinating, and funny. As a comedian, I feel compelled now to demand of myself what I demanded of my students. As a teacher I am tremendously proud of their work, and deep touched by the trust they put in me. As an audience member, like everyone else who was listening with an open heart, I was delighted.
Being back as a teacher sometimes felt like the second half of A Clockwork Orange, where he comes back and reaps the harvest of all his sins. The Great Karmic Wheel of work avoidance techniques, which I had cranked so shamelessly during my time here, now flattened me daily as I encountered all my own behaviors multiplied by ten. The difference is, of course, the students I had took some cajoling, but they all came through and created something wonderful, so we won the game of push-and-pull. I never managed to pull it together and create something this good as a student, so maybe in some way it was redemptive for me.