He is in front of just 11 people in the Black Box Theater, but second-year Stetson Cooper is looking intimidated.
He’s standing at a microphone, tugging on the front of his T-shirt, and looking anywhere but at the audience.
After an uncomfortable silence, in a flat, barely audible monotone, he begins: “I really hope I die alone.” More uncomfortable silence. “I don’t even like to change my socks in front of people.”
Giggles and chuckles from the listeners, and he’s rolling. For three minutes he runs through the “whole new level of humiliation” of dying, and at the end, the audience is laughing at every line.
Then he and his classmates get to work. It’s the end of the first week of a New College first, an ISP in Stand-Up comedy, taught by alumnus Ashley Strand ‘96.
After each routine, Strand and the class highlight what worked and pick apart what didn’t. Pulling on his shirt, looking uncomfortable, the extended silences and nervous exhales – all were techniques, planned in advance. “You can milk a lot out of these moments,” Strand tells him. “Put it on them. They’ll laugh at that. That’s going to be the punctuation of your set.”
Strand and 10 students met every day in January, building seven-minute routines from scratch, honing their writing and performing skills. The final exam: Doing their routines in front of a packed house at McCurdy’s Comedy Club in downtown Sarasota.
But first came grueling, sometimes humbling days in the BBT. In that first-week class, second-year Christian Ines was a prize pupil – he’d gone out to an open-mike night and tested his material, and Strand was full of praise: “People admire you taking a risk, and just getting on stage is taking a risk.”
But the next week, he showed up one day without preparing some revisions Strand had emailed to him, and got chewed out. Strand – a Shakesperian actor, trained at Michael Kahn’s Academy for Classical Acting, and an experienced comedian – could swing in seconds from sarcastic drill sergeant to best friend.
“I really do like Ashley now,” said Ines, admitting he didn’t at first understand what their instructor was doing.
“I was miserable in the class at first, because I couldn’t see what he was trying to do. Like, all my jokes, he was shooting down, I thought he was this overlord, jerk-face dictator,” he said, laughing.
“It was at that week-two mark, something in me clicked, that I realized Ashley was shooting my jokes down, not because they were unfunny but because he was trying to craft all of us into unique comedians,” he said. “And once I realized that, I started to see a method to his madness, I started to get a voice of my own.”
In other words, comedy isn’t all laughs.
“About halfway through the semester was probably the hardest part,” said second-year Haley Jordan.
“Everyone in the class has listened to each of your jokes maybe 20 times, they’re not going to laugh anymore, and Ashley, because he wants you to practice the way you’re going to perform, wants you to give it your all each and every time.” (Strand says teaching the class was a profound experience. Read more here.)
Jordan’s routine told of a clueless boyfriend who walks two hours when he runs out of gas, only then to use his cell phone, and who thinks “magneto” is a color (“Both real,” she says, resignedly) and her mom’s disapproval of her dating choices.
Every time she repeated said boyfriend’s trademark “uhrrrrrrr,” the audience broke up in laughter.
“Ashley was teaching us about how to introduce funny characters and punchlines while minimizing the amount of words you have to say, to make the set more efficient, and one of the best tactics that comedians use is some signifier, so the ‘uhrrrrrr’ just evolved out of that. And it worked – better than I thought it was going to work.”
And that grind – two-plus hours a day, five days a week, for four weeks – paid off.
“The night of the performance I was terrified and nervous and I really thought I was going to get up there and forget everything,” Jordan said. “But as soon as I walked on stage, I was just really excited and happy, and the lights were so bright I couldn’t see any of the audience members – which helps a lot. So honestly I just had a lot of fun. I wasn’t trying to remember anything or worrying about messing up.”
Ines was doubly nervous – a week before the show, he threw out his set, wrote a new one – about family gatherings and a horribly racist grandmother – and memorized it in a few days. On stage he was the epitome of cool and collected, though one moment almost derailed him.
“The one thing that threw me off and almost pulled me out of the experience,” he said, “I’m about to get to my last line, and for some reason, my eyes catch this horrified grandmother in the audience looking at me with her hand over her mouth.
“Comedy-me is kind of sunk back a little bit, and the real-life nice me, who actually loves his grandmother to death, is like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m being so terrible.’ Thankfully I was able to get my last line out, and in the video you don’t even notice it. But it’s so weird how time is distorted. In that moment, I felt like I was sitting there for a good 10 seconds.”
Jordan said the experience changed her; she’s now determined to choose a course of study where she can be creative. She’d recommend the experience to anyone.
“I feel like everybody should do comedy at some point in their life, even if you’re terrible at it, because it takes away this fear of public speaking, this fear of having attention directed toward you,” she said. “It’s also good to do something that really scares you once in a while.”