Why comedians should embrace (and control) the future of comedy school

By | February 21, 2013 at 9:34 am | 23 comments | feature slider, Opinion | Tags: , , , ,

I remember sitting in my office in 2010 and reading Doug Stanhope’s evisceration of stand-up comedy classes. I remember it very clearly, in fact, because at the time I was deep into strategizing how a “traditional” comedy club could become the next Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater. UCB was at the time, the dominant force in L.A. comedy, producing some of the most innovative shows, with some of the hottest talent and charging next to nothing, while raking in the cash,with their much sought-after improv classes.

At least that’s what I assumed at the time. I can’t say for sure that UCB is rolling in cash and that they should pay their comics. I had thought at the time, that offering stand-up classes akin to their improv classes would be a great source of extra income and it would finally legitimize the game that comedy clubs have been playing with their employees where stage time and “access” are seen as “extras” to make up for sub par wages. “A class costs this much, so this is the exact value of what extras you get from us when you are an employee.”

Of course, comedy classes didn’t fly within the tribal atmosphere of a comedy club. After consulting with comics, I found the opposition to “comedy classes” to be almost universal. The notion that comedy could be taught seemed to be downright offensive to most comics and comedy teachers were looked on as snake oil salesmen and “hacks”. It seemed the true grasp of the art form was only presented to those who were practitioners and even then, only after years of hard work. In rooms that were not classrooms.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? First you need to do open mics, I guess.

Something about all this didn’t quite sit right with me. Is comedy really somehow unique in this fashion? Drama schools, music schools, dance schools, and art schools will readily admit that they can only teach technique. Talent seems to be the unknown factor in all of these, but degrees, and ADVANCED degrees have all come out of what is basically dressing up and playing pretend. Surely there are commonalities and technique that could be taught.

I started searching for some serious academic work on the art of stand-up, which is when I stumbled onto Roboticist Heather Knight’s “Comedy Robot”. Heather had built an algorithm into her robot that would in essence detect audience reaction and deliver jokes based on that reaction. I reached out. I dreamt of a comedy show where science and comedy would walk hand in hand. I met Stephanie Smith, one of the brilliant and witty minds behind the NASA / JPL social, who explained to me that basically all scientists think they are hilarious, and I met Daniel Altmann of Laffster.

Daniel was hard at work building a comedy algorithm and accompanying website that would somehow detect what you find funny and he was eager to get academic input. So Daniel invited me to an odd type of comedy roundtable/salon that included professors, scientists, editors, comics and for some reason, me.

Finally! A thorough, thoughtful, academic conversation about comedy, right? Meh. Not so much. As was the case when the notion of comedy classes earlier, the comics at the roundtable resisted the notion that somehow their process, their art, and the experience could be explained. More than once someone threw out the old Mark Twain line, “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog: you understand it better, but the frog dies in the process”

Ugh.

There have been some growing pains in the unique rise of stand up comedy over the last few years. While it was previously a marginalized art form possibly due to some platonic or puritanical remnants in our collective conscience, the advent of the internet has thrust comedy front and center. The backwater of the performing arts is now a powerhouse, with comics filling stadiums, dominating TV, and basically running the internet. Or at least sharing ownership of the internet with cats and porn. But with great power comes great responsibility.

As too many big name and sometimes no-name comics have learned, there is a great deal of scrutiny on comics, their content, and their reactions. Perhaps if people understood the process, the public might be inclined to take a softer view on comics who are speaking off the cuff. If academia were to enter the picture, perhaps the world of stand up comedy classes would not be saturated with shysters and flim-flam men.

The academization of comedy became inevitable the moment it became profitable. Scientific research and college level classes are already happening in dark corners of academia. At this juncture, the comedy world in general and comics in particular are in a unique position to be able to control the direction of the discourse. It may mean the difference between a textbook that reads “Comedy 101 by Shyster McHack” or “The Comic Prepares: Optimizing The Time You Spend Baked Out of your Skull by Joe Rogan”. I’m only barely kidding when I say that. Think about how much more useful a curriculum designed by Doug Stanhope would be, as opposed to something by a tweedy nerd like me.

Comedy, here is your chance! Embrace the academic and scientific community. Shake the hand of Prof. Pete McGraw of The Humor Research Labs (HuRL) at the University of Colorado, talk to Heather Knight about her Robot’s set when it bombs, and dare to teach a master class from time to time. Do it, or the hacks win. I understand its painful to hear your work dissected, laughter explained, algorithms built and the process monetized, especially when you have given so much of yourself to this art. But it is precisely because you love it so much that you must control it, and guide it to an awesome place.

Only then will we live in a world where The Letterman College of The Comedic Arts at Ball State University can become a reality. Where the Andrew Kaufman Chair of Absurdist Studies can be given to Professor Duncan Trussell after Dr. Heidecker goes missing during his sabbatical researching Ukrainian cringe humor. Dream of a future where students can take take a level 500 Roasting course from professor Jeffrey Ross, since Dr. Lampanelli’s class is already full.

I want to live in a world where Brody Stevens and Greg Proops are tenured, and so should you.

————–

I’ll be moderating a discussion on the science and tech of comedy at SXSW this year with Prof. Pete McGraw, Roboticist Heather Knight and journalist Joel Warner. If you are interested in the subject matter, or better yet, if you’re a comic at SXSW and would care to join in the discussion come check us out!

About the Author

Alf LaMont

Alf LaMont is the Head of Comedy and Content at Adler Integrated.

  • Exiene

    Acting, Music and Art schools help those artists get from A to B. Directors, Conductors and gallery owners get those artists from B to C (IF talent is there) But instinct (the tool that gets the artist motivated and performing to the best of his/her ability) has to be honed by the artist himself. Comics are artists and the comic has to use anything helpful to hone, strengthen and broaden instinct, be it the level of laughter the audience gives you. life experience, therapy or dabbling in other art. A person can give money to someone to help them tell a joke and if that person gains some courage to get onstage because of that class, great. But, once onstage, throw out what that teacher taught you when you KNOW in ur gut what is funny and yours. It’s the hardest route, but that route is the only way to get the results the comic hoped for long before they tried their hand at ‘this comedy thing’. Plus, it’s the same route Actors, Musicians and Artists had to travel, and they had to spend thousands of dollars more in education than comics

  • RyanC

    Comedy, like writing CAN BE TAUGHT. There are rules you follow, conventions you need to understand and a whole host of technical concepts that need to be followed.

    Just like you need to be taught and become proficient in English to be a good writer, it doesn’t guarantee you actually will BECOME a good writer. A teacher gives you the tools and shows you how to use them, an artist takes those tools and creates something unique..

    You can absolutely teach a newbie proper mic technique, proper joke construction (funny word last, less words the better) and how to properly assemble a set. It doesn’t guarantee that person will actually be funny, but without knowing those basics, I can guarantee you that person won’t be funny.

    It just the dysfunctional stand-up “community”, yes in quotes, is a cynical, territorial lot who would rather not see more people come into the industry and view them as competition.

    Anyway, if you don’t think there is a teachable science to it, then you’re a fool. Go listen to Jerry Seinfeld: On Comedy and see that there is more to being a comedian than just being a funny human being..

    http://www.amazon.com/Jerry-Seinfeld-Comedy/dp/B00005LN3K

  • Joe G.

    This article could have used an editor. The run-on sentences and random commas made it difficult to read.

  • http://twitter.com/thedarkaccount Zack Man o’ Mystery

    Just finished a comedy class, my first time on stage. http://youtu.be/scwhUYgEfBc

  • http://twitter.com/thedarkaccount Zack Man o’ Mystery

    Just finished a comedy class and it was great, My first time on stage: http://youtu.be/scwhUYgEfBc

  • Dave D.

    What about the idea, that you have to learn teaching as well? What about the 10 years you have to spend to master the art of teaching Stand Up Comedy?

  • http://www.facebook.com/dara.laine Dara Laine

    I spent a semester at Second City doing their Comedy Studies program for 16 credits. I learned more there in one semester than the 3.5 years I spent at the college I actually received my degree from. I guess Second City is also working on developing a full comedy major through Columbia College…. I think it’s great. If you’re going to go to college and spend that money either way, you might as well study something you enjoy. If anything, taking classes helps you build up confidence in a safe place.

  • Mike

    Nerds are very rarely funny.

    • http://www.facebook.com/alflamont Alf LaMont

      Tell that to The Nerdist.

      • Joe G.

        The Nerdist isn’t funny either.

    • Eric

      Tell that to 90% of TV writers, including those who created the best of Futurama, The Simpsons, Arrested Development, and other shows.

  • Eric

    If comedy cannot be studied and broken down into forms, why are there “comic’s comics” whose brilliance is only first recognized by those who consume or perform tons of comedy, much like how early minimalist or modernists’ works were only initially lauded by art connoisseurs? Maybe current comedy classes are scams only because their instructors are failed comics not being subject to the scrutiny of serious accreditation, and maybe supplementing one’s comedy writing—perhaps not with exclusively comedic texts but with books such as Poetics and The Power of Myth—will accelerate a comedian’s grasp of storytelling form without him/her having to shoot in the dark at grimy clubs and bombing for as long.

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  • http://twitter.com/aaronpoehler Aaron Poehler

    Shoving comedy through the meat grinder of academia is only going to result in a a lot of shitty, unreadable papers and a lot of unfunny theorists not laughing in comedy clubs when the comics don’t confirm their misguided notions.

    • http://www.facebook.com/alflamont Alf LaMont

      So the theorists are probably unfunny and their notions are “misguided”, and their papers will probably be shitty therefore comedy should not be shoved through the “meat grinder” of academia? Saying we shouldn’t study something because the results will be unpleasant or boring or uncomfortable doesn’t cut it.

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  • Jeremy C.

    I could not disagree with this article any harder. One of the great things about stand-up comedy is that it’s so democratic. You don’t need a college education to do it. You don’t need accreditation or state certification. You don’t need to move to L.A. and work long hours at a shit job just to pay for UCB classes so you can learn the rules of the game. You just need to be funny. Now granted this is coming from a complete amateur (myself) but the whole concept of having to go through classes for stand-up makes my skin crawl. There are some classes out there already and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who teaches or attends them, but to institutionalize them like this article is suggesting… no thanks.

    • Dylan

      i’m not taking sides one way or the other, but the way i see it, if there was such thing as comedy academia, the system would still be democratic. club owners wouldn’t suddenly only book “educated” comics. in fact, let’s say Comedy College becomes a reality and 85 percent of comedy bookers, producers, television execs, etc.. think it’s completely absurd… they’ll ignore its existence, giving no preferential treatment to comics with degrees and eventually these schools will fail. Democracy!

      • http://www.facebook.com/alflamont Alf LaMont

        No preferential treatment is given to actors with degrees and yet university theater programs continue to thrive.

    • http://www.facebook.com/alflamont Alf LaMont

      You don’t need a college education to do anything, but it certainly helps. Much like moving to L.A and going to UCB probably doesn’t hurt. Being funny alone doesn’t cut it, otherwise every class clown would be making a living just being funny.

  • doug stanhope

    this is gross.

    • http://www.facebook.com/alflamont Alf LaMont

      Aw, Doug.

  • Jorge Garrido

    I read a book about the history of acting schools in America, pre-Stanivlaski. The first man to open an acting school was named James Steele, in the late 1800s, and he had to constantly defend himself from critics who said acting couldn’t be taught in a class or school. In response, he said something along the lines of “when you go to see the play, you go to see actors, yet the actors are the least trained and coached people in the production. The set builders decorators, technical people, engineers, artists, and lighting specialists are all more trained than the actors. The sets the actors are standing in front of were made by more coached men!”

    The first thing I thought of when I read this was the contemporary phenomenon of stand-up comedy classes.

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