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”
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!