The Art of the Joke

In Do, March 2018 by Kevin FlinnLeave a Comment

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I heard them before I saw them, heard them laughing as I climbed the staircase to the third floor of Goodnights Comedy Club. They weren’t laughing at a joke from a nationally touring comic in the main room or even at a punchline from an amateur at the open mic in the downstairs bar.

They were laughing with each other, a group of a dozen men and women of all ages, from all walks of life, comprising the Standup 101 class. They were bartenders, lawyers, teachers—all eager to learn the craft of comedy.

Geared to people interested in doing stand-up, but who don’t necessarily know how to get started, the class attracts students who “tend to have a good sense of humor and are generally open-minded,” said co-instructor Matt White.

Local comics White and Brent Blakeney have taught the class since 2016. They promise students will learn comedy basics, how to craft ideas into jokes, and the best way to structure and edit comedy routines.

Students eagerly scribbled down White’s musings and Blakeney’s suggestions for YouTube clips to watch and podcasts to download as homework. The evening’s focus was on writing a joke—or at least beginning to write a joke—that could eventually evolve into a bit or even a full stand-up routine.

Each student chose a premise to pitch to the group, from the lessons learned from a five-hour stint in jail to the pros and cons of starting a fraternity for toddlers. Feedback was effusive and fast-paced as we workshopped each others’ ideas and laughed. Laughed a lot.

It was easy to see both instructors as stand-up comics, though that’s not to say they used the class as a sounding board for their own ideas. Instead, the pair had an easy rapport with the group, offering observations without imposing their comedic will on green potential comedians writing their first jokes.

Genuine, constructive critiques pushed the students to arrive at the best possible versions of their premises. When one would-be comic shunned his pages of already-written notes, White urged him to choose an idea he hadn’t yet done. “That’s not the process,” he said.

The student thought for a minute and pitched a new idea that quickly took shape as he talked his way through it. By the end of the evening, he was furiously scribbling, giddily filling up notebook pages.

“It’s gotta be personal,” said White, “because you have more vested in it.”

A woman with braces pitched an idea about famous singers with lisps after explaining that, since she got braces, she couldn’t sing in the car like she used to. A 10-minute roundtable about which singers and songs would work best for her joke had us in stitches again. “See?” said White. “Everything can become comedy.”

Blakeney added that students should look to the mundane as material: “Anything you can see that’s absurd in life—use that.”

As I watched their confidence blossom, I thought, even if some of these folks never tell their jokes on a stage, the interaction they had in the class made it all worthwhile.

I asked White about that—how many students continue doing stand-up after the six-week course? “You get out of it what you put into it,” he replied. “There’s a lot of potential that comes out of the class. Some people move onto the Standup 130 class [with focus on improv and writing], which tends to weed out the hobbyists. But stand-up is a beast and can be extremely intimidating. [You] have to accept that and adapt to the lifestyle before [you] can really get into it.”

I left with the wheels in my head turning on the premise of my own joke, lamenting that I wouldn’t be back the following Wednesday to continue fine-tuning it.

The six-week course ends with a graduation-of-sorts showcase at Goodnights, where friends and family are invited to hear the class perform its full-fledged stand-up routines. I know I’ll be there. I’ll hear them again and, I guarantee, I’ll be laughing.

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