By Greg Dean
In this article, “An Assessment of Stand Up Comedy Teachers,” I’ll explore the differences in the approaches of stand up comedy teachers. One of the misconceptions about stand up comedy teachers is that their approaches are all the same. Nothing could be further from the truth. Stand up comedy teachers have a variety of backgrounds, which has a profound influence on their approach and effectiveness as stand up comedy teachers. I will explore what I think are the strengths and weaknesses of several “types” of stand up comedy teachers and their approaches, and then offer what I believe to be the most effective approach for stand up comedy teachers to teach comedy.
A Brief History
First let me give you some of my knowledge of stand-up comedy instruction to set the field into a historical context. The first classes I learned about were in San Francisco in 1977. One was a joke writing class taught by John Cantu and the other was a workshop for comics by Frank Kidder. I took Kantu’s class and learned the very helpful two-list system of writing jokes. Due to mixed reviews by the local comics, I never attended Kidder’s workshop. After I moved to Los Angeles, in 1978, I took another two-list joke writing system class with Ron Carver at UCLA Extension. He also taught a well-regarded stand-up workshop – though I didn’t attend this one either as I was too busy performing. During that same period, Stanley Myron Handleman had developed a strong following with a stand-up comedy class. By 1982, I began teaching stand-up comedy as a means of staying off the road and still make a living while working on my acting career.
By the mid 1980s and continuing through the mid 90s – the stand-up comedy boom erupted – and the comedy industry grew like Viagra sales. Comedy clubs opened all around the country and the demand for comics grew to an all time high. At its peak, interest in performing stand-up was so high and work was so easy come by that several comedy workshops opened to train new comics. Soon the ranks of comics grew at an unprecedented rate. As comedy became ever more popular, always budget-minded Television producers discovered that they could produce a stand-up comedy show for very little money because comics worked alone and would be supplying their own material. All TV producers needed to do was hire a couple of writers, an Emcee with a recognizable name and voila they had an hour of comedy programming.
In no time, legions of these shows flooded every channel, at every hour of the day and night. This caused stand-up comedy to become as overexposed as Uma Thurman’s breasts (the former, a dire problem, the latter, clearly a godsend). The overwhelming assault of these “formula” shows on the public created a comedy-programming backlash and the popularity of stand-up plummeted by the mid 90s. In the wake of this fall, comedy clubs began closing and club owners/bookers and comics were out of work by the hundreds. Some continued to struggle to eke out a living, a few landed a starring role on a situation comedy, some quit the biz altogether, while others became stand-up comedy teachers.
The Difference Between Knowing How and Teaching
Many of these comics and club owner/bookers became the pool from which the stand-up comedy instruction industry was spawned. As we shall see in the next paragraphs, simply being a comedian or club owner/booker is not sufficient experience to teach stand-up comedy. Teaching requires two things: one, the knowledge of the subject; two, the knowledge of how to teach. Just because someone has been a working comic or club owner/booker doesn’t automatically make him or her qualified to teach stand-up comedy, any more than a great baseball player automatically knows how to teach someone else how to play baseball. Knowing how to do something is not the same thing as being able to teach it to someone else. Often the best players in a particular field are too critical and impatient to take the time to instill the fundamental techniques in a young student. Instead, they usually demand immediate results. Conversely, many great teachers weren’t the best in their field. Tommy LaSorta was only an average pitcher and professional baseball player, and yet he was a great coach. He was better at communicating the skills of professional baseball to his players. He was an excellent teacher, and his knowledge was well matched to his students.
In the category of “experts” who have become stand-up comedy teachers, I’ve listed the two the most common types with their pros and cons – comics-turned-teachers and club owners/bookers-turned-teachers.
The largest group to become instructors are themselves comics. But being a comic and being a teacher are two very different sets of skills. It is true, though, as with any subject, that if you have experience in a particular field, you will make a better instructor in that field. Comics as comedy instructors are a mixed bag, however, so here is the “good news and bad news” of my assessment:
The Good News
You will get a chance to perform on a weekly basis in front of a seasoned professional. He understands that you need to perform as much as possible. A comic who has paid his dues working in the business for a number of years will have a wealth of valuable information and can give you some advise based on that experience. He knows how to write jokes, assemble a routine, handle hecklers, pace a show, adjust the show for each audience, develop a distinct comedic voice and personality, and so on. He also knows how to get gigs, how much money to ask for, and has many club contacts. This knowledge from years of experience is invaluable – if the instructor knows how to impart this information to the students.
If you do find a stand-up comedy instructor who used to be a comic and he can articulate what he knows into usable information , then by all means stick with that instructor: you’ve found a gold mine of comedy knowledge.
The Bad News
Just because a comic knows how to do all these things doesn’t mean he can communicate them to others in a comprehensive manner. Spending years learning to do something isn’t the same as spending years learning how to teach that same thing. Many comics know how to write a joke, but that doesn’t mean they can teach you how to write a joke. They may know how to assemble their routine, but that doesn’t mean they can teach you how to assemble your routine. The same is true for handling a heckler, pacing a show, adjusting to audiences or helping you to develop your own comedic voice and personality, and so on.
Comics use a multitude of techniques they’ve learned from years of performing, but since many of these skills were learned through trial-and-error, much of this knowledge exists at an unconscious level. More often than not, it is difficult, if not impossible, for comics to articulate what they know how to do into a form that a student can apply to their own experiences. Often, in the place of an actual technique, comics will either write the jokes and assemble the routine for the student or tell stories about jokes they wrote and assembled into a routines, etc.. Doing it for the student is not teaching. Telling stories as an example is not teaching.
Another problem with comics-turned-instructors is a tendency to inadvertently clone themselves. They have spent so many years learning what makes them funny that they often mistakenly believe that instructing students to do what they did is teaching. It’s not. Students must be taught in a way that allows them to experiment and discover their own unique comic voice. Comics should each be different – simply because they are different people. This is one of the major reasons for the teaching a comedy technique, rather than a comedy opinion.
If you aren’t ready to be a working comic, i.e. if you don’t already have a strong thirty minutes of clean “A” material, then it doesn’t matter if the instructor knows a great deal about “the business.” He’s not going to offer his contacts to you until you are good enough to represent his professional reputation – which is to say, you must already be working at the level of a professional. If you are at that level, though, what are you doing in a stand-up comedy workshop? A better choice in your case would be to take a seminar about getting work in a comedy club.
If you find yourself in a workshop with a comic-turned-instructor, and he is mostly telling road stories, name dropping, or writing your material for you, you should consider looking for another instructor. What you need is to be taught comedy techniques that you can apply throughout your entire comedy career.
The second most common group to become teachers are club owner/bookers. This section refers to club owner/bookers who have not been comics. Most club owner/bookers began teaching a stand-up comedy class as a means of bringing in extra money. Here is my assessment, again in the form of “good news and bad news”:
The Good News
The biggest plus here is that you are going to get is an opportunity to get on stage in front of a club owner/booker. They know a great deal about how a comedy clubs works and what kind of material they want to see in their club. They watch more comedy than any other group in the stand-up comedy business. When you attend a club owner/booker’s workshop there is the implied expectation of getting stage time in their club, or possibly even a paid gig. If the club owner/booker likes you and your show enough, he or she may even offer a recommendation to aid you in getting work in other clubs. If this works out for you, though, this can be more than worth the cost of several comedy classes.
The Bad News
Don’t expect much real stand-up comedy instruction. Sure, you will perform for a club owner/booker, but then, you’ll only receive criticism based on what he does or does not like about your show. They generally don’t know anything about how to teach joke writing, assembling a routine, handling hecklers, pacing or adjusting the show, or many other comedy techniques. Club owner/bookers “teach” based on their opinion of what they like or don’t like in their clubs. Most often, they want to see all of the elements of a professional show without giving anything more than a few pointers on how to get there.
Club owner/bookers often impose their own opinion onto their students as if that opinion were a stand-up comedy performance fact. It is not fact, and should not be presented as such. This can be very confusing for students because every club owner/booker will often have radically different, if not outright conflicting, opinions about everything from comedic perspective to acceptable material. Understand that there are a plethora of comics working with material some club owner/booker does like and has a very success comedy career. Just because the club owners/bookers have watched a great deal of comedy doesn’t mean they understand the journey of becoming a stand-up comic. They don’t. They know what result they want to see on stage – but that doesn’t mean they have the teaching tools to help a student create it for themselves.
The best reason to take a workshop with a club owner/booker is to get on the inside and develop a relationship so you can get stage time, work, and eventually a recommendation. If you are ready to work – and that is your goal – then you are doing the right thing.
Both comics-turned-teachers and club owner/booker-turned-teachers do indeed have some positives – however, most of their expertise is not applicable to those students who need to learn the craft of stand-up comedy. Nolan Ryan wouldn’t try to teach a little-league pitcher to throw a 100mph fastball because the little-leaguer isn’t ready for that level. The same is true for stand-up comedy teacher. Their pool of knowledge needs to be well suited to those who want to learn how to write and perform stand-up comedy.
Teachers Need to Be Taught How to Teach
When done correctly, teaching is a very complex endeavor. At a minimum, it entails knowing the subject, developing a curriculum and spending time teaching that curriculum to make it easy to understand and apply. Teaching is as much a learning experience for the teacher as it is for the student (again, when done correctly). Think back and count the number of bad teachers you had in school, and realize that they were still considered “trained professionals” who were taught to teach – and they still ended up being glorified babysitters. Teaching is not an easy thing to do well. It takes years of learning and proper training to become a good teacher.
As an example, I’ve been teaching various types of comedy for more than twenty-five years. Before stand-up, I taught clowning, street performing, and improvisation. Looking back on my first ten (or so) years, I truly do not believe I was a very effective teacher. It wasn’t until 1984 that I was fortunate to find a mentor of my own – John Grinder, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, who trained teachers. I became his student for two and a half years so he could teach me how to teach others. As I developed my curriculum for stand-up comedy, Grinder tutored me – insisting that I teach and adjust every lesson over and over again. He taught me to identify the skills and principles in the craft of stand-up comedy so that what I was teaching wasn’t just my opinion about what was funny. With his guidance, I’d learned how to evaluate and teach students as individuals, identify the barriers to learning, adapt the curriculum to a particular student’s needs and to keep on learning from every lesson taught. This curriculum is now published in Books Step By Step to Stand-Up Comedy.
With this step-by-step curriculum, the lessons learned from Professor Grinder and because I now teach a very specific set of skills and principles, I have been able to train two other stand-up comedy instructors to in turn teach others the comedy fundamentals based on this curriculum. Kurtis “Jett” Matthews, currently teaching in the San Francisco Bay, was a road comic for ten plus years and has been featured with Bill Hicks, Jerry Seinfeld, and many more. Tony Vicich is teaching at the Tempe, Arizona Improv and in San Diego, California, and is an active stand-up comic with fifteen plus years experience, as well as having been the club owner/booker of Joker’s Comedy Club in Oklahoma City.
A comedy instructor’s job is to help students articulate their individual sense of humor. How does a teacher get around to passing on his or her own limitations and style? The answer: technique. Fledgling comics need to learn the craft of comedy and then be given a safe environment in which to experiment. Comedy technique must replace comedy opinion if the instructor is going to guide the students in finding their own unique comic style.
As I noted earlier, good teaching entails a lot of learning. Training both Matthews and Vicich has taught me even more about what is required to make up a competent stand-up comedy instructor. I began by helping them understand the limitations of their own opinions, then I taught them the value of replacing their opinions with specific techniques from a well-defined curriculum. They learned my joke diagram and its implications, my original joke writing system the Joke Prospector, the applications of Narrator, Self, and Character POVs, he Eliminating Self-Criticism Rehearsal, and so forth. It took over a year of training before they became comfortable teaching comedy technique, rather than comedy opinion.
Again, I’m not saying comics and club owner/bookers can’t be good teachers. What I am saying is that being a comic or a club owner/booker is not, by itself, a sufficient qualification to be a teacher. Teachers need to be taught how to teach.
There are more than enough stand-up comedy classes for you to choose from, so you can certainly get what you want. But first you must know what you want. Do you want an instructor who does everything for you? Do you want an instructor who teaches you technique so you can do everything for yourself? Do you want an instructor who will help you get into the biz? Whatever it is that you want, make sure the instructor can deliver. Ask the instructors about their background in comedy and about their background in teaching. It is very helpful if the instructor has some sort of Free Introductory class that you can attend and make your inquires.
In my next article, I will examination in more detail the specific elements that constitute proper stand-up comedy instruction.