Stand-Up Comedy Teachers 2: Two Approaches

By Greg Dean

stand up comedy teachersIn my previous article, Stand Up Comedy Teachers 1, I gave a brief explanation of how the end of the comedy boom of the 80’s and early 90’s created the stand up comedy teachers’ market with two major groups: Comic-Turned-Stand Up Comedy Teacher and Club Owner/Booker-Turned-Stand Up Comedy Teacher. I showed how each type of stand up comedy teachers has several weaknesses and strengths depending on what one wants from stand up comedy classes. I concluded with the proclamation that teachers need to be taught how to teach and the necessity for a stand up comedy teachers’ curriculum.

This article  is dedicated to exploring two different approaches used by stand up comedy teachers: Opinion-Based Instruction and Technique-Based Instruction . Opinion-Based Instruction is founded on the stand up comedy teachers’ sense of humor, personal preferences and what the stand up comedy teachers thinks is funny or acceptable. Technique-Based Instruction is based on a curriculum of fundamental principles and techniques the students can learn and practice as a series of skills they can then apply to their own style of being funny. These two approaches are diametrically opposed ways of teaching and they are discussed in terms of their effect on stand up comedy students.

Opinion – Based Instruction Is Inconsistent

Since all stand up comedy teachers have radically different senses of humor, it naturally follows that their opinions about what is funny will be inconsistent, if not outright contradictory. Stand up comedy teachers who give their opinions in place of techniques create confusion in their students because the students are faced with the dilemma of figuring out which of the conflicting opinions is correct.

For instance, if two stand up comedy teachers tell a student which jokes the stand up comedy teachers thinks are funny and which ones they think are not funny, what happens when the opinions of the two stand up comedy teachers disagree? Which stand up comedy teacher is right? The answer is neither. Students need to keep in mind that the stand up comedy teachers’ opinions about what is funny is only that one person’s opinion, and that opinion is no better or worse than anyone else’s opinion on this planet. This inconsistent information can frustrate students and discourage them from continuing to study stand up comedy.

Technique – Based Instruction Maintains Consistency

The reason stand up comedy teachers should only teach comedy techniques and skills is to remove the stand up comedy teachers’ opinions about what is funny or acceptable from the process. Instead, these opinions can be replaced with consistent fundamental techniques and skills of writing and performing. If the comedy techniques are truly fundamentals they’ll always be relevant. Therefore, teaching techniques creates clarity when a reoccurring problem arises because the stand up comedy teachers can offer consistent solutions.

For instance, I teach the joke structure fundamental that all jokes shatter an assumption . Then, when students ask me if a joke is funny, I answer by asking, “What assumption is shattered by your punch?” This keeps my opinion out of the equation and puts the responsibility back on the students to determine if the joke is properly structured. No one can tell if a joke is funny until it is performed for an audience. The technique-based approach to instruction allows the students to trust their sense of humor and learn a series of tools and skills they can apply throughout their comedy career.

Opinion – Based Instruction Discourages Individuality

When stand up comedy teachers offer opinions about what’s funny, this is what is really being said: “If I were to do that, this is how I would do it. Therefore you must do it that way too.” Since students usually wish to please an instructor, they’ll negate their own comedy instincts to defer to the stand up comedy teachers’ advice. Soon the students no longer trust their own comedic judgment, but instead become dependent on the stand up comedy teachers’ opinion of what’s funny. This approach creates clones of the stand up comedy teachers as the students stop seeking their own comic voice and adopt the stand up comedy teachers’ sense of humor.

Technique – Based Instruction Encourages Individuality

The reason stand up comedy teachers should teach fundamental techniques is so that students can learn, practice, and apply these techniques to their individual senses of humor. When my students experiment with these techniques, I am always amazed at the originality of some of their material. After showcases, I often have an audience member congratulate me, “They were all so different. How do you do that?” The answer is: technique. Stand up comedy teachers need to get their sense of humor and preferences out of the teaching process so the students can develop their own.

For instance, here is a principle I teach my students to help them find their individual comic voice: Style=Honesty. I encourage them to be blatantly honest about their personal judgments about their topics. These judgments are expressed as opinions and emotions in the performance. The audience gets to know the comic’s beliefs and values when the comic expresses his or her opinions and emotions. The more honest a student is about a subject, the more unique their comic voice.

Opinion – Based Instruction Is a Form of Censorship

Stand up comedy teachers practice creative censorship when they state their own opinions about what they find offensive or inoffensive, what they think is funny or unfunny, or what the student can or cannot do in their show. Some stand up comedy teachers go so far as to list the topics students cannot address in the workshop. (By the way, I do support the right of the instructors to do this—even though I don’t agree with the practice—because it is the stand up comedy teachers’ business, after all and they do have the right to set the rules of conduct. As the student, however, you get to vote on this practice by taking or not taking the class.) I firmly believe censorship restricts the student’s creative horizons. Students shouldn’t be restricted to the topics the stand up comedy teachers agree with or find inoffensive. The irony is that those “offensive” topics might be infantile bodily function jokes, or might even be the basis for a unique comedic perspective. The students, not the stand up comedy teachers, should make these decisions.

An even more subtle form of censorship is how stand up comedy teachers pass on their own personal limitations. This is not a malicious act, but an unconscious one with good, but misguided intentions. You can see what I mean if you attend several stand up comedy teachers’ classes. You’ll quickly observe that the stand up comedy teachers who are primarily writers are turning out students who are primarily writers. The stand up comedy teachers who are one-liner comics are turning out students who are one-liner comics. Without a curriculum, stand up comedy teachers will impose their own likes, beliefs and values because they can only teach what they know. And what they know is being themselves.

Technique – Based Instruction Fosters Creative Freedom

Since Lenny Bruce, stand-up comedy has had a history of being at the forefront of pushing socially acceptable boundaries. As I have asserted, I believe that the purpose of technique-based instruction is to get the stand up comedy teachers’ personal tastes and limitations—and therefore censorship—out of the classroom. When students are encouraged to freely experiment with finding their own comic voices, I’ve discovered that they come up with a variety of uniquely funny ideas. Some of these ideas are offensive, some are ingenious, and as I mentioned earlier, I believe students must learn to discern the parameters of these matters for themselves. After all, it’s the students, not the stand up comedy teachers, who are getting on stage to test their shows. Therefore, the stand-up comedy classroom-environment needs to be a safe place where students feel free to present and test all ideas without the stand up comedy teacher’s instant condemnation about the nature of their material.

If the material is offensive, I want it in my classroom for three primary reasons: 1) the students can get feedback about how offensive it is before presenting it publicly, 2) a fix can be suggested that will remove the offensive aspect so the funny concept can emerge, and 3) the students can realize that it is offensive and decide to perform it anyway and prepare themselves to deal with the audience’s response and practice making that funny. For these reasons, I truly believe Sam Kinison, Bo Burnham, or other unorthodox comedians could have developed in my comedy classes. They would have had the support and freedom to push the comic envelope.

Even though my students openly exercise their constitutional right to freedom of speech, I do draw one line of unacceptable conduct. I do not allow personal threats or attacks that constitute clear and present danger. That is to say, freedom of speech ends when someone endangers others or incites violence toward others. This is stand up comedy, not the World Wrestling Federation. Short of that, the sky’s the limit.

Opinion – Based Instruction Creates Teacher – Dependent Students

Allowing the students to become dependent on the stand up comedy teachers to write, edit, routine and/or approve their shows is the most egregious long term effect of opinion-based instruction. The problems arises when students leave the classroom and need to put together another show on their own. If the stand up comedy teachers have done much of the work for the students, and they won’t have had to struggle through the trial and error process of learning to write, edit, and routine for themselves. To complicate matters, the students often blame themselves and believe they’re untalented or didn’t learn anything in the class—where in fact, the fault lies with the stand up comedy teachers, because they didn’t teach anything. People rarely learn by watching others perform a task; rather, they learn best by doing that task for themselves.

Technique – Based Instruction Creates Teacher – Independent Students

The purpose of creating a curriculum is to teach a consistent set of principles, techniques, and skills. To truly learn, the students must apply and practice these principles, techniques, and skills until they become competent with them. Ultimately, this produces students that are so capable they no longer need the stand up comedy teachers.

For instance, the process of ordering a routine can be a perplexing dilemma for students. To assist, I teach the technique of B, C, A . This is to say, I suggest they open their routine with their B material, put their C material in the middle, and close with their A material. With this technique, the students can experiment and eventually figure out for themselves how to order a routine. Once they’ve done it for themselves, this technique gives them the confidence to do it on their own the next time they need to arrange their routine. This approach creates students who can function independently of the stand up comedy teachers. After all, isn’t this the whole point of teaching?

In Conclusion

In the first part of this article, I discussed the two different types of stand up comedy teachers: Comic-Turned-Instructor and Club Owner/Booker-Turned-Instructor. In this second part, I showed the two contrasting teaching approaches: Opinion-Based Instruction and Technique-Based Instruction as a way of illustrating the differences in what stand up comedy classes have to offer to the students. Depending on what you want from a workshop, this information should help you decide what kind of teacher and approach best suit your needs.