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Archive for Monday, May 20, 2002

Comedy a serious academic pursuit

May 20, 2002

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— The newest course at William Paterson University is a joke.

But the 15 students enrolled in it are deadly serious about wanting to become stand-up comedians. They're graded on how well they rant about their sex lives and how weird their parents can be.

Fellow students laugh at Grace Gonzalez's stand-up routine during a
comedy class at William Paterson College in Wayne, N.J. The
semesterlong, three-credit class helps students develop a comedy
routine that can be performed in a nightclub. Their final exam will
consist of delivering a five-minute routine to an audience at
Caroline's comedy club in New York.

Fellow students laugh at Grace Gonzalez's stand-up routine during a comedy class at William Paterson College in Wayne, N.J. The semesterlong, three-credit class helps students develop a comedy routine that can be performed in a nightclub. Their final exam will consist of delivering a five-minute routine to an audience at Caroline's comedy club in New York.

And their final exam consisted of delivering a five-minute routine to an audience at Caroline's comedy club in New York.

"Because comedy is such a big part of our entertainment and our culture, and because it is a huge industry, I felt students should be trained for it," said Stephen Rosenfeld, the director of the American Comedy Institute in New York, who teaches the course. "Just as people can now go to college and study art or music or writing, they should be able to study comedy."

The three-credit course unfolds each Friday inside an insulated media room, with overhead stage lights, video cameras and screens, and the one thing a stand-up comic can't live without: a microphone.

Although the word "penis" is spoken more often here than in an anatomy course, students in Rosenfeld's class have to apply the same academic structure and discipline they would need in order to study physics or mathematics to fat jokes.

Working and reworking

While stand-up comedy might look spontaneous, it is anything but. Students have to write their own routines, underline each punch line and measure how long it takes to get to each one. Facial expressions, hand gestures and body movements are matched to precise words or phrases for greater impact.

Timing is crucial: You don't want to "step on" a laugh by starting the next joke too soon, while the audience is still yukking it up. You also don't want to wait too long until the room goes silent. And for God's sake, look like you're having fun, even if you're terrified.

Students are told to write about what they know, so many of their routines revolved around sex, beer, dating and their parents' eccentricities.

Kevin Hogan, a graduate student, delved into the Hoboken bar scene, and his futile attempts to pick up women.

"She says, 'You're just like a brother to me,' " Hogan said. "Here's what a guy actually hears when a woman says that ... (dramatic pause) ... 'WE'RE ... NEVER ... HAVING ... SEX!"'

Mike Scalero, another senior, started out strongly, setting up a routine about his mother's obsession with the Weather Channel. But his punch line involved her screaming profanities at the screen when the weatherman forecast rain.

Moments like these get "the treatment," a round-table critique with Rosenfeld and the students after each has finished performing. The goal is to improve the writing and delivery, changing punch lines that don't work or suggesting new directions to take the material.

"You've created a wonderful character: a mother who is way too involved with the Weather Channel," Rosenfeld told Scalero. "But the punch line came out of left field; it was too unexpected. Let's see what we can do to develop the character."

Rosenfeld praised Hogan's delivery and timing, but noted he tends to wrap the microphone cord around his hand like a python. That distracts the audience from concentrating on what he's saying instead of what he's doing.

Quit the day job

But almost everyone in the class has made remarkable strides in just a few weeks, Rosenfeld said.

"There are definitely some people here who will work as comics," he said. "There's always a tremendous interest in the industry in finding new comic talent. If you're good at this, you'll make a living. If you're really good, you can make much more than just a living."

The course also offers survival tips for dealing with hecklers. Rosenfeld's advice: Ignore them the first time, and maybe the second, just to get the audience on your side.

"Audiences hate hecklers," he said. "You want to make sure the audience is with you and hates the heckler, too, because you're about to destroy him. On the third time, you move in. You want to do two things: Get everybody laughing at the heckler while also making it clear he has to stop.

"You might say something like, 'Excuse me, sir. I do my act the way you do your sex life ... Alone!' Or, 'I don't interrupt you when you're at work. I don't grab your mop."'

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