On Sunday night, I got up on a tiny stage in the back of a pancake house and told some jokes into a microphone. It was not as awful as it sounds! For the past five weeks I’ve been a student of the awesome Feminine Comique, an all-girl, totally-badass comedy class where I learned the basics of the stand-up genre with some really awesome other ladies and taught by the indefatigably hilarious Kelsie Huff.
Why? Well, for one thing, I wanted some practice in case I was going to speak at Convocation (and that is totally happening, so, check mark!) But also, I wanted a chance to see what writing and performing in a genre that I liked but had never tried was like. Also, I was desperate to get out and meet some non-UChicago people. And, well, Mission Accomplished all around! I told jokes! People laughed! And I also took away some good insights from Kelsie and the other gals that I think extend to plenty of parts of my (creative) life. Behold!
1. The power of the exercise
Some of the first things Kelsie had us do were just simple joke-writing practice. For instance: she’d give us two nouns to fill in the sentence “I like my [blank] like I like my [blank]…” and then complete it. Not the most groundbreaking of joke forms, but it got the wheels a-turnin’. And it wasn’t easy. Having to come up with a logical conclusion to the pair of “lawnmower” and “dental floss” put my brain in knots, but I found a punchline eventually: “I like my lawnmower like I like my dental floss: for begrudging, occasional maintenance.” Not that funny, but! The muscles are now stronger. I have lifted a comedic weight.
2. You can’t go wrong with feelings
Another of the exercises we did was to compare two events or things and tell the best and worst parts of each. “Finding a job is like going to the prom: I’m overdressed and hoping to get lucky.” When stuck for a way to finish this particular prompt, Kelsie would have us fall back on how things made us feel. Not to be fuzzy or sentimental, but to dig at what’s really going on in these situations that can make them funny. Peel everything away and the raw nerve can make you laugh. Or cry.
3. Tighten, tighten, tighten
Once we had our bits in place, we would perform them for the class and get notes. Invariably, there was some version of this advice: cut it down. Stand-up comedy is not reading essays. It’s not even really telling stories. It’s being conversational while still hitting all your funny marks. And that is hard! But it’s a good skill. For those of us who love being verbose (guilty) or obtuse (guilty) or using lots of adjectives that end in -se (see previous two items), it’s a challenge to reduce your artful prose to something talkable. Pro-tip: write it out, perform it with your notes, then put your notes down. Perform it sans reading, preferably into a recording device, listen, and evaluate. The stuff you remember to say is the stuff that you keep.
4. Pace yourself and Let It Land
Probably the second-most common critique was about pacing. The girls and I would just cruuuuuuise on through our routines without pausing for laughs or letting things sink in. But remember, stand-up is a conversation. It’s a dialogue. The audience wants to respond and trust me, you want that energy coming back at you. Example: my joke that I was “tall, or as I like to say: vertically fat” didn’t go well when I flew on to my next bit about the mortal danger of wearing high heels because no one understood what the hell I had said. Let them process. Let them think. Let it land.
5. Find Your Truth
This could pretty much be a cardinal rule all kinds of storytelling, or even all kinds of creative work period. Tell the truth. Tell the funny truth, the uncomfortable truth, the adorable truth, the repulsive truth. It’s not that easy, but it’s also not that hard. You can be yourself in a campy, stage-whisper-y, jab-and-wink kind of way and still be telling your truth. Case in point: despite my bit about being from Pennsylvania, I do not actually hate the Amish. Much. Being honest just means being a little vulnerable.
And what didn’t I learn?
1. How to be funny
This is not a teachable thing. People are funny because they’re funny. But! You can become funny-er if you think through these rules, deconstruct a little, and then take your comedy building blocks and assemble them into a veritable Tower of Mirth (and avoid stupid metaphors such as these). It’s about taking leaps of faith onto that tiny stage, fumbling with that microphone, and trusting that you will not die if you try to tell people about your Junior Prom.