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This page chronicles one student’s progress, challenges, and thoughts on mastering comedy and writing laughable material. All posts are written by Anne Richmond, in her own words, and are also posted on WomanAroundTown.com’s “Laughing Around” section.
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Anne’s original post on September 20 may be found at:
Anne Richmond, who holds a B.F.A. from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, is an actress, singer, and writer living and working in New York City. For the next eight weeks, she will attend a course for stand-up comedy at the Comic Strip, 1568 Second Avenue, between 81st and 82nd Street. The class, taught by D.F. Sweedler, has launched the careers of many famous comedians. Will Anne join their ranks? She will be updating us on her progress and, in the end, you are all invited to attend her “graduation,” a special performance by Sweedler’s students at the club. Here, Anne conveys her feelings before the first class.
Monday evening, I will be attending my first class in stand-up comedy at The Comic Strip on the upper East Side. The Comic Strip has been home to stand-up greats like Dave Chapelle and Ray Romano. There is a knot in the pit of my stomach the size of a watermelon comprised of excitement, nerves, and absolute terror.
Some might describe me as a comedy junky. I love long-form improvisation and studied at i.O. Chicago, as well as in the drama department of NYU Tisch. My computer is filled with stand-up specials from HBO and Comedy Central, but I have never attempted it myself. It’s always been a pipe dream and a fantasy, but the actual act terrifies me!
It’s time to chase the fear! I will be in class at The Comic Strip for eight weeks and I invite you to read weekly installments about my experiences as a female actress dipping her toe in the deep end of a very male dominated pool. These classes and articles will culminate in a final performance at The Comic Strip. Wish me luck!
(to read previous week’s posts, scroll down; articles re-posted with permisssion from Anne & Christine Gianetti, co-founder of WomanAroundTown.com )
WEEK SEVEN: THE JOKE MECHANIC
My classmates and I arrived at comedy class eager to get in our last session of work with D. F. Sweedler before we took the stage on the following Saturday in front of a live audience. The room pulsed with nervous energy as everyone shuffled through their notes.
“I think I’ve got it,” one of my classmates said to me as we took our seats. “I changed around a few things but I feel pretty good about it.” I smiled at him while inside I secretly wished I could feel as confident as he did about my own work. He was feeling comfortable while I was feeling a quiet desperation, beads of sweat already forming on my brow.
Nothing I had done in class had made me feel like I had good material. That’s not to say that I didn’t think I had improved my material. I absolutely had improved a great deal, but I had no reason to believe that I would be receiving any laughs come Saturday night.
One by one we read through our notes. I had spent the last week in a whirl of preemptive nausea. Every time I so much as thought about the fact that this class was our last before the performance, it sent a shudder down my spine. Even though D. F. had told us not to write any new material, I couldn’t help myself. Everything I saw that week suddenly looked like a good premise for a joke. It was like the Garden of Comedic Eden. Where had this inspiration been for the last eight weeks? Suddenly, I wanted more time for process, but I was forced to to reckon with the reality that it was time for product.
When I got up in class, I went through my rewritten jokes and added a joke to the end about the fact that in every sci-fi movie or book there’s always a place called “The Academy.” I had laughed with my friends about it earlier that week and I thought I had worked on it enough to slip by, plus I enjoyed the fact that it played more into my personality. I wanted more jokes like that since I had begun to find them comforting. However as soon as I finished, D. F. gave me a surly look.
“Did I not say to refrain from writing new material?”
I looked away sheepishly.
“Ditch The Academy and let’s go over what you have.”
We worked through my jokes quickly and as we tuned up each one, I began to see D. F. like a skilled mechanic. His greatest strength is that he can take any joke and assess it methodically, almost immediately suggesting an intelligent remedy.
Use a callback.
Change the ending into a “reveal.”
Make this into a punch line by exaggerating the circumstances.
I had appreciated this skill for the duration of the class, but in our last moments of instruction, it stuck out to me even more because of the rapid speed at which we were moving through everyone’s material.
When we reached the end of he class, we all looked to him with a communal sense of wide-eyed terror. I suddenly wished D. F. would impart some secret comforting wisdom, but all he said was “Arrive at 5. Be memorized and ready to go.” Then he smiled with a sense of mischievous excitement and we all departed to prepare for the big night.
WEEKS FIVE & SIX: THE LONG ROAD HOME
I missed the fifth week of classes at The Comic Strip due to bus complications that arose while returning from Boston on Columbus Day Weekend. Missing class left me very nervous about our upcoming show on October 31st. If i couldn’t test my new material, how would I ever feel confident enough in my performance by the time of the show?
However, the fact that I missed that class spurred me on to make more progress with my work on my own than I had in any other week. I made a chart of all my premises and the examples I had come up with to illustrate them, along with any new ones that I thought of before the next class. Lastly, I worked out punchlines for each one. As soon as i thought of an idea for a joke, i didn’t just make a few notes. I immediately tried to work out a premise because in weeks past I have written down cryptic notes such as “purple ducks,” which I’m sure meant something to me at one time, but amounted to nothing by the time I sat down to write. Working this way eliminated any of the extraneous information or tangents to which I am usually prone.
When I started taking this class, I didn’t think of comedy in such a methodical way. I had heard about premises and the rule of three, but I hadn’t had the chance to see the rules work on every kind of material repeatedly as I had been able to see over the weeks with all of my classmates. This is not to say that all comedy has to be constructed in this way, but I have definitely been taught that there are basic rules that can help you construct jokes to make them immediately more funny.
The night before class I took my chart and put together my streamlined jokes, reading through them aloud in order to figure out fluid phrasing. There’s nothing that destroys comedic timing faster than tripping over your words and having to go back. After I was relatively confident, I put everything away. Usually I cram in all of my work in the last few days, but working this way made me feel more relaxed about the whole thing. I also felt like I understood how my jokes were theoretically supposed to work better than ever.
That week when I took the stage, I got my first laughs, and they were all from my most personal jokes, all premises from moments I had actually experienced. I hadn’t really received any thing more than a light chuckle and a smile up until that moment. My countenance immediately brightened at the prospect that I might actually be on track!
“We’re almost there with a lot of these.” D. F. smiled as I dismounted the stage.
“Well just in time.” I giggled.
After we worked through the improvements I could make in my work, D. F. looked up at me. “Next week, bring in everything.”
“Everything?” I asked tentatively.
“Well yeah. It’s the week before the show. It’ll be time to get everything ready for the show.”
I gulped. Just when everything was getting so comfortable, it hit me that in two weeks, I would be performing my stand-up material in front of a live audience at The Comic Strip.
WEEK FOUR: LETTING PEOPLE INTO YOUR WORLD
D. F. Sweedler, our instructor at the Comic Strip, did a head count.
“Lots of people called in sick this week.”
We had all begun to bond over the weeks and there was a tittering of conversations coming to an end as we settled in.
“More time for everyone else!” D. F. took his seat and began sending us up onto the stage one by one.
Indeed, there was more time for everyone with a smaller class size. Everything felt more intimate and there was more time to weigh in on everyone’s jokes and for D. F. to make suggestions.
I felt way more at ease with my material. I had been working on a new piece about people who give me the “silent treatment” that I found particularly clever. However,when I ended the joke by cutting out a woman’s tongue and sewing her lips shut, D.F. let out a stunned chuckle.
“Wow,” he said.
“I guess it’s a little violent…” I smiled sheepishly as I dismounted the stage.
“Why did you end it that way?”
“It’s supposed to be retribution against people who give the silent treatment.”
“Wouldn’t retribution against the silent treatment be giving it back to them at an inappropriate time?” The class began sounding off examples as I thought through the joke, scribbling down some notes on my pad.
D. F. pulled my attention back from my paper. “Are you listening? They’re writing your joke for you right now.”
This experience is a great example of the benefits of taking a class like this. Assuming people get comfortable with each other, the atmosphere turns into a workshop. It’s important not to get lost in your head because you might miss the suggestions from your peers. Being present in a room isn’t just about being there. It’s about being there and being open and aware at all times and also being good at accepting criticism.
So far was I hadn’t felt particularly invested in my jokes. I thought they were situations people would relate to, but these jokes were removed from me, my experiences, and my point of view on the world. (One example: Going with a date to Max Brenner’s where chocolate is king and being embarrassed to order something chocolate. Never happened to me).
This week I pulled out my biggest embarrassment and put it on the table. I’m terribly addicted to video games. I didn’t receive raucous laughter when I performed my bit, but my classmates showed more interested in my act than ever before.
As we went over the joke, I mentioned the experience of trying to teach my dad to play video games and there were a few laughs.
D. F. nodded. “Bring in more about this. Embrace your addiction and describe the ways it has gotten you into trouble.”
That week I set out to specify and expand my point of view on gaming. I had to make it accessible enough to be understood by an audience, but also specific enough to be personal.
That night I watched Dane Cook’s DVD performance of his show, Vicious Circle. It’s one of my favorite HBO comedy specials. At the beginning of the show, Cook says that he’s excited about letting people into his world. After this week, I’m pretty sure that this is the very heart of all stand-up comedy.
WEEK THREE: REMEMBER WEEK ONE?
This week, I was feeling confident. When I took the stage, I knew I had spent the week improving my material. I had worked on my dating joke and added on a new bit about what happens when someone breaks up with you and you cloister yourself indoors until you begin eating whatever is left in the house, no matter how disparate the cuisine choices are.
I less nervous. The whole group was more at ease with each other. Class began to feel more like a workshop and a little less than a tall precipice I was being told to leap off of and careen downwards to jagged rocks.
Unfortunately, the subsiding of fear doesn’t necessarily correspond with the quality of your material.
When I sat down, D. F. Sweedler, our instructor at the Comic Strip, looked me over and said, “What was the premise of your new joke?”
I went blank. It had just been a series of observations with no real point except that I found them amusing. My prior confidence began to diffuse into defeat.
One after one, we all had the same experience. We got up on stage and realized that we were listing complaints or observations rather than using the form that we had labored over for the first two weeks. Establish the premise, then give examples to prove it, then exaggerate and expand the idea for the punch line.
D. F. chuckled. “Remember Week One? Premise does not equal subject. It’s a point of view on a topic. You need to make a premise, stay with it, and end it. One joke at a time and get to the punch line as soon as possible. Make sure you finish the joke and then move on, otherwise it just seems like a wandering story and the audience won’t understand when they’re supposed to laugh.”
As I looked over my jokes I started to wonder if I knew how to finish a joke. To finish a joke, by definition it had to be funny. As an amateur comedian, I doubted my judgment of what is funny. Who am I to say if a joke is finished if I’m still doubting my material as a whole? I thought the jokes I had written were funny when I wrote and practiced them. I thought they did have punch lines, but when I read them in class, they definitely did not seem finished. Like D. F. pointed out, they just kind of wandered and then I went on to my next topic.
During the week I tried to fit all of my jokes strictly into the form and shorten them as much as possible. I attempted to create a premise for my new “break-up” joke, but eventually scrapped it. Instead I opted to keep plugging away at my original dating joke and create a few more premises. In order to “finish” my jokes, I attempted to move each example into an exaggeration for the punch line. That way, every punch line would be based in truth, but taken one step farther into the absurd. I also took an experience from life with getting “the silent treatment” and transplanted the subject into a new situation in order to create a premise. A comedian often takes another’s experience and makes it her own in an act or change the characters around in order to improve the mechanics of the joke.
I made the decision to start mining the things in my life that make me bizarre. I mined my addiction to gaming and sci-fi/fantasy for morsels of comedy and began trying to look at everything from a self deprecating point of view. It was strange to put these insecurities into my developing act because I thought they would embarrass me when I took the stage the next week.
However, when I got up to present my jokes the next week, I felt more like myself than I had since I started taking the class. It was comforting to embrace my personality. As I stood on stage, all of my quirks surrounded me like a warm blanket.
WEEK TWO: COMEDY GETS PERSONAL
The other students looked up at me expectantly as I flipped my legal pad to the page with my standup homework on it. I started to read it aloud to the class and our teacher, D. F. Sweedler.
I went through my premises about how complicated the dining experience was at Max Brenner, the focus on all things chocolate, and how strange it was that guys took girls on dates there and expected them to order a salad. As I read, I realized that things I had thought were funny received lackluster laughter or silence. It was not at all what I imagined it would be like. I even found that I wasn’t taking full breaths or focusing on the style of my delivery. I was simply trying to read through my ideas sentence by sentence and stumbling through the whole affair ungracefully. The sentences I had written were ungainly in my mouth and far too verbose. I finally hit the punch line and delivered it, looking about the room, I must admit, a little expectantly.
Everyone simply smiled complacently up at me as if to say, “Congratulations! You made it.” Glad to have simply “made it,” I took my seat.
It’s a curious thing that happens in a comedy class. Everyone wants each other to succeed, but we all become aware of the fact that the material is supposed to be funny. When you’re watching others perform, you’re waiting for them to deliver a punch line and for them to make you laugh. This makes it harder to be surprised by an off-kilter remark or a strange point of view and you actually end up finding things less funny than you normally would. You even become hyper-critical of the things you do find funny and roll them around in your head as you consider what makes them funny. How is the joke working on me and how was it constructed?
After each of us read our homework, D. F. talked us through what we had read. He would tell us what worked, what didn’t and why. It was remarkable the way he would toy with a joke in his head, eyes flitting about as he considered whether jokes were salvageable and what might improve them. “That could be funny.” He used this phrase as well as, “I don’t know… Maybe that just can’t be funny.” He was constantly making adjustments and trying to decide what paths were worth traveling for each of us.
When it came to my material, he asked me to focus only on things that fed my premise and to get to the point sooner. “The longer a joke goes on, the bigger the audience expects the payoff to be. It’s best if you get right to the point as soon as possible.” He also advised me to “Personalize the joke. Instead of saying ‘You know how people do this,’ say ‘One time I did this.’”
Stand up comedy is really about letting people into your own particular point of view. Your premise is your hypothesis on a certain subject or life observation and you use your jokes to prove the hypothesis. As D. F. carefully deconstructed our work, I imagined us all constructing wooden frames with our premises and then building houses brick by brick with each joke, every completed wall making our audience feel more at home inside.
The idea of personalization was the biggest thing I took away from our second class. I decided to spend the week stream lining my material and really putting myself into all of it, even if that meant bending the facts of a given scenario. Instead of speaking about seeing men taking women on dates to Max Brenner, I made the joke about a guy taking me on a date to Max Brenner and feeling like I was being tested to see whether I would order a desert or a salad and what my choice would say about me as a desirable woman.
As the week progressed, I kept an eye out for any strange experiences and kept my notepad nearby to record them. Strangely enough, nothing really out of the ordinary did happen. I say “strangely” because for some reason, odd things are always happening to me. Despite the fact that I didn’t have any new weird experiences to develop into a premise, I did develop a new joke about how after a breakup, a girl becomes a teary eyed behemoth who refuses to leave her apartment for a week and only lives on mismatched, unappetizing, scavenged left-over comfort foods.
I wasn’t sure how it would go over, but I read my material out loud and timed it. When Monday rolled around, I felt comfortable enough with my delivery that I could simply glance at my notes to see where I was. D. F. was very clear on the rule that we should not memorize our material because we would be changing most of it, but I felt much more comfortable with what I had written in terms of my ability to present it once I was more familiar with saying it out loud.
When I arrived at The Comic Strip, a bunch of my class mates were waiting outside. We chatted for a bit and I began to feel a sense of fellowship and support that we had missed out on the first week because we had not really had the chance to get to know each other beyond our short introductions on stage. It was really nice to get to know them a little bit better and hear about their experiences of working on their pieces from the previous week. By the time we all filed into class, the entire taste of the room felt changed. The atmosphere was a bit warmer and everyone was buzzing with conversation.
When D. F. called my name, I was gratified to feel a little less frazzled as I took the stage.
WEEK ONE: I’M NOT LOOKING FOR YOU TO BE FUNNY
Everyone of us entered the classroom with some amount of trepidation. We all sat to the left of the small stage looking each other over and saying polite hellos. Our instructor, D. F. Sweedler swept into the room with his glass of soda and sat down to look us over.
“We’re going to go over some rules,” he said. “Out in the world, you’ll see people break these, but for the purpose of this class, these are the rules.”
As he listed each rule for our writing in the class, pens and pencils scrawled furiously across paper, soaking up each word. Would we be funny? Who was the funniest? How much experience did everyone have? All of my questions were held at bay as I tried to get down everything and eventually they subsided.
“Don’t be dirty.”
“No swearing?” A tough looking blonde woman spoke up.
“Not in this class, no.”
“What if it… slips out? I’m from Brooklyn, so…” She insisted.
“Keep it clean.”
Her comment reminded me of something I had realized in improv class at iO Chicago a few years ago. Some people think you have to be audacious to be funny, but it’s really about inviting someone into an idea and getting them on the same page as you. Its about reminding people of things they don’t realize they already know. You don’t have to talk about sex or swear words to achieve universal comedy.
We also covered ideas that feed comedy, like the rule of threes and the idea of a premise, or topic. D. F. patiently answered our questions about these concepts and all too soon we came to the end of the list.
It only occurred to me then that none of us had introduced ourselves. We’d been sitting in the room together for about an hour and a half and I had no idea who these other people were.
“Step on stage and introduce yourself. Tell us why you’re here and what it is you do. I’m not looking for you to be funny.” D. F. gave a wry smile and began sending us up on stage one by one.
It was interested to hear why everyone was there. While attending NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, I became used to classes of students in my age range looking for a career in the theater. The people in my comedy class were far more diverse in terms of ages and interests. There was a man who had just dropped off his last kid at college, a school teacher (the Brooklyn blonde), an out-of-work lawyer, another recently graduated girl who had just moved to NYC, and a guy who was retaking the class to develop more material.
Finally my name was called and it was my turn to take the stage. My vision narrowed and it suddenly seemed as if there were twice as many tables and chairs to weed through in order to get to my destination. I also silently remembered my fear of public speaking.
I stepped up on the stage and felt my voice wobble in my throat. Don’t be funny, I told myself.
“I’m… Anne Richmond. I graduated from NYU Tisch with an B.F.A. in acting. I work two jobs; one in marketing for a gym and another at an internet start-up company.” I felt the sudden urge to tell a joke but I stifled it with practiced monotone. “I write, produce, costume design, and act in a webseries called O-Cast ©…” I trailed off. I wanted to be excited about who I was but I was afraid I would get derailed and make some strange joke, as I am prone to do. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was boring the other students with my introduction. All I wanted was a laugh of a smile, but everyone was just looking at me with mild interest and polite attention. “I’m here because I’ve always had an interest in stand-up and because I’m a writer for WomanAroundTown.com. I’m doing a weekly column on the class and my experience here.” I scanned the room and then looked down at my feet. “And… that’s me!” I fought the urge to do a “ba-dum-ch!” tap dance button and stepped down from the stage, trembling.
“You’re a busy gal.” D. F. nodded as I took my seat.
“Yup.” I sighed, happy to be among my peers again. I wondered to myself why I hate being myself in the spotlight. I’ve always had a hard time with that even though I have no problem with doing plays or playing characters.
Chase the fear, I thought.
“For next week, I want one and a half to two minutes based on a premise. You will write it down and read it for us. Time it, but don’t perform it for your friends, or if you do, don’t listen to them. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Do not memorize it because we’ll get rid of most of it.”
Before I even realized how much time had passed, the class was over and everyone began collecting their things.
Two minutes couldn’t be that hard. However, as the week went on, I found myself thinking of ideas and writing them down, but avoiding any commitments to a topic. After a four day weekend on the set of O-Cast ©, it was Monday again and all I had was a smattering of empty ideas- Shells of premises I had considered but none that I’d deepened or specified. I rushed to gather my thoughts on Monday morning and time my piece before work. During the day I kept returning to my note pad and editing my notes, finally deciding to focus on a joke about the complications of eating food at Max Brenner and a follow up joke about people on dates there and how women feel uncomfortable ordering a decadent chocolate meal in front of men. I made a few different versions of the piece and then finally set aside my pen, realizing I would only drive myself mad if I overworked it.
I had no idea if my writing would be funny at all, but I didn’t want to spend my time on fear or nerves.
I arrived at The Comic Strip just on time for class and before I knew it D. F. was calling my name.
I had purposefully chosen a seat closer to the stage this time so as not to trip over myself or feel awkward trying to weave through the tables and chairs.
I stepped up onto the platform, took a deep breath, and began to read.
more to come ….
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