At Dallas Comedy House's Stand-up Class, Discovering the Formula That Makes Observational Comedy Work

In Death by Microphone, local Brit and barbecue blogger Gavin Cleaver attends stand-up comedy classes at the Dallas Comedy House and reports back for our amusement and education. Check back next week to revel further in his failure.

There are lots of styles of stand-up comedy, from the surreal to the observational. At the Dallas Comedy House classes, you're pushed more toward the observational, the kind of generic confessional that can resonate with as many audience members as possible. We're told not to write things that we think are especially funny, but to write about ourselves and our own experiences first, and then try to develop a point of view on these experiences that's twisted or silly. The first thing we're all taught to ask after we watch each student do their thing is "did this feel real to you, or are they pushing for the joke?"

It's the easiest way to do a funny performance. Think of something negative about your day. Start your piece off with that. Do a ridiculous act-out of the problem with over-emphasized voices. Then develop a comic way you could deal with that problem. Tag as many punchlines on as you can. Rinse and repeat.

So we have virtually a guaranteed formula for joke structure. Obviously there are more ins and outs than that, mainly relating to self-editing, but that's the basic jist. And that's what this class is: They're not going to write the jokes for you, but they can take what you've got, help you separate the wheat from the chaff and slip it into a structure than audiences are familiar with but -- this is crucial -- don't realize they're familiar with.

Previously on Death by Microphone: Episode 1: Our Token Brit is Taking a Stand-Up Class at Dallas Comedy House for Your Amusement Episode 2: I Just Took My First Stand-Up Comedy Class and I Already Want to Sabotage It Episode 3: How to Suck Less in a Few Easy Steps: What I Learned at Stand-Up Comedy Class Episode 4: Holy Hell My Joke About Being Drunk and British at a Texas Waffle House Actually Works Episode 5: At the Dallas Comedy House's Stand-up Comedy Class, a Lesson in Handling Hecklers

The most surprising thing? Stories don't work. My instinct, as always, is to ramble on, delivering a story that I, only too late, realize has no identifiable punchline at the end, and contains as much detail as I feel is necessary to understand the joke. Always, that is too much detail.

You don't want the audience to be confused by the sheer generic nature of your set-up, but neither do you need to spend three minutes explaining why you were wearing a particular hat, as I did one week while stunningly underprepared. We're meant to bring in three pieces of new material a week, in an effort to keep us writing and developing all the time. Without fail, I will be writing down my "material" with 20 minutes to go before class, outside on a pad I am holding against the wall. I've learned to live with my own ineptitude.

Anyway, this week, I figured a good self-confessional other people can get on board with is how little I care about my own appearance, which is plain to anyone that even glances in my direction. And, with a piece about my disdain for people that have a "look," I again hit on success, comparing the utility of Cheetos to skinny jeans in what I feel is an irrefutable, yet wry, look at the ever-expanding nature of my own waistline. Top this off with a mournful piece about how I can never be a maverick cop, a rapper or a cowboy with my accent, and we have another successful week behind the mic.

There are two things my editor didn't want out of this series. One was for me to be able to do even the most vaguely funny stand-up, and the other was the course to be worthwhile. So far, both those things are not working out for him. But my bravado could be misplaced. The showcase rolls around in a couple of weeks, and I am so far from stitching together an actual set that the very thought of doing stand-up for a full 10 minutes or so makes my testicles crawl back into my body in fear. My editor may yet get value for his investment.

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Gavin Cleaver
Contact: Gavin Cleaver