How to Suck Less in a Few Easy Steps: What I Learned at Stand-Up Comedy Class

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. Check back next week to revel further in his failure.

It felt like a lengthy course last week, two hours during which we heard about the surgically precise ins and outs of what makes stand-up funny. In a way, it felt unnecessary. I'm already funny. I make myself laugh all the time. I'm making myself laugh right now, writing this, because it's funny. Do you see? I am funny.

But it turns out that not only is two hours of passive experience not long enough to make someone funny, I am actually not funny in the slightest. That's right, dear reader. I bombed harder than a B-1 Bomber. A lead balloon would make an excellent blimp compared to the floating potential of whatever object it is that I represent. I got a better reception when I accidentally swore in front of my grandparents that one time.

Any assumptions I might have had that I didn't need this class, as a wildly successful food reviewer in the free online version of a free once-a-week newspaper, were cast aside, along with my dignity, self-confidence and indeed any personal happiness I may once have possessed. I write this to you now from a cardboard box on a street, where I have become one of the laptop-toting homeless that are presumably the target market of free city wi-fi hotspots.

So, by way of therapy, here's how it went down.

We get brought into the main stage area of the DCH, and after a short talk on how you hold the microphone and what that says about you (basically, don't ever take the microphone out the stand if you're just starting out, because you'll do something really dumb and distract the audience), we are unceremoniously pushed up on stage to do a bit in front of what I now realize is a small crowd of wannabe stand-ups who are analyzing everything and looking at your mistakes so they don't make any.

All of those guys are pretty funny. Sure, one or two are better and one or two didn't get so much of a laugh, but everyone is pretty amusing and there are no disasters. Also? It is miraculous to me how our teacher, Dean Lewis, can take 13 jokes he's never heard before and instantly tell everyone how to make them infinitely funnier by just applying a few golden rules without being in the slightest bit condescending. He is a miracle worker.

For instance, one guy has a pretty funny bit about how his potty-training kid thinks he has to squeeze his testicles to get the pee out. What's funnier than that? How about a grown man acting out his three-year old son squeezing his testicles?

There you go. That is much funnier. Golden rules, like adding act-outs, are how Lewis manages to make everyone more amusing than they should be. One guy has a brief routine about how he hates going on dates with sluts because of all the emotional baggage they bring to first dates. It's pointed out that his set-up is actually positive, and thus more confusing than funny, as it doesn't follow the basic set-up rule that a negative emotion must be included. Lewis compares it to someone going "It's really difficult having a nine-inch dick" and says that the men in the audience are going to be, on some level, jealous. So he picks it apart, hones in on what actually is the negative emotion (the dislike and confusion of baggage on first dates), and entirely reformats the guy's routine around focusing on that. He eliminates the "slut" and gives it back, complete with a new act-out of the date. It's really, really impressive.

Previously on Death by Microphone: Episode 1: Gavin suckers the Observer into paying his stand-up comedy tuition. Episode 2: Gavin meets his teacher, settles on sabotaging the whole thing rather than trying earnestly and failing, probably something he should discuss with his therapist.

As it gets round to my turn I am thinking about my material over and over in my head, thinking, "no, that's funny, if someone did that at stand-up, I would definitely laugh at that." It's a crappy bit about how much I hate shopping at Christmas. We were given some generic set-ups to write a piece around, and I chose that one, OK. Stop judging.

I get up, I deliver it confidently and with an act-out of what I'm talking about, exactly like we are told to do. (As we have been taught, 80 percent of the time an act-out, even though it contains no actual jokes, is extremely funny because people like it when their comedians are silly.)

Only then, under the disapproving gaze of a dozen equally bearded men, do I realize that actually, not only have I ignored everything we were meant to do to make a good joke, I am awful at this and I should go home. My piece wasn't specific enough (we should focus on one place and one person, rather than lots of places and lots of people, as it gives audiences an easier time at going with a joke). Lewis gives me some excellent advice, of focusing on one store, exactly what I'm going to buy, and the specific demographic of person in my way. I go to re-do it (itself excruciating) and I mess up again. The third go is a winner, but by that point the teacher's basically rewritten my joke for me, word-for-word, down to the actions I should perform.

This is worse than turning up to an exam naked. I wrote something, I delivered it earnestly, and it was met with complete silence until an expert rewrote it for me, at which point it was funny. I guess that's why I need classes, huh?

I would like to end by saying that if Lewis can take someone as unfailingly, deeply unfunny as myself and make a comedian out of me (or at least someone who doesn't wet himself in front of friends, family and peers at the showcase I am now in complete fear of), then not only is this course worth every penny of the $230, but that Mr. Lewis should fly home with me and be immediately knighted.

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