Have You Heard the One About the Traffic School?
It had all the potential of becoming the most boring morning in the history of traffic schools until the teacher became a siren, a motorcyclist, an old pedestrian with a walker, an irate motorist, a drunk driver, a construction worker stopping traffic and a police officer writing a ticket, all within a few minutes.
Actor and comedian Kevin Carr was just doing his job for the Lettuce Amuse U Laff ‘N Learn Terrific School.
And try as they might, 37 drowsy students in an overheated room in a Pasadena library could not sleep through the early Saturday morning show. Some of them even learned something.
That is the guiding principle behind Lettuce, etc., whose owners, Linda and Ray Regan, believe that people learn better when information is presented with humor.
For many years, the Regans ran a conventional San Gabriel-based driving school for traffic offenders, and hired conventional teachers, many of whom were off-duty police officers. And for years they heard the usual complaints from students about having to endure long, boring classes.
Linda Regan got the idea of hiring comedians to teach when she noticed about two years ago that students gave the highest evaluations to teachers who had a good sense of humor. The school’s goofy name came to Regan in the middle of one night, she said.
So she decided to tap Southern California’s rich natural resource of comics by advertising in Variety, and business began improving almost immediately, she said.
Since the school started using comedians, it has almost doubled the number of classes it offers. This summer it will offer 165 Lettuce Amuse U classes from San Diego to San Francisco, up from the current 100.
Although the teaching comedians’ wit and styles vary, they abide by regulations and cover the subjects that are established for the classes by the Department of Motor Vehicles, which oversees California’s 350 driving schools.
The DMV apparently takes the subject of traffic offenses more seriously than the pun-filled name and approach of Lettuce Amuse U Laff ‘N Learn Terrific School implies.
‘It’s a Serious Matter’
“I don’t think that’s what we had in mind when traffic schools were created,” said Mario Balbiani, manager of the DMV’s Traffic Violators School program. “We get thousands of people killed on streets and highways yearly. It’s a serious matter.”
But Lettuce Amuse U complies with all the DMV requirements, and reports turned in by people who monitor traffic classes for the California Safety Council show that it “is as good as anybody’s,” Balbiani conceded.
“The ones I’ve monitored have been good,” said John Bavetta, who works as a monitor for the California Safety Council, which contracts with the DMV to monitor the classes and ensure compliance.
He gave Carr’s Saturday morning class a good rating, faulting it only for the room’s high temperature.
Bavetta said every Lettuce Amuse U class he has monitored has been nearly filled, compared with some others that have “five or 10 students and operate at a loss.”
One of Carr’s students was David Kamansky, executive director of the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, who was surprised to find the class full on Memorial Day weekend.
Humorous but Not Trivialized
“I must say, I give full marks to him,” said Kamansky, who took the class rather than sully his good driving record with a citation for going 35 m.p.h. in a 25-m.p.h. zone.
“The subject was presented in a charming, humorous way and yet he didn’t trivialize something that is so serious. I tend to remember something that is done this way, but when its blood and death and destruction, we tend to put it out of our minds. When they scare you, you blot it out.”
Douglas Hinesley, executive director of the California Safety Council, said there are about 1,400 traffic safety classes in California, more than half of them in the Los Angeles area.
Fees vary from $15 to $35. Lettuce Amuse U charges $25 for an eight-hour course, which can be taken in one all-day session or two four-hour segments at night.
The students are traffic violators who choose to attend eight hours of driver education instead of letting citations for minor infractions go on their driving records, which in many cases would affect their insurance rates.
Lettuce Amuse U has about 30 professional comedians who were hired after taking a state-required 32-hour training course and passing the state exam for an instructor’s license.
“It’s a great job for an actor,” said Carr, who has taught traffic classes for almost a year. “You have a captive audience, and this is like a long-run play. It’s a constant challenge to keep it fresh and alive.”
And then, as if to illustrate his point, he turned into a stupid kid in a hot rod.
In a class in Covina that same week, comic Sherry Netherland read the Vehicle Code as a preacher might the Bible, beginning with “Yea, verily, I say unto you . . . “
Her crowded classroom in a YMCA building had no windows, no blackboard and not enough chairs, requiring some students to squat on nursery school chairs. There were 35 unresponsive, uncomfortable, reluctant traffic violators who came at 6 p.m. after a day’s work for the first of two four-hour sessions.
Netherland’s improvisational skills got a workout. She pretended to write on a nonexistent blackboard and she wisecracked as class members introduced themselves and explained why they were there. It was a litany of speeding and running stop signs.
“You guys got pretty boring tickets, you know?” she concluded.
To a dock loader she said, “Need a pretty big truck to load a dock on it, huh?”
Regan said the comedian-teachers are almost all college-educated and about one-third of them have public-school teaching credentials.
“We still have all our original (comedian) instructors,” she said. “They turn out to be people who didn’t want the predictability of teaching, and they’ve been surprisingly reliable. We’re replete with people who are waiting for their big break” in show business.
Both Carr and Netherland fit that description. Carr, a part-time actor as well as a comedian, taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District and in a private school for students with dyslexia, a reading disorder. He and Netherland both have performed in local improvisational clubs and toured the comedy club circuit.
Netherland works mornings as an audiologist at Centinela Hospital and nights as a stand-up comic. She earned a master’s degree in audiology “to have a rent-paying job,” she said, but is pursuing a lifetime dream of becoming an entertainer.
“But I take this seriously,” she said of traffic school. “I treat teaching like a performance. People are surprised to find they can enjoy themselves and learn something. They figure they’re going to have a lousy time if they have to learn, and if they enjoy themselves they can’t learn.
“Unfortunately, most of them want to learn how to beat a ticket. I tell them if I could get them out of a ticket I’d be selling that, not teaching it.”
Besides good money (about $100 a class), Netherland has been delighted with some unexpected perks. “In West Los Angeles classes I met three producers in one week,” she said. “Now I carry my resume along with my class materials.”