Alan Mollick works in Huntington Beach as an aerospace engineer. Brad Howell lives in Santa Ana where he maintains a practice as a chiropractor. Leonor Del-Llano is a psychologist who works in Orange as a vocational rehabilitation counselor.
All rather serious occupations that required more than a little rigorous study.
But tonight, Mollick, Howell, Del-Llano and their classmates in a course taught by Maggi Bass-Jackson are taking a final exam that not only involves a perhaps less-serious occupation, but that could well be the least conventional test they've encountered along their educational paths.
The test will be administered in a room that's dark and maybe a little smoky, and the students will be watched by people who may be nursing drinks and--if things go really well--laughing uproariously at them.
The course is in writing and performing stand-up comedy, and the "final exam" is being given at the Laff Stop in Newport Beach, where each student will step on stage to deliver five minutes' worth of original material. The test is the culmination of a weekly, six-session class, one of several Bass-Jackson has taught since June through Orange Coast College.
If you sit in on the test--and the public is invited (tickets: three bucks)--you will not see a handful of would-be wags telling a string of moldy bar jokes. Nor will you necessarily see slick funny folks who fancy themselves the next Jay Leno.
In fact--and this should comfort anyone concerned that these classes are contributing to what already is a glut of Comedy Boom-spawned pedestrian comics--many students past and present haven't taken the course with an eye toward pursuing stand-up professionally, or pursuing it all, beyond the class.
They've enrolled for myriad other reasons. Heck, chiropractor Howell alone has two reasons. "I do a lot of public speaking on health topics," said the 37-year-old, "and I've found that when I use humor I get my message across a whole lot easier.
"The second reason, maybe equally important, is I've found that humor is a good way to help patients deal with pain . . . to relax a lot more with what I'm doing."
Del-Llano, 36, said she took the class because "it's a good stress releaser, it's a good way to laugh at yourself and at life's idiosyncrasies, to look at the lighter side of things.
"There's got to be a balance. My work is very demanding and sometimes very emotionally draining, so you have to have an outlet, and I've always liked comedy. I like watching it, and from what my friends tell me, I'm a very comical-type person--I have a lighter side to me when I'm not in my professional persona. So that's the reason I took the class."
Mollick, 32, offered a simpler, breezier explanation: He enrolled "because I like to hang out in dark, smoky bars."
Bass-Jackson, who's pretty tight-lipped about her age ("don't even ask about it, 'cause I'll lie anyway"), believes that one of the chief reasons people sign up for her class boils down to "personal satisfaction, 'I did this'--the one-time shot of getting up on stage to overcome that incredible fear of performing.
"But the other thing is enhancing whatever it is they're doing in real life," she continued, citing as Exhibit A an executive for a computer firm who was transferred from Connecticut to the Southern California office. Between some sort of unspoken East Coast-West Coast rivalry and suspicion over this new honcho's motives and plans, the firm's other executives and employees didn't exactly give him a warm welcome. In fact, Bass-Jackson said, "they wouldn't give him the time of day."
So he took the class and invited people from the office to attend the final-exam performance. "The next day," she recalled, "there was a star on his door. And one of the (executives) who had been giving him the worst time walked in and said, 'I can't believe you did that, and I can't believe how good you were.' From then on, he was one of the guys."
So, how did Bass-Jackson prepare this-new-kid-on-the-executive-block--and Mollick, Howell, Del-Llano et al in the current class--for the onstage test, the unnerving climb to the stage to tell jokes to a couple of hundred strangers?
Very carefully .
But seriously folks, the course's six three-hour meetings break down this way:
In the first session, Bass-Jackson--whose experience includes writing for a fistful of club comics and performing at such Southern California venues as the Comedy Store in La Jolla and the Icehouse in Pasadena--gives the students a detailed overview of stand-up.
This includes explaining her "golden rules," among them "that you cannot ridicule any group--whether sexual, ethnic or religious--unless you're a part of it. I don't like that at all," she said over tea after a recent class.
The other part of the first session calls for students to stand in front of the class and talk about themselves. In many cases, Bass-Jackson noted, the students "really spill their guts--it's amazing what people say."
Either way, from these oral autobiographies she usually can tell which topics should form the core of the students' routines, which the students are required to spend a lot of time outside of class writing and developing. (Most of the current and former students interviewed said they were surprised at how hard they had to work, not realizing how enormously difficult and demanding the class, and stand-up overall, would be.)
The second session involves the students brainstorming to create a long list of nouns, adjectives and verbs and then, divided into small groups, using those words to write a routine that's akin to the opening monologue of "The Tonight Show."
Or supposed to be. But rather than the squeaky-clean look at current events that Johnny or Jay would deliver, these monologues invariably become "bizarre sexual stories," Bass-Jackson said. "It's always sexual, no matter who's writing it. I could give this (exercise) to three nuns, and they would probably write a sexually graphic story."
The third class is devoted to improvising, and at the fourth meeting students perform three minutes of their own material, then receive a critique from Bass-Jackson.
Perhaps the most significant--if not stressful--session is the fifth, during which everyone's routine is not only fleshed out from three to five minutes, but is videotaped, after which it gets more feedback from Bass-Jackson and from fellow students (with whom, by all accounts, unique camaraderie quickly is developed).
On a recent Thursday, using a nifty little PA system so they could also become comfortable working with a microphone, the soon-to-be stand-ups stood up and did their acts. This sixth session operates as the last hurrah, a run-through of what should be the final version of the five minutes, this time sans video camera.
Tonight's show should travel pretty far across the stand-up spectrum, from Howell's Carlin-esque, punny narrative about closely scrutinizing TV Guide ("notice how all those families are Married With Children?"), to Del-Llano's ethnic-oriented and often quite pointed observations, to the more off-kilter stuff by Jimmy Faris.
Faris, the only student in this class to opt against a strictly verbal approach, held up an inflatable doll and described their relationship, coming through with some real diamonds in the rough ("We agree on everything except inflation--I'm against it and she's for it").
Just as there's quite a range of jokes, there's a range of responses to the idea of getting up there tonight --from Howell's "I'm looking forward to it" all the way to Faris' "scared, really scared." Most were closer to the Faris camp.
Still, both Howell and Faris say they've already started thinking about taking Bass-Jackson's advanced class. Their final decision may hinge on how well they do tonight. But just getting to this point, there's no question that Howell, Faris and their classmates already have locked-up the proverbial "A" for effort.
Maggi Bass-Jackson's class will perform tonight at the Laff Stop, 2122 S.E. Bristol St., Newport Beach. Showtime: 6 p.m. Tickets: $3. Information: (714) 852-8762.
Duncan Strauss, who covered comedy for The Times Orange County Edition for five years, now works for the Improvisation comedy clubs in various capacities and manages comedian Rocky LaPorte.