Comedy Boot Camp’s a Laughing Matter : Workshops: Lawyers, housewives and accountants express themselves in a class that teaches stand-up humor.
The subject of the day was supposed to be laughter. But it was mainly with fear that the dozen men and women gathered around the L.A. Cabaret stage in Encino looked up to comedy veteran Judy Carter.
Standing casually in a loose T-shirt and running shorts, the red-haired comedian didn’t normally cut an imposing figure. Much of the room’s Angst centered on the green tennis ball she would soon toss recklessly into her small audience, arbitrarily choosing the next would-be comic to climb on stage.
It was almost too much for lawyer Steve Anderson, who spends most of his days somberly handling personal injury cases in Westlake Village. The prospect of standing before his new classmates in Carter’s one-day “comedy boot camp” was bringing him flashbacks of his first case in front of a Superior Court judge and a junior college speech class he nervously escaped from years ago.
In minutes, Anderson was up there himself, humbly answering Carter’s questions about his life and profession. And before he was through with this first of several stage appearances that day, Carter assigned the tall, blond-bearded lawyer to compose a rap song about his job as part of the two-minute comedy act Anderson was expected to have ready for his graduation that afternoon.
Sitting at a table at stage left, Carter interrupted Anderson’s self-introduction, offering bits of ideas for the lawyer’s upcoming monologue. “Boy, when I saw my first whiplash . . .” she started, pointing excitedly at the lawyer on stage before adding, “Write that down.”
Like a majority of students enrolled in stand-up comedy courses at L.A. Cabaret, Anderson clearly wasn’t looking to become a professional comedian. Carter’s classes in Encino and throughout Los Angeles are dominated by lawyers, housewives, accountants, store managers, electricians, hairdressers and others, she said. Only about 20% of the more than 200 students she teaches annually hope to use the course in comedy or acting careers. And it is much the same for students in stand-up comedy classes offered by the Learning Tree University in Chatsworth and at courses offered irregularly through CSUN Extension.
“A lot of my students don’t go on to become stand-up comics, but they use humor,” Carter said, talking over a bowl of oatmeal and strawberries at the lunch break. “It’s like that lawyer who wants to learn how to be a funnier person and lighten up about himself. People in negotiations get tense, and a joke at the right time and the right place can shake the balance of power.
“Life gets very heavy. To have the ability to laugh at yourself makes people more likable. It’s about, ‘Don’t get mad, get funny.’ ”
Carter began teaching comedy about three years ago after 15 years of career-building in small clubs around the country, dates at resort towns like Atlantic City, N.J., and a continuing line of television appearances. A one-time high school teacher, she has ignored the assumption that comedy can’t be taught, turning her stand-up comedy instruction into an active business offering a variety of one-day seminars and seven-week courses.
Her 1989 book, “Stand-Up Comedy: The Book” (Dell, $7.95 paper), mirrors her courses by emphasizing use of material based on life experiences. Universal topics like heartbreak, divorce, a first date, hair loss and job anxiety present students with an instant starting point for creating comedy bits that can also be put to use in everyday life and work.
“If I can pick up on those things that make me more humorous to people, put them more at ease, then I’ll be a better attorney,” Anderson said after class. “The concept of taking everyday life experiences and putting them in a different light so that the other person knows you’ve had those experiences too, they start laughing and realize they are not alone with these problems.”
Added Carter, “Whether you’re trying to convince a jury, convince a person to buy a house, trying to sell a vacuum cleaner, whatever you’re doing, we all have audiences in our lives.”
In a class offered through the Learning Tree, comedian Dan Brenner leads a Wednesday night class through instruction in stage manner, concise comedy writing and other crucial comedy tools.
The six-week course is taught in the L.A. Cabaret lounge, under a wall covered with photographs of such successful comics as Jay Leno and Johnny Carson, before moving into the club’s big room on graduation day to perform for an audience.
A UCLA law professor, who said he would leave his position at the university for some regular television work, Brenner said a varied group of people enroll in his class every term, with many of them harboring small fantasies of a life on stage.
“Everybody hopes for the golden ring in this town,” said Brenner, a working comic for the last 10 years. “I’d like to meet the waiter who doesn’t want to be discovered. What’s exciting is to see somebody with a little bit of talent move it along in a span of six weeks.”
Ed Keeley of Sunland is enrolled in Brenner’s class in part to relive his brief comedy career at Army bases in Berlin, Okinawa and Massachusetts. As a U.S. Army sergeant working overseas in the mid-'70s, Keeley hosted parties for his buddies and usually stepped out from behind the bar to perform a few minutes of well-received stand-up comedy.
“But at an Army party all you have to do is stand up and talk about anything,” said Keeley, now 36 and an electronics technician at the veterans hospital in West Los Angeles. “These guys are usually so drunk by the time it gets started that anything is funny.”
He said he enrolled in the Learning Tree class mainly for the opportunity to perform for an audience of strangers at the “final exam.” While the likelihood of Keeley being discovered by a talent agent or television producer on stage that night is admittedly slim, he expected to be happy enough learning to interact better with large groups of people.
“I can always work parties,” he said.
Classmate Stuart Behar of Toluca Lake has spent most of the last two decades building a career at Thrifty Drug Stores. But beneath the endless wisecracks and twisted facial expressions, performed spontaneously at the store he manages in Santa Monica, was a lifelong dream of a professional career in stand-up comedy.
“I think of comedy as my life,” he said. “It’s really important to laugh, it’s important to make people laugh, it’s important to laugh at yourself. That’s really what keeps you going.”
Now enrolled in his first comedy course, Behar’s occasional earlier attempts at the profession haven’t been particularly encouraging. In a performance at L.A. Cabaret’s “Funniest Comic in the Valley” contest last year, Behar bombed horribly, he said, along with many other comedy hopefuls competing that night.
So it is with a mix of excitement and anxiety that Behar moves closer to the graduation performance less than two weeks away. “I really am excited,” said Behar, 43. “But it’s a little bit scary, the thought of going up there and bombing again.”
The comedy stage fright that greeted Anderson at the beginning of the day wasn’t completely gone by the time of his two-minute performance for the class. Before leaving to spend his Sunday in the dark club, his wife had offered only skepticism at the advertisement for the class he found in a local law journal. And Anderson had almost skipped class altogether at lunch when faced with having to perform on stage.
But when it was over, Anderson said he felt as though a comfortable dose of self-confidence had been added to his natural droll humor.
“Everybody’s always talking down lawyers,” Anderson said finally from stage. “They always say we’re conceited, we’re arrogant, we’re filthy rich, we’re the lowest scum of the earth. And I can tell you from personal experience, I’m just not that rich.”