Those who attend Marc Warzecha's workshop at UC Irvine this week had better come prepared for serious work.
They're about to learn how to be funny.
Warzecha, a veteran TV actor and writer-director with the Second City, is among the professional comedians who will lead seminars in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts' first-ever Coup de Comedy Festival. Over four days on campus, live comedy performances will alternate with workshops on "The Art of Clowning," "The Tao of Stand-up" and other topics that sound, well, kind of humorous in that academic phrasing.
Warzecha, whose sketch-writing seminar will take place Saturday morning at the Little Theatre, is convinced that there's a method to madness. Yes, comedy troupes like Monty Python have played with traditional formulas over the years — blending sketches together and eschewing regular punchlines. But even those groups, Warzecha said, had to master the molds before they could break them.
So what are those rules? Well, for Warzecha, a course in Comedy Writing 101 would cover the basics of setting a scene and then building on it. In other words, step one is to establish a premise; step two is to introduce a joke; step three is to keep raising that joke to new heights.
"I often liken sketch writing to sports, actually," Warzecha said. "If you're going to play a game of football, you need to understand the rules of the game. You can't just start throwing a football and running in any direction. And that's what sketch writing can feel like when you don't know the structure."
Among the people who learned that structure is Joel Veenstra, the Claire Trevor School's associate head of stage management, who took a class from Warzecha when the latter worked at the Second City in Hollywood. Last year, Veenstra joined the UCI faculty and became advisor of the student comedy troupe Improv Revolution, which organized the Coup de Comedy Festival.
Veenstra, a seasoned improv actor in Los Angeles and elsewhere, will perform once during the festival, taking part in a Saturday evening reunion with first-year members of Improv Revolution. Otherwise, he'll stay behind the scenes as students perform, introduce events and emcee panel discussions. On opening night, Improv Revolution will join another campus comedy troupe, Live Nude People (With Clothes On), for a first joint performance.
Still, the actual teaching at Coup de Comedy will be left to professionals, who also include UCI drama professor Eli Simon, Comedy Store regular Cary Odes and Bobbie Oliver, founder of the Tao Comedy Studio in Los Angeles.
With all that talent clustered on campus, students are bound to learn fundamentals. But can the festival achieve its deepest goal — actually teaching people to make an audience laugh?
"I think you can teach somebody skills and concepts of how to be more humorous," Veenstra said. "I think some people have more inclination toward it, an ability that's just innate, but I don't think that ability should limit anyone. In basketball, we have the NBA, and if people said you can only play basketball on the NBA level, I don't think a lot of people would enjoy it.
"I can still go to the park and play, and I think it's the same way with comedy."
Regardless of whether the festival turns out future Steve Carells, the members of Improv Revolution have long made it a mission to bring comedy to the community. The troupe holds free weekly improv workshops on campus that, Veenstra said, regularly draw around two dozen students.
Other times, the group ventures off campus for charity functions or school visits, according to co-captain Andra Whipple, a third-year drama major.
"Getting letters from third-graders saying, 'Thank you, you're funny' is probably the most heartwarming moment of my life," she said.
If You Go
What: Coup de Comedy Festival
Where: UC Irvine with individual events in the Little Theatre, Nixon Theatre, Studio 4 and Studio 5
When: Thursday through May 12; see website for schedule
Cost: Free; reservations recommended