Class clown gets best grades

Sunday, May 19, 2002

WAYNE, N.J. -- The newest course at William Paterson University is a joke.

But the 15 students enrolled in it are deadly serious about wanting to become stand-up comedians. They're graded on how well they rant about their sex lives and how weird their parents can be.

And their final exam consisted of delivering a five-minute routine to an audience at Caroline's comedy club in New York.

"Because comedy is such a big part of our entertainment and our culture, and because it is a huge industry, I felt students should be trained for it," said Stephen Rosenfeld, the director of the American Comedy Institute in New York, who teaches the course. "Just as people can now go to college and study art or music or writing, they should be able to study comedy."

Translation: Take my class. Please.

The three-credit course unfolds each Friday inside an insulated media room, with overhead stage lights, video cameras and screens, and the one thing a stand-up comic can't live without: a microphone.

Stand-up spontaneity

Although the word "penis" is spoken more often here than in an anatomy course, students in Rosenfeld's class have to apply the same academic structure and discipline they would need for studying physics or mathematics to fat jokes.

While stand-up comedy might look spontaneous, it is anything but. Students have to write their own routines, underline each punch line and measure how long it takes to get to each one. Facial expressions, hand gestures and body movements are matched to precise words or phrases for greater impact.

Timing is crucial: You don't want to "step on" a laugh by starting the next joke too soon, while the audience is still yukking it up. You also don't want to wait too long until the room goes silent. And for God's sake, look like you're having fun, even if you're terrified.

Students are told to write about what they know, so many of their routines revolved around sex, beer, dating and their parents' eccentricities.

Kevin Hogan, a graduate student, delved into the Hoboken bar scene, and his futile attempts to pick up women.

"She says, 'You're just like a brother to me,' " Hogan said. "Here's what a guy actually hears when a woman says that ... (dramatic pause) ... 'WE'RE ... NEVER ... HAVING ... SEX!"'

Other students were not as facile at the mike. One senior, Grace Gonzalez, read a routine about her boyfriend's bad breath from a piece of paper, stopping several times and lacing her delivery with "umms."

Mike Scalero, another senior, started out strongly, setting up a routine about his mother's obsession with the Weather Channel. But his punch line involved her screaming profanities at the screen when the weatherman forecast rain.

Moments like these get "the treatment," a round-table critique with Rosenfeld and the students after each has finished performing. The goal is to improve the writing and delivery, changing punch lines that don't work or suggesting new directions to take the material.

"You've created a wonderful character: a mother who is way too involved with the Weather Channel," Rosenfeld told Scalero. "But the punch line came out of left field; it was too unexpected. Let's see what we can do to develop the character a little more."

Rosenfeld praised Hogan's delivery and timing, but noted he tends to wrap the microphone cord around his hand like a python. That distracts the audience from concentrating on what he's saying instead of what he's doing.

Add to the punch line

The class tried to jazz up Gonzalez's punch lines. When her boyfriend asks if his kisses are turning her on, she replies, "No, 'cause your breath is turning me off." Almost no one laughs because everyone expects her to say that, Rosenfeld said. Something more cutting or unpredictable might work better, he added, asking the class to think of a new ending for the bit by next week.

But almost everyone in the class has made remarkable strides in just a few weeks, Rosenfeld said.

"There are definitely some people here who will work as comics," he said. "There's always a tremendous interest in the industry in finding new comic talent. If you're good at this, you'll make a living. If you're really good, you can make much more than just a living."

The course also offers survival tips for dealing with hecklers. Rosenfeld's advice: Ignore them the first time, and maybe the second, just to get the audience on your side.

"You might say something like, 'Excuse me, sir. I do my act the way you do your sex life ... Alone!'

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