I recently volunteered to teach a class at Writerhouse, a not-for-profit supporting local writers with workspaces and classes, on comedy. What do I know about comedy? I’ve been writing funny stuff for twenty years so I thought I could pull it off. Since most of my comedy-writing abilities are intuitive, I sat down and tried to formalize them, make them concrete so I could talk about them.
What’s funny, I decided, was when an author or comic takes you in one direction, then suddenly shifts into another, swerves, you might say, and the audience ends up in an unexpected place. Like in Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s the 2000 YEAR OLD MAN, when Reiner asks Brooks, who’s playing the 2000 year old man, “How many children do you have?”
Brooks answers, “I have over 42,000 children (SWERVE)…and not one of them comes to visit.”
“What’s the biggest change you’ve seen?”
And Brooks answers deadpan, “In 2000 years, the greatest thing ever devised was (SWERVE)…Saran Wrap.”
Or in Catch-22 when Yossarian explains that the only way to get out of combat is to be certified insane. But since it’s sane to want to get out of combat, you can’t be considered insane, as Yossarian explains, “That’s some catch, that’s Catch-22.”
Now I have the theory of writing comedy, but as the date of the class approaches, I start getting a creepy feeling. Will the class laugh at the funny writing? What if they sit there stonefaced? I start to sweat just thinking about it. An hour and a half of people staring at me, not laughing, just blankly staring. And I’m signed up for two days, three hours total, that could be terrible, just terrible.
One of the best things about writing comedy is that you don’t have to worry whether people will think its funny or not because you’re not there when they read it. They either think its funny or they don’t, the only way you know is when they come up to you and tell you what you wrote they thought was funny. So you’re insulated, in a sense. But in this class, I feared, I won’t be insulated, if they don’t laugh, I’ll be right up there dying.
Adding to my growing fear was the suspicion that, for some reason, written comedy isn’t as funny when it’s read out loud. I was planning to read from my comic novel, Ads For God, from I’m Not From the South But I Got Down Here As Fast As I Could and from some of the pieces I’ve written for Keswick Life.
As the date for the class approaches, I get a call from Writerhouse, “No one’s signed up yet, but you never know, most people wait until the last minute.”
No one’s signed up, maybe I’m off the hook, I think. And I put the class out of my mind. But three days before the date, I get another call: “We’ve got six signed up and I’ve heard that two or three may join in, so we’ll have a good group for your class,” Sibley, the director, says. Oh, sh**, I’m thinking, in three days, I’ll be facing the music.
But then I get an idea. Maybe I’ll start by playing the 2000 Year Old Man. I get out my cassettes of Brooks and Reiner and play the 12-minute comedy sketch. It’s hilarious. Stuff like, “You claim to be 2000,”
“Yes, but not yet. I’ll be 2000 on October 17th,”
And, “How did Bernie discover women?”
And Brooks answers, “Well one morning, he woke up smiling.”
Or, “What was the means of transportation back then?”
Brook’s comeback: “Fear.”
The audience laughter on the track is contagious, you can’t help but laugh. So at least for the first twelve minutes, I’ll be on solid ground.
The day of the class, I bundle up my books, Mac, cassette and head over to Writerhouse. As I sit at the head of the table in the conference room. Six women, a couple guys, all ages, troop in and sit down. Sibley introduces me and I briefly explain what I’m going to be doing, go through my swerve lecture and start the cassette.
Everybody’s laughing, whew!
I read some stuff from David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty Some Day. On a scale of 1-10, the laughs are a 3. Uh, oh. This stuff’s not funny, I mean it is, but not when you read it out loud. I quickly jump to Ads For God. I get a 6 there and a couple 7’s.
I go to Not From the South, the rich story about Chita Hall and her husband, Chet, as told by a neighbor, “That parrot talked awful. Dirty, dirty, dirty. And Chet taught it all kinds of nasty tricks. Once an encyclopedia salesman came to the door and knocked. No one was home but that didn’t stop the parrot from saying, ‘Come on in.’
The salesman let himself in. The first thing he saw was an enormous Doberman sitting on the front hall rug. And then the parrot screeched, ‘Sic him, boy, sic him!’” The salesman barely escaped with his life.”
That cracks them up. I check my watch, only fifteen minutes to go. So I say, “Now you all must have some questions.”
They’re full of questions, even running over the time limit. This is going better than I expected. And the second class is the students reading their funny stuff, so the ball’s in their court.
The next day, we assemble again. I ask who wants to start first. A woman starts reading, her stuff’s hilarious. So are the others. My class is a success, who knew?