U of Hardy Har

Can you teach someone to be funny? Well, maybe not, but these stand-up students get some basic instruction, and a few laughs

Student Jeannie Hart delivers her best stuff on stage at Laughs Unlimited.

Student Jeannie Hart delivers her best stuff on stage at Laughs Unlimited.

Photo by Jill Wagner

In 2002, comedy classes will be held on Wednesday nights between 6 and 8 p.m. Call Del Van Dyke at 916-442-4022 or Laughs Unlimited for more information.

Half a dozen people gathered around an ornate lamppost in the dark. Hands deep in the pockets of ubiquitous black leather jackets, they talked quietly, kept outside by the “closed” sign on the school.

On Tuesday nights between 6 and 8 p.m., instead of attracting the early comedy crowd, Laughs Unlimited becomes a classroom for aspiring comics willing to pay $200 for a six-week course run by local professionals Del Van Dyke and Karen Anderson.

The students had only these two hours to sharpen their skills and give their material one more critical going over. Then they would become, as one comedienne put it, public smartasses in front of an open mike night audience of friends, family, professional comics trying out new material, and the odd curiosity seeker. If laughter really were a drug, these comics were about to perform and get a real fix. It’s the same nervous route as all the greats. And even the greats did open mike nights.

Van Dyke and Anderson arrived at 6:30 and ushered the students into the club, which would remain sealed off from the bar during class. The first performer, a woman named Jeannie Hart, got up on stage and launched into her routine.

“My youngest daughter … recently informed me that the size of your breasts has something to do with how much deodorant you use,” said Hart, nodding slowly. “That’s OK. My oldest believes that your breast size is in direct proportion to how much milk you drink.”

Her classmates waited expectantly.

“Between the two of them, I’m going broke buying Teen Spirit and milk.”

Anderson and Van Dyke took the same approach to Hart’s work as they did to everyone else’s. They riffed on it, coming up with deeper and more complex jokes based on her material.

That Teen Spirit joke, Anderson says, that’s good. That’s funny.

Van Dyke picked up on another part of her routine.

“You used to work with your husband?” he asked her, incredulous.

He envisioned them in separate offices, sending each other vitriolic faxes, their lives playing out like a live-action soap opera for their co-workers.

Even though Van Dyke’s riff was funnier than the material Hart had taken weeks to perfect, Hart started riffing too. The students and Van Dyke fed off each other, competing for the best punch line.

“I think you should get a second job,” Hart imagined telling her husband, “’cause we don’t spend enough time apart!”

The comedy students were an uneven bunch. The younger men suffered from an excess of enthusiasm and a dearth of experience. At least two of the women were moms, and though that gave them loads of funny material, it also doomed them to local gigs—a professional comic that couldn’t travel might as well not be a comic.

Hart was one of the moms, but she was lucky. She was naturally funny, and the stage didn’t seem to intimidate her much. The same couldn’t necessarily be said for the class newcomer, Mike Viola.

Viola tentatively approached the stage for the first time. As he started speaking, he didn’t tie his jokes together so much as just deliver them, one after another, prefaced with lines like “I don’t know if this is funny or not.”

“I hope everyone likes a good black comic,” said the slight white man with the deep, appealing voice, “because if you’re a single, color-blind female … I’m your man.”

Van Dyke and Anderson went after him, but with affection. Slow down, keep the mike in the stand. If the lights are in your eyes, look at the pole in the middle of the room.

“Do you have problems with dry mouth?” Anderson asked him.

“When I’m nervous,” Viola said. “I’m very nervous right now.”

This in itself was funny because he looked totally relaxed, except for his eyes, glassy with panic.

“Suck on a lemon wedge,” Anderson told him. “ … You’re a good writer.”

It was the ultimate compliment. Writing good material was the key. The rest was just show biz.

Quietly, a man slipped into the classroom and sat next to Anderson.

“You all know Jason Resler?” Van Dyke asked the class, introducing him as a guest speaker who had done stand-up at Laughs about four years earlier, and had since made it big.

For me, said Resler, it’s a lifestyle. Did anyone else want to do whatever it took to become a professional comic? He looked around.

Two of the men raised their hands. None of the women did.

Resler then gave the speech that has wilted countless aspiring entertainers over the years. He told them that to be pros, they had to be dependable, dedicated, and professional. The booking agents and the club owners knew who was serious. The students would have to work their asses off.

Viola asked if having your material stolen was common.

“Yeah,” said Resler, “but is it something you have to worry about? … Not at all,” he cooed. Resler bent toward Viola. “You haven’t written anything worth stealing yet, have ya?” he asked.

Resler looked out at the room. “Yeah,” he said, “you’re all thinking, what does this asshole know? He doesn’t know me … I’m funny!”

Outbursts of shocked laughter told Resler he was right.

“How often do you write?” asked a student.

“Right now?” Resler said. “Constantly. I always have a pen on me.” To give an idea of how comedy has reduced him, he said he was looking forward to getting one of those pens you wear around your neck for Christmas.

The class wound down and the students headed back into the bar to mingle with their friends and family until show time.

Viola appeared at the front of the empty room. He walked up the stairs and stood alone on the tiny stage that jutted out among the empty chairs and cocktail tables. It was just him, a stool, and the mike. He looked out at the pole in the middle of the room, and with a glance at his notes, began to silently mouth his material.

This would be his first time on stage in front of an audience, and not just any audience, but an audience that wanted him to make them laugh. He didn’t want to get old without ever trying to do this.

Along with learning how to use a mike, get over stage fright, and deliver punch lines, students were also sucking up brutal lessons on how to construct iron shields around their egos, muscle for gigs, and become dedicated writers on the lookout for the flubs, the ironies and the base humor of human experience. When they’d gotten all that down, they still had to develop the timing, the physical gesture, the stage presence and the panache of a Bill Cosby, or Dana Carvey, or Eddie Murphy.

Naturally, it was easier to suck.

Open mike night was a student’s first opportunity to see if anybody besides his best friend thought he was funny, and audiences could be impatient and unforgiving. But this night, as the audience streamed into the club, Resler did everybody a favor and played the guest M.C., warming up the crowd with his sharp, smart jokes.

“Did you hear that they’ve removed the Indian red crayon from the crayon box?” Resler asked the audience. “I think they should remove the white crayon. … It’s the only one that doesn’t work,” he said, and as the audience laughed, he geared up for the real punch line. “As an unemployed white man,” he said, “I find that shit offensive.”

From there, Resler’s humor headed into the mean and smutty, and it stayed there for much of the show, drawing wild and appreciative laughter from an unusually packed house. That was another good sign. The audience’s laughter would feed off itself, and the comics who interacted with audience members had lots of targets to choose from.

Jason Morrison, one of the comedy class kids, got up.

“I just turned 27,” he said, looking at the audience with a disarming confidence, something the young comic couldn’t muster even two weeks earlier, “but can anybody tell me why I still look 18?” The audience chortled.

“Is it the braces …” he asked them casually, “… the Brady Bunch haircut …” he drawled, smoothing down the back of his hair. “… the curfew?” he concluded.

The audience loved it, and Morrison seemed to rest for just a second as the laughter moved through the room.

Even if Morrison said nothing else, he’d had a few good seconds on stage. Working night shift as a butcher for Albertson’s, he probably wasn’t going to get that kind of gratification at work.

Hart also slid through a strong version of her routine, though she didn’t use any of the material Van Dyke had suggested. She stuck with what she knew.

“My brother-in-law is American Indian,” she said, nodding slowly. “His name is Cowboy. … His mom went into labor while riding a horse,” she explained. “He has a brother named Harley. … Wonder what she was doing that day?”

Soon after Hart, Viola got up for the first time. His humor, like that of many of the other students, shied away from the obscene, but maybe because of that, he went sour almost immediately. The hot crowd went cold.

“She’s very resourceful though,” Viola said of his wife. “The other day she brought home a full set of tires … but if she does it again, I’m calling her parole officer.”

In class, this had been a winner, but on stage it died. Viola was the first comic of the night who had failed to hit the groove.

But at the last minute, he pulled out his best weapon. He ended his set on a truly dirty joke: he said his sister used to tell about a mouse tattoo on her hip and the cat that must have eaten it.

Obscene jokes were sometimes an easy out, but as the audience laughed, Viola got to walk off stage knowing that for a moment a whole room full of strangers thought he was funny, regardless of what Resler said about his material, regardless of all the jokes that hadn’t quite hit.

If he was ever going to hear a full dose of uncontrollable laughter, Viola was going to have to go the same route as all the greats. Even very good comics had bad nights, so he would have to hold tight to those rare moments when everyone around him was laughing.