What's So Funny?
Can people really learn to make ’em laugh? Yes. Yes, they can.
Standup comedy takes guts. Actors work from scripts, usually written by someone else. Musicians can mask songwriting failings with catchy melodies or superior chops. But a comedian is entirely left to his or her own devices. Save for the occasional rubber chicken, standup comics sink or swim based only on their wits. It can be both an exhilarating and frightening proposition.
The best comics synthesize their observations into universally relatable stories and punch lines, often employing absurd and revealing devices to extract a nugget of truth. It’s that brutal honesty that makes comedy so appealing — and in some cases, appalling. We love comedians because they say things most of us think but would never speak aloud, out of fear of embarrassment or societal rebuke. The standup comedian is inherently vulnerable, always a guffaw away from stardom — or a groan away from ignominy.
Standup is a subject they don’t teach in school, and precious few textbooks exist. So how does one “learn” to be funny? In comedy, as with any discipline, practice makes perfect. But it doesn’t hurt to have a guiding hand along the way.
At Burlington’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, that guiding hand belongs to Josie Leavitt. In her eight-week-long class entitled “Laugh Attack: Standup Comedy,” 43-year-old Leavitt, a veteran of the ultra-competitive New York City standup scene, passes on her experience to a seemingly random collection of men and women of various ages.
On a recent Monday evening, a reporter sits in the corner of a multi-purpose room on the Flynn’s third floor. In its center, 13 chairs cluster in a semi-circle, facing a lone microphone stand. As people begin to trickle into the room and take their seats, Leavitt approaches the mike stand holding a notepad in one hand and a hat in the other. “Everyone, come up here and take a number,” she says, brandishing the hat, which is filled with slips of paper numbered one through 13.
One by one, the students oblige and return to their seats amid friendly chatter and good-hearted laughter. Once everyone is seated, Leavitt asks each person to read his or her number aloud. “Josie, what are we doing?” asks a woman seated on the far end of the row.
“Figuring out the order for the show, of course,” replies Leavitt, with a look of feigned exasperation.
The room fills with a giddy nervousness that’s palpable. “The show” is the comedy course’s eighth and final session of the semester — tonight’s is the sixth. Students are ironing out the final kinks in routines they will perform in front of an actual audience at the FlynnSpace in two weeks.
Following the hat-decreed order, each apprentice comic performs their act for their classmates. Leavitt cues them when they have one minute remaining and cuts them off at five, the standard time limit for novices. Most of the pupils elicit legitimate laughs from their fellows, even though they’ve all heard versions of the same material for the past six weeks. Chances are, the next Chris Rock is not in the room tonight. But the performances are, by and large, polished and efficient. And some of them are really funny.
The routines largely fall into the “observational” category of standup and often deal with the peculiarities of life in the Green Mountains. Jokes range from general — and frankly, somewhat obvious — ruminations on the unpredictability and borderline cruelty of winter in Vermont, to more specific and intimate tales of small town living. Like, for example, a bit delivered by a veteran area schoolteacher lamenting how frequently she encounters her former students in “real life” situations. The joke culminates in a wince-inducing — and genuinely hysterical — visit to her gynecologist’s office.
Straight-faced, Leavitt follows each set with critique and insight into how the comics can strengthen their performances. Her recommendations cover everything from simple technical adjustments, such as altering microphone placement or slowing the delivery, to more subtle nuances of performance, such as pausing for emphasis and giving the audience time to appreciate a joke before moving on. But most importantly, Leavitt acts as an editor, helping her students pare each joke down to its bare essentials. In comedy, less is almost always more.
“I just help them tell a good joke,” she says. “Everybody has a funny story in them. Sometimes what makes them not funny is that they’re giving way too much detail. One of the things I tell my students is to pay attention to the feedback I’m giving everybody else. I don’t need to know that you couldn’t get a parking spot at the airport parking garage. I need to know what happened on the plane.
“You just really teach people the economy of a joke,” Leavitt continues. “The setup and punch line. Through performing over and over again, they really get the sense that ‘Wow, this is a much better joke if I cut out a lot of the crap.’”
But before they can trim the fat, Leavitt’s students need a solid understanding of what makes something funny. To help them discover fertile ground for mining tension, she assigns them a series of guided exercises. “What have you struggled with this week?” she asks. “What do you struggle with on an ongoing basis? What are the holidays like at your house? What do you need to complain about today? What’s your husband been like? What’s your wife like? Are your kids driving you crazy?
“What’s funny isn’t you having a great day,” Leavitt explains. “What’s funny is you having a bad day. Struggle is where the humor is.” She goes on: “Struggle creates the tension, and the tension gets released by a laugh. So, without the tension, you’re just telling a story. But any story can be filled with tension if you set it up the right way.”
Leavitt knows what she’s talking about. She began doing standup in 1993 after taking a comedy class in her native New York City, then performed regularly at venues such as Caroline’s, The Comedy Cellar and The Comic Strip. In 1996, she moved to Vermont and opened The Flying Pig Bookstore in Charlotte, since relocated to Shelburne Village. But Leavitt didn’t return to performing standup until 2005, when a friend approached her about teaching a comedy class at a Women’s Economic Conference. “I loved it,” she says, recalling the conference. “It was really, really fun.”
Shortly thereafter, a bookstore customer who worked for the Flynn Center’s education department urged her to pitch the idea of a standup program. Later that spring, class was in session.
Martha Tormey is an alum of that first class — which was exclusively for women — and several classes since. She has gone on to perform in New York City and Chicago and is featured monthly on Vermont Public Radio, offering quirky insights on topics ranging from confidentiality to the peculiar driving habits of her fellow Vermonters.
“I had always wanted to do standup, but I didn’t really know where to start,” Tormey says. She heard about the class through a friend and signed up, lured by the fact that the “final exam” — the FlynnSpace performance — is voluntary. She ended up on stage and has been doing standup ever since.
Tormey credits Leavitt with getting her started. “She’s a really good teacher,” she says. “I get fixated on the minutiae of what I’m saying, and Josie sort of helps you frame it. That is really helpful.”
Tormey was also impressed by Leavitt’s approach to students who — for lack of a better phrase — just weren’t very funny. “When I first took the class, especially, I was like, ‘Oh, God. What’s she going to say to that person?’” she recalls. “If it really didn’t seem funny, or just really seemed wrong, or just seemed like it had been done. And she almost always came up with something that was helpful.”
Sally Stevens, another pupil in that first session, agrees with Tormey wholeheartedly. “She’s an excellent teacher,” says the 47-year-old schoolteacher, who now performs regularly with Leavitt and Tormey as part of the Vermont Comedy Divas series at Higher Ground. “You never feel like you’ve flopped,” she continues. “She [Leavitt] can find a nugget inside of a pile of garbage.”
“My presumption is that I treat everyone like they want to be a working comic, and we work towards getting a really good five-minute set,” says Leavitt. “Pretty much, I just give them good edits and tell them to keep a notebook.” Leavitt also instructs students: “‘From this moment on, you’re a comic. So you need to think like a comic.’ And that’s true,” she says. “When you’re a comic, your worldview changes, and it’s really neat to see, because you can see them thinking how every situation has the potential for a joke.”
Stevens originally used the class as a means of testing her mettle. “It was really just about getting up the nerve to stand up there and try your stuff,” she says. Like Tormey, Stevens returned to the class several times to hone her act. “The second and third time it was more about the discipline to keep writing,” she says. “Plus, it was just a really great place to be on Monday nights.”
Tormey and Stevens have taken comedy further than most of Leavitt’s students — though a considerable number continue performing, post-graduation. But students who signed up for the class not looking for a second career in comedy cite similar reasons to theirs — enhancing verbal adroitness, overcoming fears.
“Some people take this class because they challenge themselves to do one really terrifying thing per year, and this is it,” summarizes Leavitt. “Some people come because they’ve always been told they’re funny. Some people come because they’ve always wanted to do standup. Other people come because they’re hoping it’s going to make them better at business, in terms of presentation and ease of public speaking. It definitely has a bleed-over effect; if you can do standup, you can give a presentation.”
In its first semesters, the program was limited to women, who still make up the majority of most co-ed classes. The current crop includes nine women, mostly middle-aged, and only four men — though a class last year flipped that ratio with 10 men, all under the age of 35, and three women.
Nationally, the standup comedy scene has been male-dominated, so Leavitt’s class could be seen as an anomaly. “We do tend to have more women, because the first two classes I taught were women only,” she says. “I think, for middle-aged women — they’re the ones who are trying to do things outside of their comfort zone. They might have a little more time on their hands; their kids are a little bit older. And they want to do something that’s just for them. And you can’t get more ‘just for you’ than doing standup.”
Regardless of demographics, the appeal of the class probably has a lot to do with Leavitt’s faith in her students, and her interest in their progress. “If someone has a lot of potential, I’ll put them in a ‘Standup, Sit Down and Laugh’ show,” she says, referring to a bimonthly showcase featuring more experienced local comics that she coordinates at the FlynnSpace. “You can tell who’s really into it by who wants to do it again, because the second time is usually the hardest. The first time invariably goes phenomenally well. But the second time you do standup, you realize how hard it is and how very many things can go wrong. If you can rise above that and still feel pumped when you’re done, then I know you’ve got a performer in you.”