“If music be the food of love” in the Shakespearean age, then humour is the food of love in this social media age. The question is not whether “to be or not to be”—funny, that is. It is whether you can resolve to be funny and succeed. Is comedy a worthwhile New Year resolution? You could argue that it is the best one there is. Being funny makes you memorable and helps you win friends and influence people.
Sadly for someone who is awestruck by humorous people, I wasn’t born funny. Being funny is a way of looking at the world; a way to carve into the truth and expose a different point of view.
There are several kinds of funny. You can wisecrack, do slapstick, be witty, use puns or be a raconteur who invents funny stories. The end goal is the same: you make people laugh. They are drawn to you like bees to honey. You become like Superman (or Superwoman) with the magical ability to make people hang on your every word.
Like 98% of the population, I am in need of the funny bone—or gene. Unlike 98% of the population, I believe that I can collect this quality. I believe it enough to make “becoming funny” my New Year’s resolution, and worse, actually, spelling it out in public. I plan to take classes over the course of this year to see if my speaking, writing and delivery will improve.
I don’t aspire to stand-up. Well, I sort of do, but that is so far out there that I am afraid to even articulate that as a goal. I merely want to make people laugh at what I say and write.
Second City in Chicago can call itself—with some level of confidence—the best comedy school in the world. There are other comedy legends—like Viola Spolin and Keith Johnstone—who devised games and techniques that eventually end up as part of the repertoire of improvisational comedy. One of Second City’s co-founders was Paul Sills, the son of Spolin.
Since 1959, this Chicago club has served as the home of comedy in the US, turning out literally an honour roll of alumni including comedy greats such as Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Rachel Dratch, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, Joan Rivers, Amy Sedaris, Martin Short, George Wendt, Alan Arkin, Dan Aykroyd, James Belushi, John Belushi, John Candy, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Catherine O’Hara and Fred Willard, among many others.
In its current avatar, Second City offers a whole slew of classes including its improv, acting and writing programmes that mirror a deep-diving music conservatory’s approach in terms of developing comedic muscle and techniques for pretty much every situation.
While some lucky folks can take these classes and workshops in person at one of Second City’s three locations—Chicago, Toronto and Hollywood—those who live across the ocean sign up for their growing offering of online classes. That is what I plan on doing.
Through this year, I will sign up for online comedy classes. I have already started with Online Sketch Writing I, which teaches students how to create a comedic sketch. More interesting for a journalist is a course based on that hugely funny website, The Onion. Titled “Basic Writing with The Onion Online”, this course takes students through eight weeks of humour writing techniques.
The classes follow a fairly set protocol. There is the content, uploaded online every week, either in the form of a video lecture accompanied by written notes; or comedic sketches culled from the Internet—and explained by the instructor. Each week has an assignment, along the lines of “Write 10 jokes. Choose the best one and write a funny sketch based on the joke.”
Students post their homework on a virtual “blackboard” site. The instructor gives public written feedback. You learn from the feedback and the homework. That is the hope. The caveat, as with many things, is that what you get out of the class depends on what you put in.
Being funny isn’t easy at all. Sure, everyone knows the standard “formula” for humour. Jokes have to hit at the truth and have a funny twist. Then what? The good news is that perseverance and application do make you funny. Or so my instructors tell me.
Available online at www.secondcity.com.
Classes typically cost $299.
Some of the more interesting online ones are True Story for the Stage Online, which helps you develop your storyteller’s voice; Online Writing for Voice and Podcasts, which is self-explanatory; Perfecting Your Sketch the Rewrite Way, which is a class every writer should take. And many others.
If you are desperate to be funny, you need a lifeline. You need to believe that humour can be taught. A growing number of humourists, comics and producers believe that this is the case. Sure, some people are naturally born funny. For different reasons. Look at how some comics explain how they turned funny.
For many, it was a defence mechanism: against being a minority, or being gay or fat, or ugly, or all of the above.
Sarah Silverman: “I think maybe I became funny because as a kid, I was a Jew in a town of no Jews, and being funny just instinctively came about as a way to put people at ease around me.”
Pippa Evans: “Until I was about 14, I was a fat boy, or at least I looked like a fat boy. I think that being funny was a bit of a defence mechanism for me, so I ended up being a bit of a joker.”
For some comics, it was a way of stopping people and making them think. It was a way to reveal the darkness of their thoughts in an acceptable manner.
Joan Rivers: “Part of my act is meant to shake you up. It looks like I’m being funny, but I’m reminding you of other things. Life is tough, darling. Life is hard. And we better laugh at everything; otherwise, we are going down the tube.”
For some, it was just a way of being and thinking that happened almost reflexively.
Calvin Trillin: “I actually think of being funny as an odd turn of mind, like a mild disability, some weird way of looking at the world that you can’t get rid of.”
For me, humour is a way to rejuvenate my neurons. I hope I end up funny at the end of 2017. For now, I plan to stick with online classes. I will survive. I will persevere. I will hopefully conquer.
Happy New Year!