Collier’s Weekly: What I Learned Teaching Stand-Up Class

A reminder that in comedy — and most other fields — there's no secret knowledge, only craft and practice.
Outdoor Comedy


For the past six weeks, I’ve been teaching an introductory course to stand-up comedy.

Contrary to any assumptions, stand-up comedy can be taught; I assure you it’s much more than the David Lynch quote, “Let’s try that again, but this time good.” While you can’t teach someone to be funny, you can teach them to structure a stand-up set, discern good jokes from bad, hone delivery and performance and present themselves professionally. They’ve gotta come up with the material, but that material can always get better.

This is my first time teaching a course after more than 12 years as a comedian myself, and a few things have struck me in the process. First: Teaching is hard work. Every professional teacher in the world knows this quite well, of course, but I’m someone who has done no more than occasionally stammer about my career for an hour to a group of sleepy college sophomores. I’m surprised at how exhausted I am at the end of a class — one that lasts just a fraction of an actual school day, by the way — and, moreover, how much work goes into preparation beforehand.

Moreover, though, the course taught me something important: In this, and a lot of things, I can give you advice and tell you what works … but you’re gonna have to do it to really get it.

It’s a truism that experience is the best teacher, but I noticed that some students seemed intimidated by the idea of going out and getting on stage — as if they thought other comics at open mics and showcases knew something that they didn’t. It was as if they were waiting to discover some treasure trove of hidden secrets — that on the fourth or fifth week, I would unveil the sacred formula to the perfect stand-up joke or explain a universal truth of comedy in a profound way.

There are no formulas; there are no truths. There’s good advice and some basic structure. Beyond that, we all just kept doing it, over and over again, until we (kinda) figured it out. This repetition is baked into the course syllabus — while there’s some more lecture-style content early on, by the middle, the focus shifts to repeatedly working on and improving material. Even in here, the most important thing is getting up there and doing it.

Imposter syndrome, which seems to afflict Millennials and Generation Z much more profoundly than it did previous generations, is the condition of believing that everyone else is an expert while you’re merely a pretender. Lots of us seem to believe that we’re unworthy of our successes and unqualified for our positions — that everyone else is a pro, and we charmed our way past the bouncer.

I’m not immune; there are innumerable opportunities that I denied myself simply because I thought others were more well versed in a certain sphere. It’s an easy assumption to make.

The truth is, though, that there’s no sacred knowledge; there’s no guardian of expertise that’s bestowing it to everyone but you. Those who’ve reached certain stations in life likely found as many indirect paths and roundabout routes as you did; while everyone has different areas of advanced learning, few among us are true experts in many realms. (The converse of this truism, of course, is that once a true expert presents themselves, their knowledge should be heeded — but that’s a subject for another day.)

So there’s only one route, I’m afraid: Experience. I’ve assured my students that they’re as qualified and prepared as anyone to start; there’s no getting good, however, without a lot of reps. It’s true in just about anything; if you’re going to figure out why your car isn’t working, talk to the mechanic who has seen 10,000 cars. If you’re going to figure out what medicine to take, talk to the doctor who has seen 10,000 patients.

Because there’s no teacher like experience. A teacher can get you started, but at some point, you have to get on stage and grab the mic. And then do that several hundred more times.

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