Upfront - Creating Comedy




My journey into the world of standup and improv comedy has forged friendship and an understanding of how we all relate to one another

By Michael Jon Khandelwal

The emcee announced my name, and lightning surged through my bones. People turned and clapped as I walked onto the stage. I placed my water and cheat sheet on the lonely stool and grabbed the microphone. The stage lights blinded me, and even though I couldn’t see the crowd, I could feel their eyes.

I began my first joke, a little one-liner about the menu. Shaka’s is a Hawaiian restaurant, and Spam is always funny.

Nobody laughed (later I found out that they used a limited menu minus all the Spam dishes so the audience had no idea what I was talking about). My hands gripped the mic tighter. I didn’t want to bomb my first time on stage doing standup comedy.

I didn’t freeze, and the routine I memorized started flowing from my brain to my mouth to the mic to the crowd. Some get-to-know-me jokes, funny family stories, bits about being in college with strange roommates. Then my public radio segment and finally my best part—partying too much at a 1-year-old’s birthday party. It was a hit. I thanked the crowd and hopped off the stage. I had survived and realized I liked this a lot.

A few months earlier, I had walked into the first meeting of the Standup Comedy Workshop at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk. Some disclosure: I am the co-director of The Muse, and a few years ago, when Ken Phillips started teaching standup for us, I secretly wanted to take it. But years went by before I got up the nerve to try. It’s one thing to write funny—but stand up in front of strangers and tell jokes?

This past spring, I made sure the class was scheduled on a day I was free, and I registered. The first week, we learned—like in most creative pursuits—that it’s not so much about being funny, but about practice, learning and craft. Most comedians work for years before we ever hear of them.

We learned the fundamentals of standup and some golden rules, like an audience doesn’t care about “three guys walking into a bar;” they care about the comedian walking into a bar and what happens next. Basically, you’re constructing a one-act play about yourself, starring yourself. When you tell a joke, what you’re really doing is telling stories about yourself, your observations and your relationships. Humor comes from what’s universal.

The greatest thing about the class was how supportive everyone was. We laughed together, and we helped each other refine our routines. We went from being terrified the first time we performed in the classroom, to rocking the house at our graduation performance on April 17.

Many friends from class continued to write material and perform around town. I still plan to do that. But this summer, a lot of us took another class at The Muse, Improv Comedy.

Taught by Brad McMurran and Sean Devereux from the local improv group The Pushers, this class explores performing long-form improv—creating scenes based on audience suggestions. Plus, we’re learning improv’s golden rules and refining our understanding of them each week.

My favorite rule—and probably the most important—being in agreement. It turns out good improv is not about conflict; it’s about what happens when people just go with it, support each other and see what happens next. It’s a good lesson for life too. The best example can be seen in the phrase, “yes, and ...” which means, accept what you hear and add something. So basically, when you are in a scene and your partner says, “It’s 3:30,” you don’t just say “yes,” you say, “and the Martian ambassador’s late!”

Because of the importance of agreement, a lot of improv comes from trusting your scene-mate, while also being trustworthy. Not a bad lesson for living. Right now, we’re gearing up for our graduation show in September, and in every class we’re discovering how people relate, and how, in that relationship, we can all find the humor that brings joy and lightness to our daily lives.

To learn more about The Muse’s comedy classes and student performances, visit www.the-muse.org.

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