Can Funny be Learned?
A few years ago, I invited eight friends to perform a night of stand-up comedy at my house. None of them was a professional comedian, nor had any of them tried such a thing before. But it was my birthday, and what better present than the gift of laughter—or at least the mild humiliation of my closest pals? The more ambitious of the would-be performers were anxious to test their comic mettle before a live audience, while others accepted the assignment with reservations. “I’m more sit-down funny than stand-up funny,” one of them claimed—which, I told him, is a funny thing to say.
Stand-up comedy, of course, is a profession like any other, and anyone who makes a regular go of it can speak to the highly refined levels of craft, practice, dedication and resilience vital to honing a live act. So, while my eight friends are socially amusing, their sets were more fun than funny, and most of the night’s entertainment came from the absurdity of the whole enterprise, with a microphone stand spotlit at one end of my living room and my dog meandering through the crowd.
There’s a huge difference, of course, between shared laughter among friends and the exacting routines of professional comedy: one of them relies on comfort and familiarity, and the other, at its best, cleverly upends those things. In the 2011 HBO special Talking Funny, after Ricky Gervais suggests anyone can be funny, Jerry Seinfeld counters, “They can’t do it as well.”
“We’re pros,” adds Louis C.K.
Chris Rock takes it a step further: “We’re drugs, in a sense.”
But can hallucinogen-level hilariousness be learned, or is it limited to those born that way? Etan Muskat, an alumnus of Toronto’s Second City Mainstage, the famed venue that helped launch the careers of Dan Aykroyd, Catherine O’Hara and Mike Myers, leads improv workshops at Bad Dog Theatre Company to help performers harness their inner entertainer. But Muskat’s process involves more than simply teasing out zingers and slapstick.
“Funny is just a piece of the puzzle,” he explains. “I encourage people to be present and connected, to live in character (even if that character is themselves) and to be spontaneous. Sometimes that results in hilarity, but sometimes other emotions come out.”
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