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Arts & Entertainment

Can comedy be taught?

| Sunday, July 5, 2009

Professor Henry Higgins might have faced a much tougher challenge if he had to teach Eliza Doolittle, the cockney flower girl of "My Fair Lady," to tell jokes.

"Now try it again, my dear," he might intone in his plummy, pedantic voice. "A rabbi, a priest and a giraffe walk into a bar ..."

Can stand-up comedy -- that freewheeling, subversive art form -- be taught• With the right teacher and hours of practice, can a plaid-jacketed Rotarian from Duluth, Minn., wring hilarity from an open-mike-night audience•

You can teach someone to play the trumpet or dance the correct steps to a waltz, but as Duke Ellington once said, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

"You can teach anybody to tell a joke," says comedian David Kaye of Crafton. "But you can't teach everybody how to deliver it. Anybody can stand there and tell the joke. If they don't tell it right, the funny's just not there."

Funny, however, is nothing without technique. It's one thing to crack up your friends with quips and imitations of teachers, bosses or celebrities. But it's quite another to step onstage and entertain an audience for 10 minutes. To achieve that, comedians might spend years developing their onstage persona, calibrating the pitch of their voice and perfecting their timing. And the smart ones learn from the vets.

"Comedy is not like any profession where there's a set school or a set trade," says comic and Hampton High School graduate Steve Byrne, who's performed on "Jimmy Kimmel Live,"and Comedy Central's "Premium Blend." "It is a lot of trial and error, but I've been taught things along the way, definitely."

Matt Wohlfarth of Shaler, a veteran comic who wrote for Yakov Smirnoff for the Broadway show "As Long As We Both Shall Laugh," is confident that he could teach anyone enough to get through a short set. They may not make Jerry Seinfeld fear for his career, he says, but they wouldn't have to dodge tomatoes.

"I think I could take someone from zero to funny in 30 or 60 days," Wohlfarth says.

For starters, he says, he'd get them comfortable talking into a microphone and start them off writing their own material. Homework would include reading the dictionary and the newspapers..

Wohlfarth shares his experience in his e-book, "The ABC's of Stand Up Comedy."

Among the tips for newbies: Listen to taped playbacks of your shows. Wohlfarth did. He discovered he had a distracting habit of saying "Oh, man" repeatedly.

Eugene Mirman is a Russian-born, New York City comic who gained fame by performing as the opening act for rock music shows instead of comedy clubs. He recently performed in Pittsburgh on a bill that included John Wesley Harding and the Cynics.

"I don't know if you can teach someone to be funny, per se, in a social situation," Mirman says. "In terms of onstage, so much of performing is honing the craft. It's doing it over and over and over and testing what works. You can definitely teach a certain amount of that.

"If a person wants to dedicate 15 years of their life to this, they could certainly get better. I don't know how great they could be, but potentially they could be fine."

Still, it takes talent to be able to come up with lines like "Women love danger -- if they could, they'd just date a fire." That kind of off-kilter sensibility has made Mirman a favorite on YouTube.

Stephen Rosenfield has staked his career on the premise that comedy can be taught. He's director of the American Comedy Institute in New York City.

The institute offers a five-day intensive Stand-Up Comedy Workshop each month. In addition to writing and performance coaching sessions, participants try out their material at the Gotham Comedy Club.

The institute's one-year professional comedy program teaches stand-up comedy, comedy writing for television, "Saturday Night Live"-style sketch comedy, comedy talk shows, acting, improvisation and commercial audition technique.

Its Web site includes testimonials from Esther Ku, a finalist in NBC's "Last Comic Standing."

"Standup comedy is a combination of learning how to write, learning how to perform and learning how to create what's your character," Rosenfield says. "These are all skills where technique has been enormously important forever."

Rosenfield's students have also appeared on "The David Letterman Show," "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "The Conan O'Brien Show."

The comedic tradition has thrived on mentorship, Rosenfield says. He cites the Commedia dell'arte, the Italian theatrical form that flourished throughout Europe from the 14th to 18th century. While the actors appeared to improvise onstage, the craft behind this seeming spontaneity was carefully, painstakingly honed.

"In a way, they kind of were like early sitcoms," Rosenfield says. "There were stock characters. There was the doctor, there was the wily servant and so on. You would have to study one of those characters for like eight years before they would even allow you onstage to perform because there's so much craft involved in comedy. "

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