“Comedy is like music. You have to know the key and you have to find players with good chops.”
Students of the fall semester InArt 220 class got an idea of just how hard it is to be a comedian and a good one at that. The class, Stand-Up Comedy: A Cultural History, is taught by Jerry Zolten, associate professor of communication arts and sciences. The class includes a look back at the history of what we as a society and culture found funny in the realm of "stand-up comedy."
Sure, students usually view it as a simple general education credit, but Zolten wants them to take away more than just that. He uses a variety of video clips of historic or innovative comedy performances or documentaries along with class discussion to teach about the arc of cultural change over more than a century and a half. Zolten begins with minstrel shows and later ethnic comedy that helped delineate and perpetuate stereotypes about race, nationality, and gender that still exist to this day. He then moves on to a middle period when technology and wartime brought about more benign unifying styles of comedy and made radio and movie stars of comedians, then finally to the post-Lenny Bruce era, anything goes comedy with a social and introspective consciousness that spoke out against stereotypes, hypocrisy, and social injustice. Zolten, who has performed stand-up over the years, is also able to provide his own personal experience about the art form. Sophomore Collin Smay was surprised to learn about how much the comedy of today draws on the comedy of past. “A lot of what we see today isn’t new. It’s repetitive, but everyone takes from it and makes it their own style. It’s really interesting.”
Zolten has been teaching the class for five semesters and decided to include a new element this time around – he brought in old friend and professional comedian, Scott Bruce. Bruce is both a performer and proprietor at Wisecrackers Comedy Club at the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino in the Poconos. He’s been performing stand-up for thirty-three years across the globe. He’s also taught comedy classes for many years to those hoping to become comedians. He was a guest to the classroom for two consecutive weeks. “Being in a classroom is a different dynamic than what I’m used to, but it was fun and exciting. I was surprised. I didn’t expect these students to have as good a feel for what I do as they did.” Matthew Sherman, a sophomore from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, was interested in the class because it sounded like fun but was excited to be able to work with someone like Bruce. “It’s a neat addition to a class because you don’t usually get the chance to have a pro come in and look at your work, so it was really cool.” Bruce was impressed by some of what he saw from students, whether they wrote their own material or used others’ work.
The class culminated with two comedy showcases in the Titelman Study of the Misciagna Family Center for Performing Arts. The final assignment provided a real-life experience of what goes into standing in front of a group of people trying to make them laugh. It also offered a meaningful experience to help students better appreciate the art and complexity of stand-up. “It’s a surprisingly hard art form to master,” Bruce states. “It’s the only one in existence that requires a specific response from the audience, one you can literally only learn how to do on stage, in front of people.”
Bruce was hoping students could use the final project as a way to feel more comfortable with public speaking and bringing a bit of humor into any situation. “It’s a lot harder than it looks,” concedes Marra Aurand, a junior from Mount Union, Pennsylvania. “Personally I love public speaking, but trying to make people laugh was a struggle. I always thought, ‘what if they don’t think I’m funny, and then this is going to get awkward.’”
Zolten says comedy, in one form or another, is integral to our lives with most of it being about fun and entertainment. But he and Bruce agree that in today’s world, comedy can also be a way to bring about social change. “Comedy crosses all fields from careers to relationships and everything in between,” says Bruce. It’s a great method to make fun of people in power and make fun of serious subjects and tragedy, and that’s what helps us shape humanity.” Adds Zolten, “We look to comedians for stress relief, as arbiters of what is absurd, what is laughable, what we're not seeing that we should be about ourselves and our culture. And in the end, the history of comedy is like holding up a mirror to who we are, where we've been, and how far we've come.”