Friday, December 7, 2018

My Eight Classes at The Second City Comedy School

Dammit, I missed November.

I try to post once per month, and I was working so hard on another post about why my face looks like it has chunks missing from it, but nothing was coming out right and I kept erasing and starting over and erasing and rewriting. Like that post about how my dad died. That one post took a year to write, and it's not even that good.

I'm a slow thinker. And a slow writer.

Which is why neither a writing career nor a comedy career nor a comedy writing career will ever be in my cards. I'm not a quick wit; I'm a slow wit. I'm brilliant in slow motion. Meanwhile, other bloggers pump out 10 posts in 30 minutes and set their blogs to automatically publish those posts at regular intervals. Set it and forget it! Must be nice, eh?

So you'll probably have to wait a year for the deets on my Freddy Krueger face and instead read about my comedy school experience, a.k.a. another strange situation I got my slow-thinking, fast-acting self into. 

Y'all may recall that one of my bucket list items was to attend comedy school. Well, during my three-year blogging hiatus, I finally did it. After making pennies per hour as a rookie trucker in 2013 and being bored to tears in a Wisconsin cubicle farm in 2014, I was ready to reinflate my flattened soul, so I signed up for classes at the famous Second City Training Center in Chicago.

Doesn't that sound exciting? Their website is very exciting. The Second City comedy theater and school is the alma mater of Alan Alda, Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, John Belushi, John Candy, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Eugene Levy, Gilda Radner, Shelley Long, Jim Belushi, Dan Castellaneta, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Steve Carell, Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler.

I had to find out if I was an untapped comedy genius, so I quit my job in Wisconsin and got a day job and apartment in Chicago so I could go to professional comedy school.

Let me rephrase that: I quit my career-track job in Wisconsin where I'd made a lot of great friends and got a new job in a lonely tomb-like office, I broke up with a nice guy who wanted to get married and now I'm still single, and I left my awesome apartment next to a beautiful nature preserve and moved to a centipede-infested "garden apartment" (read: moldy basement) in a crowded concrete jungle across the street from O'Hare International Airport so that I could go to comedy school.

A sensible person in my situation would have stayed in WI, kept their nice life, and used their vacation time to take a few weekend classes at Second City to see if they liked it first. Sensible people dip their toes into a hobby and gradually up the ante, but I just immediately go for the cannon ball/torpedo/mushroom cloud. See above: slow-thinking, fast-acting. 

On the other hand, the typical advice for tormented geniuses like myself usually goes something like, "You have to be willing to sacrifice everything to be successful in the arts! You have to be willing to live in your car and work 20-hour days and do unpaid work for years. That's the measure of a true artist!" Or, "You can be successful OR you can have a balanced, happy life--not both!" Or, "If you have a backup plan, you will fall back. You have to really commit to it and go for it!"

Sensible people don't consider that as legit advice, but fortunately for you, I'm reckless and unreasonable and hopelessly hypnotized by the promise of bad decisions, so you get to live vicariously through the dire consequences of my actions.

Although, the idea of comedy school wasn't totally out of the blue. I've been dabbling in the performing arts for decades and actually have a performing arts resume, separate from my "real" work resume. I mean, I was never Christine in Phantom of the Opera or anything, but I've had bit parts in several school and community plays, trained as a ballroom dance teacher, won $100 in a Coyote Ugly-themed dance contest, played Marilyn Monroe (with elbow gloves and big fake diamonds) during my gigs as a stripper, was an extra in a European B-movie, sung in two choirs, wrote and performed solo comedy blurbs at small-town open mics, competed in the Forensics "Solo Humorous" category, was voted "best actress" in drama class, played in school bands for years, etc.

If there's anything consistent about me at all, it's a history of being dramatic.

When I attended college, I initially declared a double major in English and Theater, but the theater program at that school was pretty abysmal and underfunded, so I dropped that. As the years passed, I often wondered what would've happened if I'd been in a renowned, well-funded theater program taught by accomplished professionals. Would my longtime hobby have become a career? What if I'd really given it a chance?

I can dance and sing even in a lab coat.

So there I was in the midst of Chicago standstill traffic and shitty weather, racing through blizzards to get to school. Between October 2014 and May 2015 I took the following classes:

Intro to Writing for TV & Film
Improv Level A
Improv Level B
Acting 1
Voice & Speech
Beginning Voiceover
Standup 101

The Intro to Writing class was my main interest, at first. While we didn't learn how to write jokes or create funny material in that class, we did learn how to format film scripts and were taught that in order to write scripts that get picked up by Hollywood production companies, a writer must follow a prescribed, tried-and-true comedy script formula. That's why so many modern comedies are basically all the same, with the same recycled characters, the same butt/poop/period jokes, the same overdone stock characters (the dumb sweetheart, the quirky weirdo, the abused sidekick, etc), the same set-ups and situations. We learned that you can buck that formula if you want and that's very noble and independent of you, but then don't expect to make a living off your scripts.

I didn't sign up for any more writing classes after that.

The Acting and Dialects classes were awesome and informative. I got a lot of positive feedback there and was inspired to hijack my friend's wedding with a horribly fake RP English accent:

Voice & Speech and Improv A were no fun, but they were prereqs for other classes I really wanted, so I had to bite the bullet. Improv Level C was essentially the gateway to a goldmine of more exciting classes I was drooling over.

I was really dreading improv. I wasn't interested in it, I knew that fast banter wasn't/isn't my strong suit, and I've never liked watching improv live or on TV. I just wanted to get the three prereq levels over with. Second City is famous for its "world class" improv, all the other students loved improv, every Chicagoan loves getting tickets to see Second City improv, but I'm apparently the only person on the planet who doesn't like improv.

And improv class was indeed torture for me. I tried to be as engaged and positive as possible, but being in class was worse than being at work. The minutes dragged by like hours, I secretly couldn't wait to go home, and everyone hated me. Whenever I was commanded to perform an improv skit, the teacher and students would chew my ear off afterward with criticism about how slow and unfunny my responses were, and I'd be thinking, Thanks, fuckers, but I wouldn't be here if this wasn't a prereq. Level A was barely tolerable and Level B was such a nightmare that the thought of getting through Level C filled me with such foreboding that I was willing to forgo the numerous classes I'd be barred from if it meant I never had to think about horrible improv ever again.

Because I'm a slow thinker. I like writing, rehearsing, preparing, and memorizing. I've never been good at thinking on my feet, machine-gun fire banter, or brainstorming a million ideas on the spot. I need days to come up with a funny reply to an email, a text, or a Facebook comment. I'm like an Ent. If you try to tease and banter with me and I stand there stupidly, I'm not offended--I just take forever to think of a funny reply. Hell, it takes me 10 minutes to realize you're even talking to me and another 10 minutes to think of a minimal, boring response. Thinking of a witty reply takes two hours, at least. The fastest I can come up with a single funny one-liner, on a good day when I've had a lot of caffeine and have been listening to comedy on Pandora, is two hours.

Improv for me was like when Michael Jordan tried baseball.

In April 2015 I started Standup 101 and Beginning Voiceover.

Beginning Voiceover was another disaster, because I thought we'd be learning vocal techniques for acting various roles as well as voicing cartoon and video game characters, but the entire class was about recording demos for those annoying, shrill, fast-talking, nails-on-a-chalkboard radio commercials about gum and orange juice and "See ya in a Kia for $99 down!"--the commercials you instantly turn off when they come on because they're so fucking obnoxious. I was really mad that this selling-your-soul bullshit was a flagship class at a performing arts school. I walked out during break one day and never went back. Again, worse than being at work.

Standup 101 was also kinda crappy. It was taught by a tall, young, gangly guy who joked a lot about his dyslexia and severe ADHD and other learning impairments, so maybe it shouldn't have been surprising that he refused to teach us how to write a joke. He once assigned us homework to write 100 one-liners. I asked him for some exercises to come up with one-liners because I honestly had no idea how to write or format those, and he was visibly offended. "You take out a pen and paper and just write 'em! You'll get three good ones for every 100 bad ones."

"But how do we come up with 100?" I said. "Is there a formatting template or a brainstorming method or a way to get started?"

"No!" he said, squinting his eyes in irritation. "You just have to write a lot to get a few good ones!"

I skipped that assignment, and fortunately he forgot he even assigned it.

Every week he'd give us a series of subject prompts (like "animals" or "drugs") and we'd have to invent a stand-up routine and perform it within minutes of getting the prompt, and then the class would take turns tearing each other to shreds about every little thing that wasn't funny about our instant, on-the-spot, unrehearsed routine--when in reality, professional comics (just like gymnasts and figure skaters) practice, perform, and perfect the same exact routine for an entire season so it looks easy and effortless.

That class had an open-to-the-public, end-of semester standup performance, in which I was told I did really well (mostly because I ripped off Bobcat Goldthwait), and in June 2015 I signed up for an open mic standup. My family came to that one, which was embarrassing because not only did I do very poorly, but the audience didn't laugh at ANY of the six of us who performed.

I never went back to The Second City after that, because after spending $2200 on eight comedy classes, I still hadn't learned how to write a joke. We hadn't learned the elements of different types of jokes, or how to find humor quickly in ordinary things, or how to think of funny setups quickly, or how to craft an engaging and amusing story, or how to build suspense, or how to keep an audience engaged other than berating them for not clapping.

We hadn't gone over any of that in three entire semesters, and when I specifically asked my teachers for advice and techniques, especially on how to think of funny things faster, I was told that it just comes with listening to other comedians and surrounding oneself with funny things over time.

Wait...I could get the same results by listening to comedians on YouTube for free instead of paying you comedy teachers at comedy school to teach me methods and techniques on how to write quality comedy material faster?

I didn't go back because only two of my eight classes were worthwhile. I learned more about comedy writing technique from books I bought for myself on Amazon for a couple dollars than I learned at this world-famous, top-notch school, and I didn't make any friends at school either, so I had sacrificed a lot to gain very little.

In casual conversation with teachers I learned that Second City used to be small and tight-knit but ballooned in size very quickly over the past 10-15 years. Some teachers even seemed a little bewildered at how quickly things were changing as the school was growing. I occasionally received automated emails from Second City's "marketing and promotions manager" encouraging me to sign up for more classes, which verified for me that the school had become a slick, for-profit business designed to increase value for its shareholders. Smart, edgy, original, high-quality comedy production seemed more like an afterthought or happy accident rather than a primary goal.

Furthermore, The Second City school markets itself as a place where any ordinary person can take classes and learn how to be wittier and funnier and a better performer. It is not exclusive in its selection of students, there is no completion timeline, and you can't fail out for not being funny. You don't have to apply or audition to get in--all you have to do is pay the class fee. You don't have to do anything besides show up for class to move onto the next level, so you could get to Improv Level E with absolutely no sense of humor. There was no end date for anyone other than serious improv students. If you were a standup/screenwriting/directing/producing student at the time, there was no graduation performance or certificate of completion. Just keep coming to more classes at the Second City and paying more money indefinitely, until you...get sick of it and/or move to NYC or LA or something...? I met a number of students who'd been attending classes for YEARS and were just as bad/unfunny in their improv and standup as I was. But how could any of us know if we were getting funnier, or on track, or meeting any kind of standard, or making the grade when there were no grades, no pass/fail performances, no judging panels, no formal competitions, no completion dates? If people think they're improving when they're really not, they'll keep coming back and paying more money thinking they just need a few more classes before their "big break."

Continued education and lifelong learning, right?

That summer, after leaving Second City, I dated an English lit PhD student and published author of three fiction books, and we had a lengthy conversation about pedagogy in creative writing and the performing/visual arts. He reported that even in his grad-level classes at a top university, every creative writing class he ever took consisted of the teacher giving perhaps a few quick punctuation tips, then saying, "Okay, get into small groups, read each other's stories for your homework, and come back next class and share your criticisms." No learning anything about writing well or crafting a compelling story--just write whatever and however you want as "the spirit moves you." Students would then spend each class sitting around criticizing each other's work, when no one actually had a solid grasp on grammar or knew how to build a story arc or knew how to keep a consistent tense or voice throughout their stories, even though these were 400- to 600-level classes and everyone at that point should have been highly skilled. Sadly, that had been my exact same experience in my years of creative writing classes in grade school and college. Dozens and dozens of classes and I hadn't learned a thing about storytelling from any of my teachers. And, unfortunately, the same teaching idea dominated at Second City.

This is frustrating because there are specific techniques and styling methods for crafting and shaping a beautiful story or a profound poem or a side-splitting joke, and those techniques CAN be taught and learned. There are specific skills and artistry that distinguish amateur art from professional art, whether it's drawing, painting, sculpting, dancing, singing, storytelling, comedy, drama, or what have you. I really want to learn this stuff, but a hell of a lot of teachers insist that "You only learn by doing!" and "These things can't be taught! You're either talented or you're not!" But if you never learn solid principles and discipline first and end up doing something wrong 1000 times, the only thing you learn is 1000 bad habits for making really bad art--which may be one reason why the arts are seen as fluffy and silly and get so little respect and funding in the US. And besides, why do teachers and schools and programs exist for subjects that supposedly can't be taught?

I did eventually figure out (see above: slow thinking) that Second City is like Harvard and Yale in that you don't go to an Ivy League school to get smart. Already-smart people go to top schools to make important social and professional connections. The famous comedians who launched their careers at Second City were already funny when they got there--already nominated for class clown, already regular performers at small comedy troupes in their hometowns, already performing standup at local coffee shops, and probably already holding rooms captive with never-ending streams of one-liners and hilarious stories.

Funny people will continue to emerge from Second City and funnel into SNL and Comedy Central and Hollywood dude-bro comedies, just like smart people will continue to emerge from Harvard and Yale and funnel into top companies. Overachievers were already budding stars when they got to these schools where they met and teamed up with other overachievers like themselves and created successful dream teams. That will continue to happen.

Good for them. That's great.

I went to Second City specifically to learn how to be funnier faster, and that's probably why I was disappointed and bored with the vague, superficial content. If I had gone there solely to make important social connections, the outcome may have been different. Then again maybe not, because I have nothing to offer budding stars. They wouldn't have wanted to be on my team. Just like in improv class when no one wanted to be my skit partner because I wasn't already funny and quick-witted. So apparently I'm not an untapped comedy genius. Dammit!

To top it all off, I hated Chicago on its own merits. I hated my day job, the grime, the gloom, the weather, the miles of concrete and no access to nature, the traffic, the tolls, and the general "get-out-of-my-way-I'm-very-important-don't-you-know-who-I-am" big city, rich people attitude.   

When my lease was up, I briefly contemplated returning to Wisconsin and picking up where I left off, but Dutch Guy had already found someone else and I was so tired of the cold that I moved to Florida and became a Buddhist.

And you know who's desperate for a laugh? Buddhists. Seriously, they live such an austere life that any dumb little joke will have them rolling around laughing for hours. If you're feeling unfunny, go to Buddhist temple and read them a few Laffy Taffy jokes.

So overall, I have mixed feelings about comedy school. Whenever I get sad about my life and think that I should have stayed in Wisconsin with my friends at that cubicle job and married that Dutch guy, I think of all the things I hated there too and how stuck and stale and trapped and joyless I felt every day. I'm glad to have crossed a big thing off my bucket list, and I learned that I actually have no problem keeping my performing arts hobby as just a hobby--something I enjoy doing at my leisure, in my spare time, without the unfounded criticism from inexperienced classmates who know less than I do.

The only thing I truly regret is that you can't really get authentic deep dish pizza anywhere else. Everyone outside of Chicago thinks "deep dish" just means a thick crust. Not so! Real deep dish is like an upside-down pizza crossed with lasagna and you eat it with a fork. After your first taste, you'll never be the same.

Since then I've been working as a pizza delivery driver, a profession which I enjoy because it's never boring and has, strangely, provided me with more funny material than comedy school. And don't worry, my blog post about pizza delivery should only take about seven months to write.

There are techniques to build humor that I'm still trying to learn, but it's also true that humor is a language and you obtain fluency most quickly via immersion, via taking the time to surround yourself with funny people and funny things. But you can do that anywhere--at home, at work, in rural areas, at a Buddhist temple. You don't have to pack up and move to Chicago and pay for comedy school.

There, that's $2200' worth of advice I've just given you for free, so don't say I never did anything for you, you twiddler, you dreamer, you silly heart, you jabber box.

Now Ima take this quarter, go downtown, and have a rat gnaw the pepperoni off my sliced and diced face.