By Carl Unegbu, ComedyBeat | The comedy industry is a world in transition, and one of the big changes in the industry today is the arrival of comedy schools as a gateway to the industry. Nowadays, virtually every major comedy club either runs a comedyschool or is affiliated with one. More than 30 years ago, comedy schools were not a part of the mix in the landscape of the industry. In the 1970s, when the first comedy clubs started appearing on the scene, beginning with the Improv in New York, the rookies who performed in these clubs had not attended a comedy school. But given the popularity of comedy schools today, chances are that industry heavyweights like Jay Leno and David Letterman who started out in the 1970s would have attended a comedy school if they were starting out today instead.
Perhaps the recent arrival of comedy schools in the industry’s landscape should come as no great surprise to most people, considering the very nature of the comedy art form itself. Stephen Rosenfield, the director of the American Comedy Institute in New York City, thinks that although no one can teach talent, people go to comedy schools for the same reason they attend music school or acting school. “There are crafts involved in comedy that are teachable and learnable,” said Rosenfield. According to him, these crafts include learning how to write stand-up, which he said is very technical in nature, as well as how to perform stand-up and how to develop a persona behind the microphone as a standup comic, a process he calls “sculpting.”
Yet, as Rosenfield himself admits, a person does not need to enroll in a comedy school in order to acquire these crafts. Prior to the arrival of comedy schools, he said, these crafts were often taught in informal settings, and aspiring comics were mentored by older comics who were, according to him, smart enough to pass on the technique to them.
Most people in the industry, including Rosenfield, see the arrival of comedy clubs on the country’s comedy scene in the 1970s as a true game-changer. The comedy clubs provide the institutional framework as well as the necessary infrastructure for the operation of comedy schools. Buddy Flip, a veteran comic who runs the New York Comedy School, said that comedy schools are an avenue for both the comedy clubs and the comedy teachers to make extra money as they collaborate in the training of new talent. “The [comedy] clubs and the teachers have a symbiotic relationship, we work off each other,” said Flip. “For me, it’s the allure of the club. For the club, I’m part of the machine that brings in new people and develops them and the club makes money.” In this system, the newly trained comics usually work at the comedy clubs as interns or, better still, as rookie comics who participate in New Talent shows, also called “bringers.” At these shows, the rookie comics bring paying guests to the clubs in exchange for much needed stage time at the clubs.
While going to comedy schools may not be a “must do” for aspiring comedians, the industry gurus think that it is a quite worthwhile step for a new comic. Flip noted that comedy schools are extremely useful. “As someone who teaches comedy school, one thing that would have been incredibly valuable to me if I go back 20 years would be to just be able to talk to someone with a lot of experience to find out what mistakes I don’t wanna make, to find out what are the pitfalls and what things I’m not doing right that I don’t realize,” said Flip. “There is nothing wrong with learning how to do something the conventional way and then making it your own or re-inventing it…you can’t invent a new way to play poker if you don’t ever learn how to play poker.”
For other comedy veterans, the very nature of the industry itself is something that ought to make going to comedy schools a good idea for new comics. “What makes [comedy] schools necessary is the fact that this is an extremely tough, competitive business and you need help avoiding the countless pitfalls,” said Andy Engel, owner of the Manhattan Comedy School and the director of New Talent shows at New York’s Gotham Comedy Club. Engel believes that today’s comedy schools are a better way to learn to do comedy than the format of the past era when rookies were simply stuck with doing open mics at different comedy clubs. “They [the new comics] learned by trial and error at open mics and regular shows. Open mics are not the best audiences to actually learn from…and there were good comics with smart material that got discouraged and quit when they shouldn’t have.”
As it happens, would-be comics thinking about going to comedy schools can have a pretty good idea of what they will be learning at school. Though the fees are different at each school, and there is no authority or agency that sets the curriculum at the comedy schools, students can expect to learn certain standard skills at virtually every comedy- school program today, whether the six-week courses available at the Manhattan Comedy School; the six-hour, one-day workshops that Flip offers at the New York Comedy School or the one-year program in comedy performing and writing available at the American Comedy Institute. At each comedy school, students are taught such skills as how to actually perform stand-up comedy onstage as well as how to write stand-up comedy; plus information on the business side of being a standup comic.
The experts aside, it seems like the game of going to comedy school may well be worth the candle as far as the rookie comics who have actually gone to comedy schools are concerned. New comics like Steve Gabe, a former student at Manhattan Comedy School who said that going to comedy school made it “easy as pie!” for him to work as a comic. “I knew I had to get good training in order to compete in the standup business …and the things I learned in school will help me every step of the way; there are so many little things you need to know, the ins and outs. They taught me everything, no stone unturned.”
For all the ringing endorsement, there may yet be room for improvement in what the comedy schools are teaching. Gabe, a lawyer by training, thinks that a “political humor class” in the mold of what Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart do at Comedy Central might be a good idea at the comedy schools. “There’s a lot of work in that area and it probably would get a lot of people not normally in comedy out there…a class on how it’s done, ‘how to do it’, regular people would flock to that.”
Considering all the factors at play, it is an easy bet that comedy schools will remain a growing phenomenon for the foreseeable future. The two essential ingredients for growth are already in place: “There is a huge demand for classes,” said Engel. And on the supply side, there is no sign that comedy clubs are about to turn off the tap on the reliable money channel of running comedy schools any time soon, especially in a bad economy. Same goes for the comedy teachers who work with the comedy clubs on the supply side. This kind of new synergy where everybody wins can only mean growth. And that is the rosy outlook for comedy schools in today’s comedy landscape.