Sweating through stand-up school

Justin Brake
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Writer tackles tough assignment take a comedy class, then survive the performance

Comedian Al Rae (right) takes 12 aspiring comics through part one of a two-day stand-up comedy workshop in St. John's Wednesday. The class is due to put their new knowledge to the test by performing their routines tonight at the Bella Vista. Photo by Jus

Being funny ain't easy.
At least that's the conclusion I draw after day one of the St. John's Comedy Festival's Comedy Workshop.
For my latest assignment I am taking the two-day workshop, during which comedian Al Rae teaches the craft of stand-up comedy to amateur comedians and those interested becoming one, and this evening I'm to deliver a five-minute routine at the festival's Open Mic/Parody Night at the Bella Vista.
The idea was tasty at first. It was an opportunity to work with an accomplished comedian, learn how to put all those funny thoughts that trickle through your mind into words and hopefully make people laugh.
But as I said, it ain't that easy.
In the morning Rae introduces himself. He's a normal guy like anyone else and until you experience his quick wit you would be hard pressed to guess his profession.
Before getting to the funny stuff he takes us through the business side of stand-up comedy in case any of the 12 students are looking to make a quick buck in the entertainment industry.
The profession, he explains, isn't lucrative unless you have talent, work diligently, pay your dues and, of course, make people laugh. If you meet these criteria though, Canada's sprawling comedy industry has never been hotter.
After watching a Ron James special on CBC the night before I felt hopeful. James makes it look so easy.
But as Rae explains the intricacies of preparing a routine, such as character development, audibility, timing, movement, energy, crowd interaction, and so forth, it becomes apparent live comedy is about much more than getting people to laugh, it's about the art of doing it successfully.
To calm our nerves, he shares some humorous stories of times when he either bombed or made the most out of an unpredictable situation, like the time he showed up at a gig and entertained a table of four, or when he was forced to alter his routine at the last minute to deliver it to a group of hutterites.
"Everyone has a shit show," he says. "But trying too hard to not have a shit show will not be beneficial."
For the purposes of our Thursday event, says Rae, the key is the first joke.
"Hit 'em hard and get 'em laughing early."
As we undertake our first exercise - to skim current events in the Globe and Mail, find the humour in a story and then deliver a few jokes in front of the others - it becomes apparent that funny thoughts aren't easily translated into funny jokes.
I'm asked to go first, but my idea came to me only in the last minute of the 20 we had to write our joke, so I buy myself a few minutes by letting a few others go first.
One by one we deliver and, despite the fact everyone in the group claimed to have been the class clown in school, few possess the confidence or experience to split anyone's side.
A few admit they won't be performing tonight while others are looking for Rae's feedback so they can hone their routine.
I, unlike some of the others, which include Victory Tavern Open Mic Comedy regulars, don't have a routine. Instead, I have something funny my grandmother said running through my mind - one of those "you had to be there" moments.
"Tomorrow," Rae says, "bring your routines and we'll workshop them."
Of course, this means a routine must be written by 10 a.m. the next morning, then memorized, rehearsed in the afternoon, practiced in front of a mirror at supper time, and delivered in front of an audience at 8 p.m.
In the words of my Nan in Gander: "Me nerves are rubbed right raw."
On the positive side, I'm not alone. Having spent the day with 11 hilarious individuals, my respect for anyone who attempts stand-up comedy has grown tremendously.
With Rae hosting, a performance of "Not The Real Noose" by the Rabbittown Theatre Company and an appearance by Snook, tonight will no doubt be a laugh. What else you will see are not only some of St. John's up-and-coming comedians, but some of the city's gutsiest individuals, myself not included because backing out isn't an option. My job depends on the follow-through.
The event takes place tonight at the Bella Vista on Torbay Rd. and starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22 and available at the Mile One box office or at the door of the venue.

Organizations: Comedy Workshop, CBC, Globe and Mail Rabbittown Theatre Company Bella Vista on Torbay

Geographic location: St. John's, Canada, Gander

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