What if nobody laughs?
Actor who trains comics turns the tables on columnist. The results aren’t funny
Public speaking is often cited as people’s worst fear — sometimes ranked even higher than death. But in my book, there’s one thing that’s even scarier. It is beyond frightening; in fact, it’s downright horrifying.
It is performing standup comedy.
Standup comedy is a form of public speaking, of course. Only fear-factorwise, it’s like public speaking on steroids. What if you get heckled? What if you freeze? What if — God forbid —
no one laughs. Oh ... the horror. Victoria’s Kirsten Van Ritzen is an actor/comedian who has done oodles of standup and comic improv. She’s now teaching a standup comedy class here.
Sounded like a fun column. Van Ritzen said it would be OK if I observed her class, with one proviso — that I tell a joke or two. This, she said, would make her students feel more relaxed about having a reporter in their midst.
This seemed reasonable, if somewhat terrifying. But what about material? My daughter found me some jokes on an “anti-joke” website. Here’s one that I delivered to the class:
“A duck walks into a bar. The bartender says, ‘What’ll it be?’ And the duck doesn’t say anything. Because it’s a duck.”
Killer material, right? Didn’t work. A couple of comedy classmates tittered politely while my post-duckjoke heart thudded like a Keith Moon drum solo.
Bombing, apparently, is easy. Comedy is hard. If Hades exists, I’m sure it involves a microphone and a room full of puzzled faces.
Aspiring comic Kyle Shea did a hundred times better with a bit on alcoholic drinks. He pretended, for instance, to be a shot of Jack Daniels and a Corona beer, with each bevvy boasting a distinct personality and accent. He killed. And — get this — Shea is just 18 years old.
Fellow comedy student Mark Walters also put my shtick to shame. Walters, 32, is a former Navy man confined to a wheelchair following a car accident five years ago. His routine bravely delved into the challenges he faces. For instance, when he’s with his mother, some people will talk to her and ignore the guy in the chair.
Meanwhile, girls will wonder aloud if still
“The short answer is yes,” said Walters. “And I’m not going to go into details.”
Van Ritzen has worked in showbiz for 20 years. In Los Angeles, she was named Best Solo Comedy Artist for her one-woman performance,
The Kirsten Van Ritzen
Show. She’s a veteran of the club scene; her standup debut was at Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto.
In Victoria, Van Ritzen’s class of 16 includes a cashier, an IT specialist and a retired French teacher. Previous comedy classes drew everyone from janitors to Bay Street brokers. Comedy, she says, is the great leveller. When you’re up there alone, in front of the mic, you have the same chance as anyone else to succeed ... or fail.
Why would anyone put themselves through such torture? Van Ritzen said scoring a laugh is a “huge high.” And, on a deeper level, the comedian can share bona fide insights on the human condition.
She said you can’t really teach someone to be funny. Being funny is an innate point of view — “you see the world in a particular way — at a bit of a tilt.”
What you can teach, though, is how to structure a joke or a routine. And pitfalls to avoid. For instance, many fledgling comics make the mistake of getting in front of an audience with no “set list” — that is, a prompt list of the jokes you’re going to deliver.
“They just freeze and go blank,” Van Ritzen said.
Other tips? If you’re an amateur at a club’s open mic night, don’t go over the allocated few minutes. The staff will just turn off the sound. Avoid long, convoluted stories, even if they go over well at dinner parties. Especially if there are no punchlines. And steal
don’t material, Van Ritzen cautioned me later via email after I had, um ... delivered my stolen material. (OK, OK, I’m sorry.)
Her best advice, perhaps, is that the best comedy emanates from the truth. Your truth. Avoid stale jokes about celebrities — Jon Stewart and David Letterman will have done that much better than you the night before, anyway. Mine your own life for material. Joke about the awful, excruciating things that happen. Audiences love that.
“If you have a crappy job, that’s great,” Van Ritzen said. “If you’re unemployed, that’s awesome.”
Walters had certainly stepped up to the plate — forging humour from the sometimes difficult reality of being disabled. When he and Van Ritzen discussed his routine immediately following, he admitted it wasn’t easy joking about this.
“I thought, should I be reading this? This stuff freaked me the hell out,” he told the class.
Young Shea told me he admired Walters for delving into his life in this manner.
“It was like, should I laugh at this guy or shouldn’t I?” Shea said. “[But then] I saw he’s cool with this.”
On this particular night, Van Ritzen presented her comedy class with a surprise. A field trip. The class is booked to perform at the upstairs lounge of the Victoria Ramada Hotel on Gorge Road. The event (free and open to the public) takes place at 8 p.m. on March 2.
The news triggered a ripple of chatter. “This scares the s---out of me,” said a man in a backward baseball cap.
“Is there liquor involved?” asked another would-be comic.
I’ve got feeling these guys are going to be just fine, though. Me? I’ll be there ... sitting safely in the audience.
Ken Kowalsky performs during Kristen Van Ritzen’s comedy class. Here’s one tip: If you’re an amateur, don’t go over your allotted time.
Aspiring comic Cathy McDowell tries her routines. Class will get a surprise bonus — a field trip to a local lounge.