What if no­body laughs?

Ac­tor who trains comics turns the ta­bles on colum­nist. The re­sults aren’t funny

Times Colonist - - Arts - ADRIAN CHAM­BER­LAIN Back­stage Note: Kirsten Van Ritzen’s new round of standup com­edy classes be­gin March 9. To reg­is­ter or get fur­ther in­for­ma­tion, email mscom­e­dy­diva@hot­mail.com or phone 250-480-3709. The cost is $140 ($100 for stu­dents and se­niors).

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

it works.

“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.

LYLE STAFFORD, TIMES COLONIST

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.

LYLE STAFFORD, TIMES COLONIST

As­pir­ing comic Cathy McDow­ell tries her rou­tines. Class will get a sur­prise bonus — a field trip to a lo­cal lounge.

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