First Stabs at
scenes of what it's like to take a class in performing comedy.
Frank Ng, Kara Klenk and Chewy.
In early May, Kara Klenk,
a tall, outgoing, recent college graduate, began with two pages of
writing that were some simple basics about herself -- growing up in New
Canaan, Conn., as a Jewish oddball among a WASP-y community, going to
college -- also in Connecticut -- at a school that catered to turning
those WASP offspring into investment bankers, and other sundry details
of being a page at NBC and studying abroad.
One month later, after going through a stand-up comedy class taught by
regular working stand-ups Becky Donohue and Brooke Van Poppelen, Klenk had
transformed an unexceptional personal story into vivid depictions of
being a drunken college student encountering interesting characters who
sold birth control on campus, and being careless around bodega owners
who would gossip about her escapades whenever they saw her.
Chewy, a self-dubbed one-named young female comedian, transformed even
more, from a shy soft-spoken girl who can easily put on the brainy Asian
stereotype, into a surprising performer bemoaning the undesirable
lunches her mom used to pack for her -- “All I’ve got is dried fish,
smelly tofu and a bottle of herbal medicine. Wanna trade, bitch?!?!?”
And Frank Ng, an eager, albeit soft-spoken guy, whittled long, involved
self-revealing stories about volunteering and having the face of a “nice
guy who always gets asked for directions” into a vivid embellished
anecdote about unwittingly becoming a pied piper to the homeless in his
Yours truly even got into the act, also mining personal observations and
then paring them down in an attempt to get laughs that is still being
worked on. [for more details, see recent entries in the
Donohue began the first session of the class, a six-week affair, by
asking these students, “What is it about your personality that is
funny?” and that’s exactly what they proceeded to unveil. After the
first week, both Klenk and Ng did rewrite and replace large parts of
their material. Donohue told Klenk, “It’s about showing, not telling,
what’s funny about this.” Klenk concentrated on campus life more
intently and Ng embellished his experiences with women and helping the
Donohue and Vann took a different approach to enhancing Chewy’s act,
encouraging her to use her shy character as a baseline, in fact staying
standing behind the mike for most of her performance rather than taking
it out of the stand and walking or pacing with it to be more out-front
and engaging with the audience.
“It’s how you say it, how you deliver it,” exhorted Donohue. “I’m going
to keep pushing you to do those accents,” she added, referring to the
shy Asian voice Chewy used, and getting her to do an Italian guy’s voice
to portray a student who would try to cheat off her in school.
Without an audience, in a small rehearsal studio in the Broadway area,
trying to impress professional comedy teachers, getting laughs can seem
like a tall order, but Donohue tells the class, “If you get even a
chuckle in here, it’s going to go over big.”
Donohue urged Klenk to also become more theatrical and act out the
voices and personalities of the bodega guys who witnessed her college
debauchery, and “Leon,” the campus dealer of more than just drugs.
Illustrating the stories the students brought in through acting out the
voices was a key part of the class..
The “graduation” show put the performers right into a stand-up show
line-up of 10 or more performers in Donohue’s monthly “New Jacks
Showcase” one recent Saturday (June 7) at Comix on 14th Street in New
York, for which Vann serves as emcee and Donohue closes as the
headliner. Awaiting their turn at bat to perform five to six minute
spots, Chewy, Ng and Klenk sit in the club’s well-appointed albeit small
green room behind the stage (it’s not actually painted green -- it
features a row of stools, a long black leather couch, a few tables and a
private bathroom, and most importantly, a monitor displaying the action
Ng frets about having added new material to his act since the last
class, which he’s not yet sure about. Telling him that I’ve stuck to
exactly what I have, he says, “That’s probably what I should have done,”
-- although as you’ll see if you read the Blog, it still worked out
better for him anyway.
Chewy excitedly and hurriedly performed her set -- so quickly that she
had two minutes to fill and shifted abruptly but effortlessly into crowd
work -- chatting with people in the audience and poking fun at their
responses -- completely comfortable on stage.
And waiting in the wings to follow Klenk, the applause she garnered with
her set was loud and impressive.