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First Stabs at Stand-Up

Behind the scenes of what it's like to take a class in performing comedy.

Pictured: 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 neighborhood.

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 Blog].

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 homeless.

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 on stage).

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.




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