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Teaching

[Classroom Encounters]

For Stand-Up Comics, It's Academic

comedy photo
Taking comedy seriously: Student stand-ups perform before an enthusiastic crowd in
Bloomberg Auditorium.                                                          Photos: Will Kirk/HiPS

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A funny thing happened on the way to this story. (Ba-dum-ba)

But seriously, folks. Take this class, please... No, I mean, really. Take this class. (Ba-dum-ba).

You get the picture. Johns Hopkins isn’t exactly known for being a funny place. Serious, academic, and worldly, yes. But funny? Not so much.

Adam Ruben wants to change that.

Ruben is a fifth-year biology graduate student who, for the last two years, has taught an Intersession course titled The Stand-Up Comic in Society. Think of it as sort of a thinking person’s stand-up comedy boot camp. For three weeks, Ruben’s class of 19 undergraduates—who had never before performed stand-up—studied the work of dozens of comics, including Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Margaret Cho, and Dave Chapelle. They then wrote and performed their own five-minute stand-up routines for a live audience.

“It’s different from all the science classes at Hopkins, where you don’t really interact with each other,” explains Brandon Lawrence, a sophomore philosophy major from Los Angeles who took the class last year and was the TA for it this year. “You get to break out of your shell.”

It’s not just about making people laugh, says Ruben, who does stand-up as a hobby. Students analyze the comics to really get at what makes their jokes funny, then have to use what they’ve learned to justify their own routine. “Stand-up comics are the beacons of culture that spawn them,” Ruben says. “Stand-up comics excel at pointing out hypocrisy. They play a much more academic role than we give them credit for.”

A visit to the class on its fifth day of meeting found a group of students who were largely pretty nervous about having to tell jokes on stage. The assignment du jour was to stand behind the microphone set up at the front of Hodson 203 and perform one to two minutes of comedy material, which was then critiqued, workshop-style, by Ruben and the rest of the class.

The jokes covered sex, racism, video games, drinking, and dating at Hopkins, porn, parents, and more sex. Some were funny (“I shouldn’t joke about sex because it can give you things that are terminal … like kids.”). Others were repetitive—“We’re batting 1,000 for masturbation, folks,” Ruben told the class after the first few students had performed. And some jokes just fell flat.

Needless to say, there were lots of opportunities for instruction.

“The best thing to do in general is just to keep going no matter what happens,” Ruben told the class after a student became flustered when no one laughed audibly at one of his jokes. “You can’t hear smiling. It’s not as bad as you think.”

The class is pass/fail and there are no tests. However, performing in the final show is mandatory to pass.

“Be nice. Please,” Ruben pleaded with the crowd of 400-plus students who crowded into Bloomberg Auditorium one Friday night in late January to witness the students’ final performance for the class. “No booing. No heckling. It’s their first time performing in front of anybody. And any topic is allowed.”

One by one the students took the stage. Their routines were longer, funnier, and much more polished than they had been that first week. The crowd clapped, cheered, and waved signs in appreciation. More importantly, they laughed.

There was laughter when senior Craig Gridelli pointed out that all country songs do is point out the obvious. “Alan Jackson has a song called ‘It’s all right to be a redneck,” he said. “That’s like the Pope saying it’s all right to be Catholic.”

Freshman Anna Ciuffo, one of only three women in the class, drew laughter with her riff on stepmothers who are almost young enough to be in college.

And Jimmy Kim, a sophomore biology major, got chuckles and applause when he offered his opinions of why he was certain Santa Claus wasn’t Asian. “Asian Santa wouldn’t leave you toys. He’d leave you math homework.”

Sure, the performers might have made some mistakes the pros wouldn’t have made. Some couldn’t keep from laughing at their own jokes or forgot some of their lines. Others had trouble lifting the microphone out of the stand.

It didn’t matter. On this night, anyway, stodgy, serious Hopkins was a lot of fun. And it was funny, too.

—Maria Blackburn

 

 

SPRING/SUMMER 2006
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Rethinking Citizenship
In Search of Poetry

 

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