"I'm not just a nerd," proclaims a bespectacled 13-year-old named Thea, speaking into a microphone on stage. "I'm also a geek." The audience laughs.
Photo by Jenni Walkowiak
She's performing a set as part of a workshop run by Gold Comedy, a New York-based startup that coaches girls in the art of stand-up. Being different is a common theme among the jokes, which the students write themselves after mining their life experiences for material. They have been able to find the funny in everything from body insecurities to being Muslim to shopping for clothes with Mum.
Whether the goal is to be a professional comedian, a Snapchat star, or to simply disarm a bully one day, the process of learning comedy can be an incredible confidence builder for those in the trenches of tween and teen life. "Comedy is power," explains Gold Comedy founder Lynn Harris, a veteran standup comic and author (and former Tonya Harding lookalike - "a long story," she writes in her bio). Growing up as a bookish kid, Harris gravitated to humour early: "Being at some level aware that I could not compete in traditional popularity, I let my goofball flag fly."
Harris wants girls to know that the things they might feel ashamed of, the things that make them unique or maybe even weird, are the very things that make them funny. And when they own those qualities - or "double down" on them, as she likes to say - they put themselves in a new, amazing spotlight, one that they get to define.
Anyone can take a Gold Comedy course ("like, even straight white dudes named Norm are more than welcome," Harris says), but the curriculum was created to help fill the void of women in comedy. "Girls still get the message that comedy is something dudes do and girls laugh at," Harris says. "I want to give girls the chance to amplify their voices - literally, with a mic."
The workshop, which is currently offered as a $US19 ($24) online course, delves into the mechanics of comedy, teaching students how to structure a set and throw a wrench into a joke (take, for instance, the "understatement wrench" in this Garry Shandling bit: "I broke up with my girlfriend. She moved in with another guy, and I draw the line at that"). There are tips on when to pause, when to throw in some physical movement, and how to ease the showtime nerves (pretend like you're talking to your BFF when you're on stage). For inspiration, students watch YouTube videos and study the techniques of famous comedians - the measured, deadpan pacing of Tig Notaro, and the way Ellen Degeneres begins her jokes with simple premises and builds up from there.
Eighteen-year-old Brianna Allen, who participated the workshop, told me that when she first got on stage, she was terrified. "But once I started talking and letting it flow, it was amazing," she says. As part of her set, she recalled an exchange she and her mum had while picking out new clothes at a store: "Mum, would you wear this?" "Of course I would, honey!" She immediately put the item back.
Allen says she notices that there are different standards for women and men. "If you curse, people look at you and think, 'That's not ladylike,'" she says. "But if a guy does it, it has a different effect." She says she's learning not to worry what other people think, and comedy is helping her do that.
Ultimately, Harris says that by giving people comedy skills, she wants to help change the face of comedy. "More diversity in comedy makes comedy better for everyone," she says. "And better comedy - breaking stereotypes, expanding perspectives, hulksmashing power - makes us all better people. I really believe that."
Here are some things you can do to help children and teens find their voices through comedy:
Help Them Find What Makes Them Different (Because What Makes Them Different Is What Makes Them Funny)
There is a myth that you need to be a certain "type" to be successful in comedy. That you must be loud, naturally charismatic, and always the centre of attention. So people who are not those things try to invent a new comedy persona, but it isn't authentic, and audiences can tell. The workshop teaches kids that instead, "your persona is who you already are". Just imagine a turned-up version of that. "The thing you don't like about yourself might actually be your persona, or at least a window onto it," the online course explains. "Let's say you said, 'I wish I were less timid.' Guess what: Your comedy job is not to be less timid! Your comedy job is to be timid! To talk about being timid. To tell us and show us on stage what it feels and looks like to be timid. Timid is funny, when you write jokes about it! So listen to that voice inside, and then be all, 'Voice, that thing you're criticising about me is actually what's potentially most funny about me.'"
Pinpoint the Topics That Trigger Big Emotional Responses
Before the workshop, students fill out prompts such as, "I hate _____. I love _____. I'm annoyed by _____. I'm terrified of _____. I'm embarrassed by ______." Then in class, they talk about what gave them the most visceral responses, what made them want to write more. Harris found that what sparks the strongest feelings is what often leads to the best material. Together, they home in on what gives the student a unique command of the topic. Harris remembers Tess, a girl in the class who started out with the activity just sort of complaining about her annoying dog. "After digging a little, we found out that the really funny part was that she is the only one in her family of six who doesn't like dogs. Bingo. Anyone can write about annoying dogs, but only Tess can write about that."
Read the Day's Headlines With Them
A great way for kids and teens to keep up with current events is to practise giving their take on them. Here's an exercise from the Gold Comedy website:
X thing happened. If that happened to me/in my life OR if I did that…
Example: [Wily politician or powerful person of choice] lies and no one punishes him. If my mother found out I lied about something like that [she would/I would]…".
Write 10 of these a day. Don't try to be funny. Let them be funny when it happens, which it will about 1 per cent of the time. The practice is what matters. As you do it more and more, you'll see the funny and make associations faster, and your percentage will go up.
If students wonder if they should really "go there", as in tell edgy jokes, the answer is maybe. "I have always said you can write a joke about any topic," Harris says. "September 11, rape, the Segway. What matters is: Who is the joke on? It's inherently less funny to make fun of someone with less power than you, and - yes - it's inherently less funny to knowingly/potentially make your audience uncomfortable with an 'offensive' joke. This isn't your journal. They're paying. Be generous."
Harris adds that there is an exception for teenagers: "You can totally throw your younger sibling under the bus," she says.
Encourage Them to Keep Going
Most of the material that your budding comedian will write won't be funny, and that's OK. Comics must practise, revise and practise again, in front of a mirror, in front of friends, in front of Grandma. Some local comedy clubs will let those under 18 perform on certain open mic nights - call and find out. "Even the most practised comics... practise," the course explains. "They need to make sure that what seemed funny to the people in their head is actually funny to the people in the audience. They need to tweak it and play around and make it funnier. That's all part of the process, and now it's part of your process, too."