|It’s no joke—comedy classes can teach youngsters how to handle life’s twists and turns.|
Duncan Thomas is so tiny that he has to lower the microphone before he can speak into it. But then he grips the device like an old Catskills pro and says, “The pollution is getting bad in Atlanta. The other day, I thought I saw a bluebird in our backyard.” Pause. “Turns out it was a sparrow holding its breath.”
The audience roars with laughter, and Duncan, whose big eyes are fringed with long lashes, blinks and beams triumphantly back at the spotlight.
At 8 years old, he is the youngest jokester in this August workshop offered by the Kid Komedy Foundation, an Atlanta organization that teaches children how to write and perform stand-up comedy, a form of self- expression that uniquely transforms the most basic fun—making someone else laugh—into art. The process enhances articulation, language development, and self-esteem, says Janet Schultz, a professional comedian and executive director of the foundation.
Duncan and his 11 classmates, ranging in age from 8 to 12, are “graduating” from their weeklong course with a live show for a packed house of family and friends at Dad’s Garage Theater, an Atlanta venue that specializes in cutting-edge comedy. There’s not a knock-knock or gross- out joke anywhere in the lineup. The kids are performing punch lines they wrote themselves, as well as long, sophisticated sketches by comedians such as Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and the Smothers Brothers. Some of the classic routines have been translated into kidspeak: Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” has become “Who’s in First Grade?” and a novelty song by Allan Sherman (best known for “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”) has been updated with references to Destiny’s Child and Smash Mouth.
Schultz hovers in the wings to whisper encouragement and forgotten lines to little comics who freeze, but most of them don’t need any prompting. “Your Costello-ness is very good,” she tells one boy after he’s done. He nods and says confidently, “Yeah, I do ‘mad’ really well.”
Backstage, kids buzz with nervous energy, and the floor is littered with strange props. The course “utilizes a multi-sensory model...of audio, visual, and kinesthetic methods,” according to the pamphlet describing the class, which means that rubber chickens are involved, along with facial disguises for a tribute to Groucho Marx: “One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know,” quips a boy wearing fake nose-and-mustache glasses while waggling a plastic cigar and pacing in the stooped Groucho shuffle.
The incongruity of a wide-eyed 9-year-old evincing the grown-up irony of the Marx Brothers or the pitch-perfect Brooklynese of Henny Youngman (“Take my mom—Please!”) is a joke in itself, as just about any one-liner gets funnier when chimed in a child’s soprano. But the kids’ original material can be as incisive as the borrowed stuff:
“My dad is so bad at barbecuing, my steak was mooing at me!”
“My mom has found an exercise she can do every day: aerobic nagging.”
“I’m so bad at arts and crafts, my teacher thought my self-portrait was my dog.”
Schultz is not surprised by the imaginative joke-writing. “Kids have amazing creativity,” she says. “They aren’t burdened with the uptightness and self-consciousness that we adults have.”
Schultz, a slender dynamo with an intense smile, grew up in St. Louis and spent 11 years as a social worker counseling children and families before pursuing a full-time career in stand-up. “I was burned out with my job, and friends and co-workers were always telling me I was funny,” sheexplains.
She enrolled in a six-week stand-up comedy class that culminated with a graduation performance at the Punch Line, the Atlanta launching pad of television stars Jeff Foxworthy and Brett Butler. “I don’t think there’s any greater, more exhilarating high than that first time you’re onstage and you make a crowd laugh,” she says. “I was hooked for good.”
Schultz left her job to plunge into the grueling comedy club circuit, performing on stages from Macon, Georgia, to Manhattan. Then about four years ago, while visiting family, Schultz helped her 8-year-old niece Claire write some jokes and silly songs and stage a performance in her backyard for relatives and neighbors, who gave rave reviews. Schultz recalls, “I woke up in the middle of the night knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I thought, If I can give kids that feeling of being onstage, if I can help an 8-year-old feel 10 feet tall, the way I did when I first heard a crowd laugh, it might give them the confidence to help them over the rough spots in life.”
So she formed the Kid Komedy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching the healing art of humor through intensive 12-week after-school programs, weeklong summer camps, and an assortment of one-hour workshops in schools. The foundation, funded by tuition and donations, is essentially a one- woman operation, with Schultz bringing in comedian friends to assist in its programs. To date, Schultz estimates, they’ve reached about 1,000 kids.
‘If I can help an 8-year-old feel 10 feet tall ... it might give them the confidence to help them over the rough spots in life.’
Every class begins with an introduction to the clean comedy of old- school masters. “Kids get a very warped sense of what’s considered funny because of what’s thrown at them on HBO,” says Doug Wren, a 5th grade teacher at Kittredge Magnet Elementary School in Atlanta. Schultz conducts regular workshops at the school, and Wren works as her assistant during the summer. “This course teaches kids they don’t have to be dirty to be funny.”
Schultz has developed workbooks—"fun books,” she prefers to call them—with setups, or cues, for jokes such as, “My mom’s purse is so cluttered that....” She works individually with students to refine punch lines and make the most of their deliveries. “OK, you’re being physically funny, but don’t growl,” she says to one of her more expressive students. “Good anger, but you sound like the devil. Don’t clench your jaw—Costello had a very clear voice.”
The course covers basics, including how to raise and lower the mike (chiefly, the mnemonic “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey”); clear diction and delivery (“don’t ‘eat’ the microphone”); physical mannerisms; and comedic timing. “I cannot emphasize enough how important the pause is,” she tells Duncan’s class. “It’s the difference between a medium laugh and a big, honest laugh. Pause for two beats—bom, bom—before the punch. For example: ‘My mom says I eat too much. Bom, bom. I’d argue with her, but it’s impolite to talk with your mouth full.’”
The kids also get to indulge in physical humor such as silly walks (à la Monty Python) and sight gags. Steven Perlberg, a 6th grader who has studied under Schultz for three years, says the props are his favorite. One of his routines involves brandishing a rubber chicken and a sneaker, then saying, “Don’t you just love the new Chicken Soup for the Sole?”
Kid Komedy Foundation classes aren’t just fun—they’re unique. While organizations and comedy clubs in cities like New York and Los Angeles host stand-up comedy competitions for teenagers, Schultz’s colleagues say they know of no other groups that teach regular, non-performing kids how to stand and deliver. “Most stand-up comedians don’t know how to write a clean joke, and the few comedians that could teach this type of class probably make too much money and are too busy to get involved with it,” says Jeff Justice, an Atlanta-based comedian and motivational speaker who is Schultz’s mentor. “With Janet, you have a funny woman who wants to stay in town, so the kids are very fortunate.”
Some students are so buoyed by the experience that they decide they’ve found their life’s work.
Steven Perlberg already is landing professional gigs at comedy clubs and charity events. “I would enjoy being a comedian when I grow up, but it’s a hard career, so I’m keeping my options open,” he says with adultlike seriousness. Steven’s mom, Diane Perlberg, adds, “Will he be the next Jerry Seinfeld? Maybe yes, maybe no. But the self-confidence, ease of communication, and mastery of public speaking he’s learning will benefit him no matter what he ends up doing.”
These are the aspects of comedy that Schultz prefers to emphasize. In addition to its oratorical lessons, she claims, stand-up comedy can effect miraculous psychological transformations by teaching one of life’s most basic survival skills: humor. Done right, a joke can ease tensions at school or the dinner table, and kids learn teamwork by giving each other applause when they step up to the mike. Most important, they learn the cathartic joy of laughing at themselves.
“What you want to do in comedy is poke fun at yourself, but not in a mean-spirited way,” she tells her class. “For example: ‘I have some behavioral problems. When I play hooky, the teacher sends a thank-you note.’ The kid who wrote that really did have some behavioral problems, but once he was able to identify this problem and laugh at himself, he began to deal with it.”
In fact, most students in these comedy classes wouldn’t be labeled “class clowns” in their yearbooks; they tend to be the sideline spectators who mumble wry commentary sotto voce, or the kids who fidget with an overabundance of energy.
|In addition to its oratorical lessons, stand-up comedy can effect miraculous psychological transformations by teaching one of life’s most basic survival skills: humor.|
“Some of the students are referred by school counselors,” Wren says. “They might have esteem problems and troubles at home. Comedy is a self-disciplined way for them to do something that might get them into trouble in a regular classroom: being the center of attention.”
Vincent Grecco, 10, is another of Schultz’s star students. His mother,Dianne Grecco, credits his comedy work with improving his classroom performance. “Vincent is an average student and borderline ADD,” she says. “Comedy gives him a way to channel his energy into something constructive instead of disruptive. Because of his clear delivery and comfort in front of a crowd, he gets an easy A on oral presentations now.”
He performs regularly for community events, most recently appearing at a conference of school administrators. “I get nervous just before I go on,” admits Vincent, who emulates Jim Carrey’s wacky physical style. “But then I hear people laugh, and the nervousness goes away. I like to hear people laugh.”
Schultz recalls other success stories. “There was one kid with a mild form of autism,” she says. “Still, it was clear that he was very bright, and he did well with the jokes. He came to me in the middle of the program and said, ‘You have no idea what it means to me to feel like I finally fit in.’ Another little girl stuttered, but she was able to get through her entire routine on stage without stuttering. Her mother was in tears.”
Motivated by tales such as these, Schultz has plans to expand her organization’s work. She’s currently seeking funding so she can offer free comedy classes at youth clubs in Atlanta’s impoverished neighborhoods.
“My dream is for comedy to be taught as an elective in schools, right along with drama and chorus,” Schultz says. “That’s a wonderful gift to be able to give a kidthe ability to fit in.”