Before comedians like Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld became famous they were kids. This made me wonder how any child interested in comedy knows to follow that path in life and what it’s like, so I reached out to two talented individuals, one adult professional comedian and one teen with stand-up aspirations.
Comedian, author, playwright and L.A. local, Steve Bluestein, first realized he was funny at age seven or eight. He would sit around the table at his grandmother’s house along with his aunts and uncles. They would be talking and Bluestein would interject something into the conversation, making them all laugh. “At school, I was the one who was always making other people laugh. My yearbook says, ‘to the funniest, to the wittiest’ over and over again because I’m just one of those people who looks at life and sees things just a little bit differently than other people.” The late comedian David Brenner told him that once, when he was walking down the street, there was an explosion and a manhole cover flew up into the air. “He called ‘Heads!’ That’s just the way he [saw] life and it’s the way I see life.” Bluestein says that’s being intrinsically funny.
“It wasn’t until I got to high school that I started recognizing comedy as an art form instead of just a way to be goofy and make friends,” says high school junior, Julia Claire Vallen. “However, there wasn’t a specific day that I woke up and said, ‘I want to make people laugh today.’ I was always the class clown; I was always the funny kid; it’s always been a part of who I am.”
There are two types of comedians in professional comedy according to Bluestein. “There’s the intrinsically funny comic like Elayne Boosler, Howie Mandel, Gary Shandling … then there are comedians who’ve learned that if you say seven words in a row and stop, the audience will laugh.” Bluestein says you can’t teach someone how to be intrinsically funny but you can teach them the craft of how to be funny and get a laugh. Vallen notes that comedians are also educated people as well as deep thinkers. “Someone can be taught timing, tone, and physicality, and be pretty successful in their comedic endeavors. However, a revolutionary comedian is someone who has the ability to manipulate serious situations into a story that makes someone smile. It requires a deeper understanding of words and people that cannot be taught.”
Vallen says that to be successful, anyone with comic ambitions must have certain traits including courage. “To accurately tell an outrageous story or portray a strange comedic character you cannot be afraid of what people think of you. For women in comedy, it’s especially important to not care about what you look like. Most women are afraid of being viewed as unattractive. In order to be a female comic, you have to allow yourself to be unattractive, gross, loud, outspoken and weird.” Bluestein emphasizes the important role self-confidence plays. “They absolutely have to believe in themselves. When I was working a lot … I wouldn’t listen to any other act that preceded me.” That allowed him to focus on being the best that he could be. Aspiring comedians should not compare themselves to anyone advises Bluestein. “As far as you’re concerned there’s only you.”
It also helps to have supportive parents who encourage their child’s passion for comedy. Discouraging it, says Bluestein speaking from experience, discourages the child and “that will carry over into all aspects of his or her life.”
One advantage of learning comedy techniques is being able to apply them to everyday life. Vallen says comedy teaches you to laugh at your mistakes and not take life so seriously. “What many people don’t understand is that there’s a lot of pain behind standup comedy … Usually the funniest situations are the ones where something goes terribly wrong. Being able to look at a difficult situation and be able to joke about it makes it seem not so awful. It’s important to have these skills as a young person because teenagers and young adults put so much pressure on themselves to succeed.” Vallen recommends that every young person learn improvisation skills. “Perfecting my improv skills has made me a better public speaker, a quick learner, and an outside the box thinker.”
Of course, it’s not all belly laughs. “The difficulty in comedy comes with certain ‘fears’ we have because of society,” says Vallen. “For example, if you’re a female comedian you can’t be afraid of looking ugly or acting unlady-like. The biggest fear a comedian has to overcome is being afraid of embarrassing herself. Have you ever told a joke that was bad and made everything awkward, leaving you with the fear of not being able to tell another joke? You can’t have that fear as a comedian. You have to accept the fact that you can’t make everyone laugh. No matter how funny you are, there will always be someone who doesn’t laugh at your jokes.”
Resiliency is key. Bluestein says it’s a very hard life, even when you become successful. You’re always on a plane, always traveling and the disappointments are fast and furious. He adds that future comedians should “be able to write, act, do standup, take photos” and not limit their creativity to just standup. “Everybody says they want to be a star, but a lot of people end up being stars as writers. Look at Larry David, the producer from Seinfeld. He started out as a comedian, but found gold producing, which later got him his own television show. Diversify, don’t put all your eggs into one comedic basket.”
“Comedy is art,” says Vallen. “Sometimes it may not seem like it when you’re watching a show and someone slips on a banana peel, or spills hot coffee all over themselves. Comedy is engaging, controversial, enjoyable, and thought provoking. It’s an art form that people experience every day. Everyone loves jokes and everyone has a sense of humor.
Well, if laughter is the best medicine, it sounds like Bluestein and Vallen can prescribe comedy as the cure.
For classes in improv, sketch comedy and/or stand up for kids and/or teens call: Flappers University (818) 845-9721, ages 5+; The Second City Training Center (323) 464-8542, ages 8-18; The Groundlings School (323) 934-4747, ages 11-18; Upright Citizens Brigade (323) 285-3805, regular classes for teens ages 16+, occasional classes for ages 13-16.
Ronna Mandel is a contributing writer to JLife. You can find her blog at goodreadswithronna.com.