by Matt Holmes
Comedy has always had a tradition of education. It could be informal advice, taking someone under your wing, or a formal series of classes, workshops, and speeches. People transition from beginners learning the ropes to experts who can pass down their wisdom.
As comedians progress in their career, they might find themselves taking on titles like teacher, instructor, director, coach, adviser, guru, guide, lecturer, team captain, or mentor. When you teach something, you learn more about it yourself; you have to know the subject comprehensively to enlighten someone else.
- Regrettably, there’s little training for comedy educators. There are some models for curriculum and resources, but the focus tends to be on what’s being taught, not how to teach it.
- Also regrettably, the world of comedy can be somewhat segregated, and people can struggle as much with how they fit in as how they get funny.
Here are some tips for creating the right atmosphere for those in your tutelage, highlighting issues of diversity.
Open & Inclusive
When people are learning from you, you don’t know what else is going on with them. Be open, aware, and willing to deal with whatever issues your students might have, and encourage them to share. It’s helpful to know as much as possible, so you can plan ahead and be flexible for whatever might come up.
- Clarify in advance what will happen, so people know what to expect; tell students if they’ll actively participate or just sit and listen.
- Don’t let your class or workshop have any hidden fees or costs; make it clear what people will have to do and pay.
- Be straightforward about what you expect and what’s not okay.
Create an experience that is welcoming, clear, and comfortable. Allow for questions, comments, and open sharing.
Some exercises or assignments might include things that are true, personal, embarrassing, or emotional. Some random topics that come up might affect somebody in a serious way. Be sensitive and polite to what that person might be experiencing, no matter how much you know or understand about it.
Allow them to share, but don’t force them to do anything that’s not comfortable. Be prepared for an awkward situation; have some back-up options and allow yourself to shift gears and make up something new.
Different Kinds of Learners
People learn in all different ways.
- Some learn fine by just sitting and listening, while others benefit from seeing it, doing it, or discussing it.
- Some need time to think and digest what they’ve learned, while others get it right away.
- Some need to take notes, while others don’t benefit from that at all.
- Some need to fiddle with something so they don’t get bored.
- I’d argue that everybody benefits from having key points summarized and reviewed.
Challenge people to try, but don’t force it or make anything a requirement. Mix up your lesson plan so it’s not too much of one thing for too long, and try to cover material in different ways to reach different kinds of learners.
Jargon & References
Any subject has its own language and terminology. Even in an education situation with structure and levels, people will have different backgrounds. Some people will be unfamiliar with certain things, will do things differently, or use different terminology when they mean the same thing. Make sure they’re comfortable asking for clarification.
- Don’t rely on jargon or expect everybody to know exactly what you mean.
- Don’t ask first or let anybody feel like a burden. Just explain everything in a complete, concise way.
Imagine that nobody knows what you’re talking about. It’ll help to get everybody on the same page and clarify what you want them to do.
Don’t make somebody feel like an idiot for not knowing what you call a particular exercise.
Some people won’t get certain references. Explain what you’re talking about and what you mean.
- People don’t all watch the same TV shows, read the same books, or listen to the same music.
- Someone from out of town won’t know that restaurant or local personality.
- Someone from one culture won’t know all the ins and outs of another culture.
- Don’t make somebody feel like an idiot for not knowing some celebrity factoid or esoteric anecdote.
Challenge them to try and suggest that they be informed and knowledgeable, but don’t rely on those still learning to already be experts.
Abilities & Facilities
Everybody should be welcomed to do whatever they can. Encourage people to share—either in advance or if something comes up—if they have any issue or concern.
Clarify in advance if the space is wheelchair-accessible, if people will have to walk up 10 flights of stairs, if it’ll involve a lot of strangers touching you intimately, if there’s no buzzer and people will have to call to be let into the building, if they should expect it to be really hot or cold, or anything else that just might be nice to know in advance.
- Some situations might involve sitting or standing for a long time; let people adjust if they need to.
- If somebody has trouble hearing, be willing to repeat things.
- Make things easy-to-see and easy-to-read for anybody.
- Allow for people to go feed meters if they have to; not everybody can afford to pay for parking.
- Allow people to go to the bathroom whenever they need to.
You don’t know what their deal is, and you don’t want to embarrass anybody.
Religious, Cultural, Personal Issues
Comedy can get edgy and offensive. An educational situation, exercise, or project might involve something that your student might not want to do. There could be all kinds of personal, cultural, or religious issues that would make somebody uncomfortable, and those should be respected. You don’t want to overcompensate and make a sterile, boring environment or create a litany of rules to obey, but you have to be flexible.
Different people like different kinds of comedy. Eventually, they can decide their own style and do comedy that is the perfect fit for them. A class or workshop is just to learn how.
Challenge them to try. Allow them to stop if they really need to.
Don’t Make A Big Deal Out Of It
You might find yourself teaching a group that has one person who is much older or younger, one person who is a different gender or ethnicity than the rest of the group, or someone with something else particularly unique.
Don’t highlight it. Don’t make it more important than it is. Don’t make them feel like a bothersome burden, but don’t give them special treatment. Don’t dote on them or keep talking about it. Don’t make it an awful taboo to mention it, but don’t make it a big deal. Special treatment (good or bad) is not productive or helpful.
Treat people like people and be open about different needs, backgrounds, and issues. Then, we can concentrate on the serious business of fine-crafting the perfect fart joke.
Matt Holmes is an improviser in Philly. He performs a full improv comedy set with a complete stranger from the audience in Matt& (“playful and winning” –TimeOut Chicago). He also teaches improv, coaches improv groups, and co-founded Rare Bird Show (“Top Shelf Improv” –The Apiary, “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced” –AV Club).
Look for the next installment of “Discussing a Bit,” Matt’s monthly WitOut column, on February 1st.
Have a comedy issue or theory you’d like Matt to examine? Email email@example.com.