Sixteen students walked into a bar and put on a comedy show.
Budding performers from Humber’s Comedy Writing program flaunted their funny bones as they took over Comedy Bar’s main stage on March 9.
The stand-up and sketch night, ironically called “Not a Humber Show,” was fully produced and advertised by the keen group of young comics.
The stage was a testing ground for new material and it allowed them to build upon the writing skills they have been learning on campus.
Patrick Stewart, a second-year student and member of the sketch troupe Respect Cops, hosted the event and said school is helping him sharpen his skills.
“I think comedy is a self-defense mechanism that you learn through a lot of struggle,” he said. “The Humber program teaches you to harness it.”
First-year student Zach Berge, who participated in the show, said all of Humber’s teachers are professionals. “We get inside tips instead of just going out there blind,” he said.
Gary Rideout Jr., comedian and owner of Comedy Bar – and an alumnus of the Comedy Writing program – disagrees with naysayers who say studying comedy is fruitless.
“You can get your driver’s license without taking driver’s ed,” he said. But “It’s going to make you more confident when you go out into the scene because it’s a hard scene to be a part of.
You create a network of people you’re going to end up working with.”
Josh Murray, children’s performer and instructor at The Second City, agrees that a formal education is valuable.
“Studying the history of comedy brings you closer to an industry that’s constantly changing,” he said. “You have to know where you came from to know where you’re going.”
The mechanics of joke writing can be taught, but opinions vary on whether or not someone can learn how to be funny.
Brittany Pryatt, a second-year student who performed a stand-up set Monday, says comedic chops are genetic.
“To actually be funny is something you have to be born with and build upon when you grow up,” she said.
Rideout said no comic is amazing the first time they perform, and that years of getting on stage every night can give truth to the “practice makes perfect” adage.
“I’ve seen people that frankly don’t have comedic charm be terrible for five straight years, then all of a sudden in the sixth year something clicks and they’re good,” he said. “How’s that not learned?”
One thing young comics need to learn is how to pick themselves up when their jokes fall flat.
“Feels like a big ol’ punch in the gut. When you have a joke and think it’s going to be really funny, you trust yourself,” said Stewart. “When it bombs, it’s like, ‘Oh no I made a mistake and everyone saw.”
He said he remains hopeful and doesn’t let the negative energy take control.
“Comedy is a test. Everyone is against you it seems. You need to persevere,” said Murray. “Every famous comedian had that time they felt like they should just pack it in and work at their dad’s factory. You need to push through and say, ‘No, this is what I wanna do.’”
Most aspiring comics want to get noticed. That’s not an easy task when you’re a small fish in a big pond like Toronto.
Pryatt, who wants to write comedy for a living and looks up to strong females like Joan Rivers, said getting great headshot photos, trademarking yourself and doing three or four sets each week is key.
Rideout said a lot of young comics are told to write what they think is funny, but that figuring out what is commercially viable and what the audience likes is also important.
“If you’re not entertaining to anyone, no one is going to want to see you on stage, and no one’s going to pay to put you on a stage,” he said. “Branding, marketing and having business savvy are all as important as being funny.”
Murray said comics really have to bring something unique to the table.
You have to know where you came from to know where you’re going.
“We’re tired. We’ve seen it all. When people are innovative and interesting that’s when people take notice,” he said. “If you’re doing the same set about not having a job or a girlfriend…boo! Seen it. We don’t care.”
These ambitious jokesters clocking in at open mic nights around the city and producing shows of their own are adding practical experience atop the comedic foundation the Humber program is laying.
Rideout and Murray agree that comedy is a grind, but persistence and hard work pay off.
“Eventually the cream rises to the top,” said Rideout.
Respect Cops will be performing March 15 at The Theatre Centre part of the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival. Stewart is hosting a stand up night called “Unreal Comedy” at Placebo Space April 2.