True humor earned, not learned

by Lizzie McDowell / Beacon Correspondent • September 23, 2015

If you ask me what my favorite joke is, I’ll laugh to myself for five minutes straight before choking out, “You know what really gets my goat? El Chupacabra.” This is exactly the reason I become extremely uncomfortable when people ask me to tell them a joke after finding out I’m in a comedy troupe. My banter is good, my sketches are good, but my off-the-cuff gags are truly terrible, because they’re not mine. So when 20 people asked me if I was excited for the comedy major and minor, and asked if I’d be switching, I wanted to scream. The classes would be just that—learning to repeat these words—and that’s not funny. 

I’m an acting major with a minor in writing. I happen to do comedy on the side, because a wonderful group of people decided I was good enough to collaborate with them and because it sounded like fun. I was never asked to sit in a classroom with 15 other students to be told what a joke was, and neither were the thousands of artists who currently work in comedy writing and performance. In my opinion, students could learn just as much about comedy from taking a performance-based class (yes, these classes exist for all majors!) and just as much about funny writing from a more comprehensive course in the topic. Just as we can’t exclusively teach dramatic acting, because it devastatingly limits the understanding of theatre, we can’t exclusively teach comedy without risking the loss of the ability to give a well-rounded performance. Well-done comedy lies in a balance between the two.

The major and minor are falsely advertising that every student who graduates from either program will somehow become funnier, or have better comedic sensibility. I can’t say for certain where this comes from, but I know it isn’t something that can be taught in a classroom. No instructor has the time to help a student personally develop their own style and understanding of comedy, and without that particular individuality, pupils can become generic joke machines that fail to leave a lasting impression.

In an audition room, it becomes overwhelmingly apparent when someone has great comedic instincts, even if the technical side of the writing isn’t necessarily there. This is a huge positive, because instructors can teach mechanics and help develop personal style over time. What we absolutely cannot do is teach someone how to find ideas funny, and be able to communicate those in a way that will make an audience laugh too. 

I am not, however, the ultimate authority of how Emerson should run, nor am I the be-all-end-all of comedy. The major and minor might be incredibly effective, or they might not be—it’s impossible to predict. If one student out of the program has a successful career—however one personally defines that—as a stand-up comedian or brilliant writer on the next satirical political show, he or she would not not owe their success to a degree in comedy. While it won’t necessarily hurt a career, there are far better uses of the college’s time and resources. It also shouldn’t be the final say in working in comedy from now on. 

Comedy is such a personal, relative art. It’s really wonderful when you can find a group of people that have a similar sense of humor to yours, because it allows you to learn and grow in a way that you’d never be able to if you hadn’t taken the chance to meet those people. Being in a troupe has honestly been one of the best things I’ve done with my short time at Emerson, but that doesn’t make me want to pursue a degree in comedy. My success—or failure—as a comedic actor or writer should have nothing to do with the specific training I may have received, because in the end, it comes from me. As cliché as it sounds, everyone is funny in their own way, and we shouldn’t need a degree to justify that fact.