By Nicole Blaine, Comedy Chieftain
(finding parenthood painfully funny)
CLASS CLOWNING AROUND
How does one become funny? Is it innate? Learned? Practiced? Can you sleep your way to the top of the funny pyramid? If I could, trust me, I would. I’d let Cosby have his way with me. (Too soon?) When I run into old friends from my grade school days and tell them that now I’m a stand-up comic, the usual response is, “Really? Are you joking? I don’t remember you being funny.” Unfortunately, I’m not joking. But that would be a good way to prove that I’m funny now if I claimed to be a stand-up but was actually the CEO of Google. (You can use that, Mr. Google. You’re welcome.) However, they are right, I was never the funny one: the class clown. I was the overachieving, straight A student, captain of the cheerleading team, theater dork who never got a lead in the school play. In fact, I took everything very seriously. Just as I do now. I take the science of joking very, very seriously.
There is an art and science to comedy. There are certain tricks and formulas you can learn and then apply to the material you are creating. There is the classic rule of 3, the usual great analogies that comics use to make a point, the misdirects or misleading set up, the reversal, and the use of repetition, to name a few. But to really be funny, you need more than some structural tricks. So I decided to ask the professionals. How did a top working comic today learn to be funny? Was it fostered at home? Was she the class clown? And what about our future class clowns? Is comedy being fostered in the classroom? What does a high school principal have to say?
I got to sit down with one of my favorite comics working today, Kira Soltanovich. She also happens to be a mom of a 4 year old boy and pregnant with her daughter. After 17 years of performing stand-up comedy, performing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and shooting her second comedy special this summer, Kira reflects back on her childhood and the growth of her funny bone.
BMama: Were you funny as a child? Where you the class clown?
Kira: I have seen the inside of every Principal’s office at every school I ever attended. Does that answer your question? Starting in the 1st grade, where I had a desk in the hallway dedicated specifically for me when I would make too many jokes during class at my very small, private school called Hebrew Academy in San Francisco. I was kicked out at the end of that school year.
Speaking of principals, enter Karen Eshoo. Head of School for Vistamar High School, an independent school nestled in the middle of a quaint Los Angeles suburban neighborhood, just outside of Manhattan Beach. Vistamar prides itself on its diverse learning community and globally influenced curriculum.
BMama: Ms. Eshoo, does your school use comedy in the classroom? If so, how?
Eshoo: I’m not sure that I would call it “comedy” per se, but one of my favorite things about my colleagues here at Vistamar is that they share a very good sense of humor. In fact, the line I have used in all of my job postings for the last (ahem) 15 years is: “Flexibility and a sense of humor are required.” Because really, I just can’t hire anyone who isn’t funny, or who can’t enjoy the comedy that is naturally embedded in all high school students. (The students don’t necessarily think they’re funny when we think they are…and actually, we don’t think they’re funny when they think they are either. LOL)
BMama: Kira, were you punished or rewarded for being funny?
Kira: I was never “rewarded” until I started to make money. Even then, sometimes at the most amazing stand up gigs I will be punished by a drunk heckler now and again. When I was a kid, I learned that I could get out of trouble with my parents if I could just make them laugh.
BMama: When did you become funny?
Kira: I started “writing” bits in the 1st grade. I remember doing a fake yawn, stretching my arms out wide and telling my 1st grade teacher that I really needed to REST. Could I please go to the room with the toilet… you know, the rest room? Ugh. I was such a hack at even 6 years old.
BMama: Ms. Eshoo, how often are children laughing in the classroom?
Eshoo: Pretty much every day. Now…just to qualify that…I am sure there isn’t a lot of giggling when they’re taking an AP Chem test, or when they’ve just broken up with their girlfriend, etc. But still, the teachers here love what they do and they clearly enjoy it, and they do whatever they can to help the students see that too. So, I’d say that on any given day that I walk into a classroom, there is about a 98% chance I’ll hear some laughing going on.
BMama: Do you think comedy is innate or learned?
Kira: Comedy is different for everyone. For me, it was a survival mechanism. I think it’s more innate, especially if your life depends on it.
BMama: Who or what taught you comedy?
Kira: Life! People don’t know there are actually 3 ways humans react in a stressful situation. Fear. Flight. Funny.
Eshoo: I went to a pretty traditional Catholic school for elementary and high school, that meant that I learned to become funny so that there was at least something to laugh about. I learned the hard way that sometimes things that sound funny in my head don’t sound as funny out loud, and I definitely irritated a lot of teachers along the way. (It’s okay – I went back and taught at my alma mater where I got to apologize to everyone…and where none of my former teachers gave me any sympathy whatsoever when I had versions of myself in my own classroom.)
BMama: Kira, were you raised in a funny household?
Kira: No. Soviets are not funny people.
BMama: Ms. Eshoo, Any correlation to favorite teachers and funny teachers?
Eshoo: Absolutely! My favorite teachers were funny in ways that showed they were smart – quick on the uptake, wry, always with a kind of wink to the side and they teased us and also were open to be teased a little as well. No big egos. They took their work seriously, but they never took themselves *too* seriously.
BMama: How do your parents feel about you doing comedy?
Kira: Strangely, they are actually very supportive. But then again, they always told me I wasn’t smart enough to be a doctor or lawyer… soooo there’s that.
BMama: How long have you been doing stand-up?
Kira: My first open mic was 1997 or 1998. Kinda sad, I don’t remember the actual date.
BMama: How long did it take for you to feel competent in the art of comedy?
Kira: I’ll let you know when that happens. Just when you think you’re a “competent” comedian you do a corporate gig, or fundraiser or military show where someone just died in battle, or from an incurable disease and then the host asks the weeping audience: Are you ready for some comedy?! Trust me, your competency as a comedian is tested on a daily basis.
BMama: Can a normal (or unfunny) person learn to be really funny?
Kira: Sure. I think you can learn to be funnier than you already are. It’s basically just learning how to be comfortable in your own skin. When sales people tell me they’re taking an improv class to make more sales, I tell them that’s a great idea! But I don’t think that’s the same as having a deep down, raw need to tell drunk strangers jokes. That can’t be taught. That’s an amazing sickness that is organic to your soul.
BMama: Ms. Eshoo, is comedy being taught in the classroom?
Eshoo: Probably in our drama class. And in the Improv Club. And in the hallways whenever us funny adults crack jokes and the kids decide they should totally emulate us.
BMama: How do you feel about stand-up comedy classes? Did you ever take one?
Kira: Sure! I believe in acting classes, writing classes, improv, parenting classes, online HTML classes. Whatever helps you learn more about what you’re passionate about. But there’s no substitute for performing in Scratch Your Ass, Arkansas and getting paid in chicken nuggets.
BMama: Ms. Eshoo, would you support a stand-up comedy lesson in your school?
Eshoo: YES! Timing is everything…I think every high school student needs to learn that, right? What better way?
BMama: Kira, what was your first joke? How much has your stand-up changed?
Kira: My first open mic joke was a bit about having a tape worm. And now I talk about being pregnant on stage so…. not much has changed.
BMama: Do you think it’s important to teach your kids the art of comedy?
Kira: A life of being a jackass (which was my childhood) is really hard. I would try to deter my kids from a life of comedy. But, if it’s in them naturally, there’s nothing I can do.
BMama: Ms. Eshoo, how do you respond to your class clowns?
Eshoo: I tried to be more like them in between shamelessly laughing my ass off. Oh, and I would egg them on. Because whatever they were doing that was funny was likely more interesting that whatever we were supposed to be studying.
Looks like there is hope yet for the future of our clowns. Class is in session.
For more on Kira Soltanovich: www.kiracomedy.com Check out the Kira Soltanovich Show podcast: http://allthingscomedy.com/channels/65/the-kira-soltanovich-show