Students in Karma Waltonen’s freshman seminar on stand-up comedy have to do just that. The final exam is a five-minute routine in front of an audience.
While the students want to be hilarious at the final, the class is really about clear and concise writing. Without that, the funny will flop.
Writing funny is a challenge
“They have to come up with unique material that they’re presenting before an audience while also being funny,” says Waltonen, better known as Dr. Karma, a continuing lecturer in the University Writing Program.
“They come in for the fun and wanting to try their hand at comedy, not thinking this is going to be a challenging writing class.
“Most of them have never presented anything in front of people. I tell them at the end that they’ve done the hardest public speaking they’ll ever have to do.”
“Nothing is off limits, but we talk about how to frame the comments properly,” says Waltonen, who has done stand-up and is also an expert on The Simpsons and edited a just-released book of essays on Margaret Atwood.
“Sometimes a bad word just distracts the audience," Waltonen says. "They need to use it for a reason. Some are making jokes that are intentionally trying to push the boundaries, and that’s what good comedy often does.”
Usually they find out what works — and what doesn’t — when they try out the material for their classmates.
“There’s immediate feedback from an audience, and that’s usually the best feedback,” she says.
Big audience for the stand-up exam
The final exam — or show, take your pick — is held in a large classroom packed not just with the 15 or so students who are performing, but also with friends, a few parents and siblings. The room is buzzing loudly even before the fledgling comics send the jokes flying.
“They told me they’re having a final in the next room,” Waltonen says. “I told them, ‘So are we — and it’s going to be loud.’”