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LONG ISLAND JOURNAL; Teaching the Fine Art of Stand-Up Comedy


LEARNING to be a stand-up comic is serious business. It takes courage. It takes chutzpah. It takes a sense of humor.

Standing on the stage at the Governor's Comedy Cabaret and Restaurant in Levittown, a microphone in her hand, Maureen Kessler Fried was poking fun at her own life. Joking about her successful daughter, living on her own in the city, who brings home her laundry and her shopping list. And her husband of 33 years, a television sports addict, whom she has asked to accompany her to the opera sometime between now and death.

Only no one was laughing.

''Starting out in comedy is one of the most difficult, awkward things that a person can do,'' said Peter Bales, her comedy coach.

Mrs. Fried, a grandmother from East Meadow, had a great sense of irony, he said, but in order to be funny, she had to add a twist to reality. A punchline.

''Stand-up comedians go one step further than being funny at a party,'' Dr. Bales said. ''You go with your relatives and you tell that joke and everybody would laugh because they all know you're family. Strangers need more. You need to go to another level.''

It was ''Stand-Up University'' night at the half-darkened comedy club. Fortunately, there was no audience. Most of the chairs were still on top of the tables. Dr. Bales, an adjunct professor of history at Nassau Community College and C. W. Post, who was a comic before he earned a Ph.D. and still performs stand-up at local clubs several nights a week, was trying to teach Mrs. Fried and seven other would-be Jerry Seinfelds how not to bomb onstage. How to treasure subtlety and avoid being too crude, too angry and just plain not funny. How to churn out the thigh slappers, deliver one-liners and spread the gift of laughter in six easy lessons.

''A comedian is a very intelligent person working at the height of his intelligence,'' Dr. Bales said. ''It's hard work. It's very difficult. The Spanish writer Cervantes said the most difficult character in drama is that of the fool, and he must be no fool who plays that part. In medieval times, the court jester was the smartest person in the cast. Comedians are very intelligent and very insecure.''

Traditionally, stand-up comics get their start at open microphone nights at local clubs. Although Long Island has been known as a breeding ground -- Rosie O'Donnell, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal and Ray Romano all started here -- it's nearly impossible to break in. Stage time is precious. And a five-minute routine can make or break a career.

Honing their performance skills, helping find their stage characters and figuring out ahead of time what works and what doesn't saves months and months of frustration and, sometimes, embarrassment.

Being nervous is absolutely normal, the professor continued. The trick, he said, is to harness that anxiety about getting up on stage, and use it to generate comedy. And then open with the most hilarious piece of material possible.

''The audience is judging you,'' Dr. Bales told his charges. ''The most important period of time for any comedian is his first 45 seconds when the audience is deciding whether or not they like you and whether or not you are going to be funny.''

Like most of his classmates, Gary Hamanjian, 43, said folks are always telling him that he cracks them up. That he tells a good joke. Yearning for glory, the bartender from Lindenhurst took center stage and hesitantly pulled from his past as a professional boxer and wrestler on the small-town circuit.

''I had a perfect record, seven knockouts,'' he said. '''Every time I hit the canvas perfectly.'' Eyes rolled.

He said he also tried his hand at ultimate fighting, where anything goes inside the cage -- kickboxing, biting, screaming, pulling hair. ''But then my wife left me,'' he deadpanned.

''You have to open up and be truthful,'' Dr. Bales said. ''If you're not, the audience will sense it. You have to let down your walls, let down your guard. The actual jokes may not be literal truths. You have to exaggerate it for a punchline or a laugh, but the fundamental truth has to be there. You have to be honest. If not the audience will smell it.''

Long Island's only comedy school was hatched last April by Dr. Bales and two other professional comedians, Rich Walker and Steve Lazarus, while they were eating french fries at a diner at three in the morning after a gig. To date, 69 students have taken the course. While Dr. Bales teaches, Mr. Walker and Mr. Lazarus pitch in with tips and criticisms. Graduation requires performing a routine at a show for family and friends. Invitations go only to those close enough to the participants to lie to them about how well they did. Or to laugh out loud.

''We're getting these students to open up and talk about issues,'' Dr. Bales said later. He concentrates first on premises and punchlines, then timing, voice and delivery.

Chris Christensen, 40, an automobile transmissions specialist from Massapequa who was repeating the class, was looking to head off a midlife crisis with a new career. Richie Mann, an assistant in the physics department at SUNY Stony Brook, said he wanted to polish his humor before telling his wife where he was really spending his evenings. He said she thought he was taking out the trash.

And Kim Poulos, a graphics designer and mother of two young children from Levittown, who claimed to be so busy she can't even afford to watch the road while driving, was trying out a comedy routine about her overpacked schedule.

Evan Weiss climbed onstage with the front grille from his car. On the way to class, he had an accident. The waiter, who does a weekly gig at a bar in Centereach, figured it would make a good prop for his routine.

''I want to make it real,'' said the 24-year-old from Coram. ''Everybody's humor comes out of their life, their experience. Pain is universal. That's where real comedy comes from.'' He wisecracked about his car, his high school days in special education class, his gay brother and his Jewish mother.

''Ever since I was a kid, I've been known to say the most ridiculous things,'' said Patrick Cashin, 20, of Baldwin, launching into a fantasy about going back to high school. ''I'd rather be on stage than anywhere else.'' Mr. Cashin, who spends his days going to auditions, always figured he'd be a star by now.

It hasn't happened.

''You're trying too hard,'' Dr. Bales told him. Some people have a natural wit, Dr. Bales said. Some don't. Which makes it his job to help them be funny rather than teach them how to be. And some people, no matter how many guffaws they elicit, just can't cut it as stand-up comics. Usually, he can tell right away.

Dr. Bales became a comic after starring in a high school play. ''It was the happiest, most exciting feeling I ever had,'' he said. ''I wanted to try and prolong that feeling, to recreate that feeling every night if I could. There's no better feeling in the world -- the attention, the power of having an audience in the palm of your hand. It's all about ego.''

Even if fame is only a dream.

''We're not taking ourselves too seriously,'' he said. ''The bottom line is comedy should be fun and you should be having a great time when you are doing it. If you're not, you are doing it wrong.''

Organizations mentioned in this article:
Governor's Comedy Cabaret (Levittown, NY)

Related Terms:
Comedy and Humor

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