Why am I paying for these classes?
A lot of folks would say taking comedy classes- “lessons” in being funny- is a particularly risky investment. Frankly, I have to agree. But let’s talk about shiny objects for a moment. Gold is everywhere in LA right now! (It’s awards season.) Back during the California Gold Rush, people who sold the picks and shovels made money, not the wide-eyed dreamers looking to hit it big. These days, flyers touting career-changing seminars, intensives, and “deep-dives” for the aspiring performer paper telephone poles, coffee-shop bulletin boards and email boxes. The “pick and shovel” folks who target actors can be very creative with their offerings. PT Barnum would be as proud as heck of this town.
Truthfully, I don’t think acting can be taught. You’re either good at it or you’re not. You can practice, get some technical help with how you look or sound on camera, but being a compelling, watchable actor? Not something you can deep-dive-workshop your way into. It’s the same with comedy. But we all get taken in by the promises, don’t we? Even the most cynical comedy types. Is it something in the water? I noticed a few things during my introductory classes at Second City Hollywood that keep coming up for me.
First observation: In Improv 1 we didn’t learn how to do anything. On the first day they explained a few games and we played them. Maybe without realizing the inherent requirement, the school expected each of us to have a lively imagination that would function within their framework. I learned later that there was one person in the room with no improv experience; the rest of us knew the lay of the wacky land, and our task would be to learn to run it faster.
So what happens to folks who don’t possess general creativity? That, incidentally, no one told them would be required? Watching classmates effortlessly weave narratives (funny narratives!) out of thin air is intimidating. And to someone who was happy to stop playing pretend in 4th grade, it’s enough to make her leave and never come back. Schools assume a percentage of people will drop out of an introductory improv class, but I don’t think they attribute the losses to the fact that there is an unspoken creative prerequisite. And to be clear, it’s not that you have to be a comic genius coming in. But an imagination, an ability to free associate words, concepts, situations…you can’t be too firmly tethered to your own reality.
Second observation: students at any comedy class are self-selecting. Chances are they’re going to be funny, and people have told them so. Otherwise they wouldn’t get up the nerve to sign up, turn over a not-insignificant amount of money and get in a room to figure out; am I really good at this or do I just have inside jokes with my cousins? Everyone’s operating from their baseline, and some folks are already through Levels 1-3 at UCB.
Three classes into Conservatory 1, I recognize I have been operating on the creativity I walked in with. Knowing how I feel about classes not working magic, I’m counting on myself more than my instructors, and I’d bet they are counting on me, too. They’re well aware that they don’t work at Hogwarts. For comedy, whether stand-up or improv, the learning is in the doing. My progress at Second City will have more to do with how much I get to actually practice improv in class and less to do with lesson content. The more I’m on my feet performing scenes with classmates, being forced to work out the parts of my brain that are still catching up, the better.
I don’t know if I am touched by the mad brilliance I so admire in my improv idols like Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey. How far I’m willing to go, and how much I’m willing to shell out in order to find out has yet to be determined. I know this: there will be no deep dive, career-changing seminars. But sounds ripe for a parody, doesn’t it?
My challenge now, (presented separately but identically by two very funny, talented performers/instructors) is to get out of my head. I brought a fierce wit with me into this experience, along with a lot of fear, regret and resentment. Here’s to leaving all of that nonsense down on Hollywood Boulevard and letting my brain run free upstairs in the rooms at Second City.