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Can you teach someone to be funny? Steve Martin thinks so

(Photo by Joe Lodge, CC Images)
LISTEN: Can you teach someone to be funny? Steve Martin thinks so.

I quietly dreamed of performing stand-up comedy for 10 years before I got up the courage to go to an open mic night, and it was by far the most nervous I have ever been in my life.

If you also dream of scaring yourself silly for the sake of living your dreams, Steve Martin is teaching comedy classes on MasterClass — online courses taught by famous experts.

This got me thinking: Can you actually teach someone to be funny? In the trailer for the class, Steve Martin claims he had no talent when he started performing and that he wasn’t naturally funny. I find that hard to believe.

RELATED: Seattle comic uses laughs to talk about depression

So I called upon Seattle’s Peter Greyy for answers. Greyy is director of talent for the San Francisco Comedy Competition and the Seattle International Comedy Competition. He’s also a comedian and teaches stand-up classes.

“Woody Allen said no,” Greyy said. “Woody Allen said you either have funny bones or you don’t. Doug Stanhope says that comedy classes are a waste of time. All they do is teach someone how to be more like the person teaching the class. I disagree. I think that comedy can be taught because comedy is a performing art. It is also a craft and you can use the techniques of the craft. The basics are not hard, they’re just intimidating. More people fear public speaking than death, but it’s really the same thing. It’s the fear of the unknown.”

Comedy classes

So in his comedy classes, Greyy first focuses on getting people comfortable on stage.

“We first start with the fear,” he said. “How to adjust a microphone, how to walk onto a stage. There are two elements to comedy: there’s the performance and then there’s the writing. The writing itself is a craft and that can be taught. What can’t be taught are the unique experiences and observations that each performer brings to the stage. I can teach someone the basics of comedy, but where they take it, well, that’s completely up to them.”

A lot of that is learning to see the world and all of your experiences through a comedic filter. And learning how to craft a proper joke.

“They’re funny with their friends,” Greyy said. “So it’s taking their idea, ‘Well I’ll just tell the funny stories that my friends laugh at,’ and make them realize that they’re going to need some adjustments for a comedy audience. First thing I recommend is to talk about something you care about. A lot of people think, ‘I have to think of something funny.’ And it doesn’t work that way, the audience can feel that.”

“The second recommendation I give is to give a comedic attitude toward that,” he said. “The author and comedian Judy Carter, in her book, ‘The Comedy Bible,’ suggests these four words as being the best attitude words for coming up with comedy material. What is weird about the thing I want to talk about? What is scary about the thing I want to talk about? What is hard about the thing I want to talk about? What is stupid about the thing I want to talk about?”

I asked Greyy if there’s a stigma within the community about taking comedy classes.

“Oh yeah, because you don’t have to,” he said. “You can just go to open mics and learn it that way. If you pay someone money to teach you to be funny? That sounds weird. People who haven’t taken the class don’t understand that that’s not what you do. I’m not in there writing material for people. I’m not even saying you have to do it the way I just described it to you. If you’re staring at a white page and don’t know where to start, [the class] gets you going.

“Once you start incorporating the ideas of comedy writing into your brain, you’ll just do it naturally. You’ll just find ways to be funny, interpersonally, and then remember to write the stuff down. It gives you about a six-month advantage over people who just start with open mics. It gives you the basic understanding of how to perform and how to write a very basic joke. Doesn’t get you any further than that. The rest of the work you’re going to have to do like anyone else.”

Greyy actually paid for the Steve Martin class, so we’ll just have to wait and see if this seasoned comedian is able to up his funny after watching 25 instructional videos.

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