THE HOMEROOM of Stevie Ray’s School of Improv, a small space in the Calhoun Arts building in south Minneapolis, feels like a gym: stark white walls, rubber mats on the floor, the scent of eau de sweat sock lingering in the air. But the only contortions that take place here during the school’s four-week standup comedy classes are verbal, and the only lifting occurs when the students have to pick up the pieces of jokes that bomb.
It’s the first class of the November session, taught by Eugene “Daddyo” Huddleston, a veteran comic. Huddleston moves to the microphone, snaps on the power, and explains how comedians connect with their audiences. “If you care about what you’re talking about, then the audience will care. All they want to do is get to know and trust you. So even if you took a stand against, say, George Bush, if it’s funny, even the Republicans will accept it.” He pauses. “Well…probably not so much.”
This month’s class is atypically small, just three students. But that doesn’t mean Huddleston plans to go easy on them. His pupils—Carrie, a television writer, Denny, a purchaser for a dental-products company, and Doug, who works in information technology—are thrown into the spotlight almost immediately. Just a half hour into the class, Huddleston passes the microphone to the students, clicks his timer, and tells each one to riff for three minutes.
The nervousness is palpable, but each student quickly slips into a comic persona: Doug takes the Seinfeldian approach of a man befuddled by the small things in life; Carrie is an over-Disneyed/underappreciated mommy with three kids; Denny is a displaced Los Angeleno in denial that Minneapolis qualifies as a city. Many of the jokes fall flat, but Huddleston is there to reshape them. When Doug stumbles over a bit about dysentery as the next weight-loss fad, Huddleston gently begins his critique with “I think you’re mispronouncing ‘dysentery,’ ” then crafts the concept into a joke about misunderstanding the current infatuation with self-improvement.
After these initial performances (which Carrie describes as “torture” and Denny says nearly made him pee his pants), the students return each week with prepared material, three-minute sets that they rehearse in front of the group and improve with feedback from each other on, say, which jokes dragged on too long and which quips were clunkers. Carrie’s “Beatnik Mommy” poetry jam on outlet malls and her creepy ice-cream salesman impersonation (performed with bongo drums) get mixed reviews. Denny’s skewering of the average female Minnesotan’s physique compared to the “hard bodies” of L.A. is shot down as insulting to local audiences.
If the comics seem like a tough crowd, impressing them is a breeze compared with making a splash in the world of standup comedy. The local comedy scene, Huddleston says, isn’t what it used to be. “When I started out in the ’80s, the comedy boom was huge and there were as many comedy clubs in the Twin Cities as there are strip clubs now,” he says. What happened? “Cable. There are so many standup shows on TV that people started staying in instead of going out for a real show.”
The class’s “final exam,” though, is a bona fide show—a Friday night performance at Stevie Ray’s Comedy Cabaret in Bloomington. On the night of their exam, Denny is nowhere to be found. Carrie and Doug nervously sip drinks, but they perform well. They’re certainly better, Huddleston says, than the former student who got out only “I’m Jerry from North Dakota” before fleeing the stage. This audience appears to be made up of Carries and Dougs—40-something suburbanites—and so the jokes about family life and daily mishaps mostly hit their targets. Huddleston is impressed: Doug improved greatly, he says, and Carrie “could really go places.” That’s high praise from Daddyo, who says just 2 percent of students have enough talent to go pro. As these students now know, being funny is serious business.
For information on comedy classes, visit www.stevierays.org.