Johns Hopkins Gazette | January 26, 2009
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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 26, 2009 | Vol. 38 No. 19
So, This Blue Jay Walks Into a Bar...

Students and class instructor Adam Ruben, seated right, laugh at a joke by Joe Quinn, a senior from Anchorage, Alaska.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Popular Intersession course teaches students the art of stand-up

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Nathan Wysk, a thin and shaggy-haired junior majoring in materials science and engineering, stepped up to the microphone last Wednesday night and launched into his routine with a one-liner.

"I like to bring hammers to my shows," he said dryly, "because it's an easy way to break the ice."

Wysk got a chilly response to that one. Undaunted, he kept firing.

"I'm from Florida, so when it came down to choosing here or Princeton, I chose Johns Hopkins because I heard they had a beach."

Better. A spattering of laughs erupted from Wysk's fellow Homewood undergraduates, who all got the reference to the nickname for the lawn in front of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library.

To be fair, these were Wysk's second- and third-tier jokes, floated out as trial balloons on the eve of the big live performance. He also wasn't afraid to fail. He had a sympathetic and supportive crowd, the other 15 Homewood undergraduates in The Stand-Up Comic in Society, a two-credit Intersession course that teaches the basics of the comedy style.

During the three-week class, students study and analyze influential comics, then create, workshop and ultimately perform their own five-minute stand-up routine in front of a live audience. This year's final performance would be held two days later in the Bloomberg Center auditorium. Roughly 500 people were expected to attend the event, which was being filmed as part of a documentary on the art of joke telling.

Adam Ruben, a molecular biologist and part-time stand-up comic, dreamed up the course in 2004. A Johns Hopkins doctoral student at the time, Ruben originally pitched the idea as a Dean's Teaching Fellowship course, focused on the scholarly notion that stand-up comics uniquely reflect the collision of cultures that produced them.

"I wanted to examine how stand-up comics reflect society and point out hypocrisies," he said. "I was also hoping that the course would help some students overcome their shyness and nerves, and allow them to examine their own backgrounds — and find the humor in it."

His concept was rejected, but a colleague encouraged him to propose it for the recently revamped Intersession program that now includes "fun" and experiential classes.

The Stand-Up Comic in Society premiered in 2005 and has been a hit ever since. Each Intersession, the course fills up with 15 to 20 students eager to try their chops at being a comic. They quickly realize, Ruben said, that it's not as easy as Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld make it seem.

Ruben said that the condensed course forces the students "to go from zero to 60."

"Many of the students enter the class shy, and awkward in front of a microphone. Next thing they know, they are telling jokes in front of a large live crowd," Ruben said. "That is a huge transition in just three weeks."

The students first learn the basics of stand-up, such as joke structure, authenticity, observations and developing a persona. Toward the end of the class, they take a field trip to observe an open mic night in Washington, D.C. Through films and YouTube clips, they also examine the work of such comics as Dave Chappelle, Eddie Izzard, Margaret Cho and Ruben's "holy trinity": George Carlin, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.

Ruben also knows a thing or two about comedy.

The Delaware native got into stand-up during his undergraduate days at Princeton, where he found the nerve to perform at an open mic night and got hooked.

Known for his keen observational humor, Ruben has appeared at major East Coast comedy clubs with such fellow comics as John Pinette, Greg Giraldo, Kathleen Madigan, Sue Murphy and Jake Johannsen. He has also written numerous plays, short stories, comic articles, musicals and a screenplay, including short humor pieces for National Lampoon. His stand-up accolades include second place in the Pittsburgh Funny Bone's World Series of Comedy, second place in The Jewish Week's Funniest Jewish Comic Contest and first place at the D.C. Improv's Fourth Open Mic Competition.

Ruben also appears as a recurring guest expert on the Food Network's Food Detectives, now in its second season, where he and host Ted Allen (from Top Chef and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) debunk food myths.

In his other life, Ruben recently earned his doctorate in molecular biology from Johns Hopkins, where he was also a lecturer in the English Department. And, no joke, he is currently working on a malaria vaccine with Sanaria, a biotech company in Rockville, Md.

Ruben describes his course, which meets three nights a week, as part open mic night, part writing workshop. The students bring jokes and bits to class and try them out. Some bomb, sometimes painfully so, but Ruben and the other students work to find the germ of a laugh. With a show of hands, the students vote yes or no to kill or save a joke.

In Wednesday's workshop in Hodson Hall, the night before the dress rehearsal, Wysk made self-deprecating remarks about his "stoner" appearance and then took it to the next level with a joke about lettuce. What if it was an illegal substance like marijuana? He conjured the image of a mother opening up a refrigerator to find, gasp, salad dressing.

"I would lose the lettuce," one student said.

"No, keep the lettuce," said another, "lose the salad dressing, go with croutons. Croutons is a funny word." The observation drew more laughs than the original joke.

Ruben also put in his two cents.

"I like the observation, Nathan. The concept is funny," he said. "But you don't have the right joke yet."

Ruben said that jokes often hinge on the timing of the comic and the precise wording. Often, less is more. He frequently instructs students to shorten the introductions and get right to the point. He also has to remind the bunch that the punch line has to go at the end.

The 2009 class was all men, although the course typically attracts three or four female students. Ruben said that absence of the female element always amplifies the number of male genital references.

Ruben realizes that workshopping jokes might seem unnatural, but in this format, it works.

"The students have to trust me, and trust each other," he said. "We work on sifting through the bad jokes to get to their best material. I tell them to keep the funny two to five minutes' worth and lose the rest."

For Wysk, that might mean nixing the salad dressing.


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