Nathan Wysk, a thin and shaggy-haired junior majoring
in materials science
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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