When the high school girl came to his workshop, Stephen Rosenfield could see she was funny.
When Lena Dunham left his workshop, she was funnier.
“She was clearly gifted,” he said. “She came up to me and asked me afterward, ‘Do you think I have a future in comedy?’ I said, ‘I can tell you what I know so far: you have a significant gift to write comedy.’ Her stuff was funny, smart, sex… she was 16! Not sexy in an icky way, just delightful and original”
Montclair’s Stephen Rosenfield was Dunham’s first comedy teacher. His workshops include private writing sessions, presentations and rewrites based on the presentation. At the end of each workshop, there is a performance.
Dunham performed at Caroline’s, in New York City.
But, Rosenfield said, he can’t tell someone after a short time whether they will make it or not: “I’ve seen terrific people go nowhere, and seen people who literally are awful become headliners.”
Performance is “about as spontaneous as brain surgery,” he said. “People think it’s magic and it is magic — it’s essentially a trick. You can’t teach someone to be Einstein, but someone has got to teach him physics.
“You can teach physics.
“You can’t teach genius.”
In his book “Mastering Stand-Up: The Complete Guide to Becoming a Successful Comedian,” Rosenfield lays out steps to creating and performing stand-up, and analyzes how jokes work, using such categories as observational stand-up, anecdotal stand-up, put-down humor. He uses examples from Lenny Bruce, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Sarah Silverman and others, showing how and why they work, as well as examples of jokes from anonymous comics that flop, explaining why they fail.
The comedy teacher and founder of the American Comedy Institute will discuss the book tonight at Watchung Booksellers.
To become really good at comedy takes work as well as talent.
A sense of humor is innate, like the five senses, Rosenfield said. “I’ve been doing this 28 years,” he said. “The number of people I’ve worked with who are absolutely chronically not funny is literally a handful.
“Does that mean everybody can be a comedian? Obvious not. People who make it, it’s really a calling.”
And it’s hard work. “Comedy is not written, it’s rewritten,” Rosenfield said. “And honed. We have a wonderful advantage in comedy: an objective metric system. They laugh or they don’t.
“If they laugh they laugh big, or just a giggle, or somewhere in between. That information we get from audiences allows the comedian to rewrite based on the response the material is getting.”
Now and then he’ll see a comedian and tell him to throw a joke out. “He’ll say, ‘It gets a laugh.’ And I’ll say, ‘True, it gets a laugh. That gets you nowhere. You want to get big laughs from beginning to end, and that takes a lot of work.’”
Groucho Marx used to take writers on the road and play the comedy scenes in front of live audiences. Until they were filled with laughs beginning to end, he wouldn’t begin filming, Rosenfield said: “Most people wouldn’t do that.”
While all comedians have writers, and not all comedy writers want to perform, “it will make your writing so much better if you’ve performed yourself,” Rosenfield said. “You have insights into the performer and what they need.”
And delivery matters: emphasizing one word over another can make a huge difference.
In the Golden Globe Award-winning Amazon show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” starring Rachel Brosnahan, featuring Tony Shalhoub, written by Amy Sherman-Palladino (“Gilmore Girls”), a housewife becomes a comedian, after a drunken rant at a club the night her husband walks out. Rosenfield would have preferred they show how delivery matters.
“In the first episode, she writes something for her husband,” Rosenfield said. “He bombs with that material.
“I would have had her do the material she wrote for him, but out of her mouth, it works.”
To put a finer point on this invaluable piece of advice, there is always one specific word in the punchline that triggers the laugh — the punchword. Frequently the punchword is obvious: it’s the last word in the joke. But there are times when this isn’t the case and the obvious choice may be the wrong one.
For example, let’s look at a line from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Carousel.” It’s spoken by a character named Jigger, a ruffian and petty thief. He’s not the brightest of men. So, in a conversation about having babies, he delivers this laugh line:
My mother had a baby once.
Which word is the punchword? If your choice is “once,” you’ve chosen the wrong word. There’s nothing particularly funny about being an only child. “My” is also the wrong choice; it implies that Jigger’s mother, as opposed to other people’s mothers, had a baby once, which doesn’t make any sense.
The correct choice is “mother.” The line gets a laugh when it gets this delivery:
My mother had a baby once.
It’s funny to see that Jigger thinks he’s contributing to the conversation by pointing out that he knows someone who had a baby — his mother.