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Not-So-Funny Girl

Taking comedy classes at the Improv seemed like a good idea. And then, the lights came up.

By Traci Vogel

KURTIS MATTHEWS knows how to call bullshit. Long-legged and slope-shouldered like a ballplayer, he shoves his hands into his jeans pockets and rolls his eyes up into his head just for a moment. His mouth hangs open. Then, drawing on the limber disinterest that comes from spilling your guts onstage every Friday night for 15 years, he straightens his spine, extracts his hands, crosses his arms and glares at his small audience.

"You," he says. "Forget everything you learned in the real world--wanting to be respected, wanting to be liked. Standup is exactly the opposite of that."

It's an admonition we'll hear repeatedly in the weeks to come, and every time, 20-odd students will nod in obedient unison. This is what we've signed up to learn: The tough stuff. How not to care if anybody likes you. How to turn a boring life into a joke. How to get people to laugh at you. And then, how to mock them. How to call bullshit. How to be a standup comedian.

As the war on Iraq began its inexorable initiation back in February, taking standup comedy classes seemed like a healthy distraction. At first, I thought I'd just watch, crouched in the shadows of the ornate San Jose Improv theater, taking notes, a journalistic observer of the sweat and nausea so notoriously displayed by aspiring comics. I didn't count on having to resist Kurtis Matthews' stage-mom mantra: Anyone can be a standup comic. Even journalists with a clinical case of stage fright and a propensity for bullshit. Even journalists who want to be liked.

Rule #1: Always Let Them See You Sweat

One wisecracking half of a team that founded the San Francisco Comedy College in 1999, Matthews teaches six-week classes in San Francisco and San Jose for beginning and advanced comics. The comedy college thrives on the idea that funniness is not an innate ability, that everyone has a unique sense of humor and that--as those "You can learn to draw!" ads used to try to persuade us--anyone can learn to make people laugh.

The son of an engineer and a Southern California homemaker, Matthews moves with the kind of pulsating energy most of us associate with high caffeine intake. He has a shock of dark-blond hair. He often stands on tiptoe.

Like many comedians, he can't resist the urge to free-associate during conversations; talking to him is like running after a dog in a park. Even while sitting in the audience, he radiates the self-consciousness of the stage, the authority of someone used to being the center of attention. He enjoys that indefinable quality that people in show business call the "shine." He's got charisma.

But what's more atypical about Matthews is that for many years now he's chosen not to pursue show business. Several years spent in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, he says, convinced him that he didn't want to follow the traditional standup path: club gigging, writing for Letterman, eventual sitcom. His first Hollywood standup experience, however, did convince him that comedy was what he was meant to do.

"It would have been '83," he recounts, as we sit in a cafe at a rickety wood table that practically vibrates with Matthews' energy. "I would have been--I was 22. Every weekend, I got up onstage at the Comedy Store in Hollywood with a lot of other comedians who had never been on before. I remember [the first time] vividly. Three minutes seemed like a frickin' eternity. I believe I did two Joan Rivers jokes and a lot of just being awkward and stupid. But people laughed. It used to be that standup for me was better than sex. But, hey, I was 22."

Many of the people Matthews shared the stage with moved on to fame and fortune--people like Jon Lovitz, Chris Farley and Tim Allen--but many more went on to drug addiction, obscurity, insurance sales, even death. Among the unfortunates was Bill Hicks, a comedian often compared with Lenny Bruce in terms of shock value and innovation.

Denis Leary, Howard Stern, Sam Kinison--the list of comics who cite Hicks as an influence is too long to print. Hicks was the kind of performer who inspired not only imitation but veneration. He was Matthews' friend, mentor and eventually his warning signal that comedy might not be the healthiest of career choices.

Matthews and Hicks toured the United States together, giving Matthews a close-up view of Hicks' alcoholism and coke abuse.

"Bill was convinced we weren't comedians--he said we were wizards sent here to expose all that's mediocre about the world," Matthews recalls. "He really was doing the Jesus thing onstage. He never talked about anything he didn't care about. He found the smallest thing people wouldn't agree with, and he talked about that. He didn't worry about patronizing an audience. I used to ask him about a bit [of mine] that wasn't working, and he would just say, 'Hey, man, if you don't care about it, don't talk about it.'"

Intense and tortured defined many standup comedians in the late '80s, and many of them were emulating Hicks. When Hicks died suddenly of pancreatic cancer in February 1994, his cult of personality solidified--something the pure-spirited Hicks would have loathed, according to Matthews: "Hicks used to say, 'You know what I don't get? Elvis and Jesus. Elvis was a big fat hillbilly--he had to have people diaper him at rest stops--and Jesus was a hippie.'"

Matthews continues, "Take a look at [Hicks'] website. People are doing the same thing to him: 'What Would Bill Do?' I watched him get on Letterman, watched him hate L.A., hate TV, hate the fact that Jay Leno was selling Doritos. When he got sick and died, I just scratched my head."

Soon after Hicks' inexplicably unfair death, Matthews left Los Angeles. "It's like that Roberta Flack song," he says. "'L.A. proved too much for me.' Because I was so close to Bill, I started thinking more seriously about what I wanted to do. I didn't want a sitcom; I didn't want to act; I didn't want to be the wacky neighbor with a bad haircut on Eight's Company. I decided that what I really wanted was some stability. I truly was fantasizing about being in a cubicle."

So Matthews arrived in San Francisco and found a job in corporate software. But even in a cubicle, the shine wouldn't leave him alone.

Standup and Be Counted: Comedians Reggie Steele, Eli Tapley, Carla Clayy, Kurtis, Michael Slack and Ross Turner

Rule #2: They Don't Have to Like You, They Just Have to Laugh

It's the third week of class, and we're gathered in an upstairs room at the Improv. Chairs are limited, so most of us sit on the floor, shifting nervously, shuffling through notes. Matthews crouches or slumps in front of one window, occasionally cradling his head in his hands when a student says, "I can't do this," or "OK, I know that sucked."

The class is practicing improvisational audience interaction, a.k.a. how to deal with being heckled. Each of us gets a chance to be a heckler and a performer. As the performer, you're expected to riff off whatever the audience gives you, but all anyone can come up with are predictable comebacks: "What, you think you can do better? Then you get up here."

As the heckler, you can say pretty much whatever you want, and the rest of the audience will be on your side. The comedian is the professional enemy. It's like the lions vs. the gladiator, but in this case the gladiator doesn't have a sword. The gladiator has a rubber chicken.

Matthews encourages us to "be honest about what's in front of you." If someone's wearing a stupid shirt, tell them they're wearing a stupid shirt. If someone's beautiful, tell them they're beautiful. He keeps repeating, "This is a conversation. You're having a conversation with the audience." The more stilted we act, the more italicized he gets.

Three weeks into the class, it's become only slightly more obvious just who might have the talent and personality for this kind of work and who might do better to stick with their day job.

There's Michael Riley, the 41-year-old software sales associate, who drives a Harley and performs dinner theater at Rooster T. Feathers. A likable guy with a crooked smile, Riley signed up for the Improv's open-mic session the second week of class, performing a funny routine that involved him rolling around on the floor in an imitation of a woman in gynecological stirrups.

There's Beth Schumann, whose husband signed her up for the class as a birthday present and whose only experience in front of an audience has thus far been giving presentations as a sales manager.

There's the film student at San Jose State University, who sits so quietly in class that it's hard to tell what he might be like onstage, and there's Mark, a young muscle-bound Henry Rollins type whose personal brand of sarcasm drips to the acidic.

A performer's personality might be considered the Holy Grail of standup comedy. There's not a whole lot you can do if an audience doesn't like you except to acknowledge it. A comedian banks on his talent, and it's not a universal currency. There will always be someone who gets offended, who gets turned off, who gets bored. Personality-based comedy is like caviar; it's expensive and salty, and certain people will always think it smells weird no matter how tasty it's dressed up to be.

The way a comedian deals with this fact of life defines his or her act. Robin Williams delivers a barrage of material so disparate and frenetic that almost everyone finds something to laugh at. Sandra Bernhard dares you not to like her. Ellen DeGeneres doesn't seem to care. Steve Martin used to sing funny songs. Denis Leary gets to the insults first. Some comedians use props to divert the attention solely from themselves. Others are so self-deprecating that it's not even worth it to waste time hating them.

A beginning performer can rely on some measure of empathy from the crowd to leaven this interaction. But even Matthews' constant reassurances--"The audience paid to be there. They're rooting for you to succeed"--can't dispel the terrible and nail-biting discomfort that defines a roomful of aspiring standup comics.

Matthews explains it like this: "Some people are onstage because they want to be, some because they need to be. You're never going to get real love from an audience. If you're there to feed your ego, the audience will see right through it."

Matthews has seen comics get onstage and not be funny. He's seen them talk about everything that's gone wrong in their lives, the most painful moments--somebody died, somebody got sued--and he's seen them be funny about not being funny. To that end, Matthews encourages his students to draw material from their own lives, not from puns or wordplay. To Matthews, the successful comedian stays away from trends, away from the generalized and leans toward the gritty particular.

Our homework that night? To go home and write a routine, talking only about stuff we care about.

Good Yuk: A young Kurtis Matthews prepares his cheesy Darth Vader bit.

Rule #3: Say the Unexpected

Personally, I don't think the stuff I care about is very funny. The horror of civilian casualties in war, organic farming, the health of my parents, these are things that I fret about, and they're not particularly entertaining. I've never been the type of person who used humor for emphasis, or to sharpen the edge of my opinion, or even because I wanted to be memorable. And I have within me the bona fide, Matthews-identified Achilles heel of standup comedy: I use humor because I want people to like me.

So I went home and wrote a routine about my dad, who retired from teaching last year and now spends his time patiently transforming my parents' yard from a suburban lawn to a gravel-and-bamboo Zen landscape. It wasn't a particularly funny bit, and as it turned out I missed the next class, which was about how to rehearse, because I had to work late.

Part of the requirement for graduating from the San Francisco Comedy College is that you come up with a routine and perform it at a college-sponsored open-mic session either in San Francisco or San Jose. These open-mic nights are set up to be as friendly as a standup experience can be--the audience is full of friends who shout out, "You're doing great!" and the other comedians slap your back afterward.

I, however, arrived the fifth week unprepared. I read my routine from a sheet of paper, and it got a few laughs. Yes, I read the routine on the beautiful stage at the Improv, but only in front of the class. I never signed up for an open-mic night, and I have, despite Kurtis Matthews' teacherly encouragement, steadfastly avoided talking about myself onstage in any way, shape or form. I have not taken up the Matthews mantra.

The fact that Matthews persists in encouraging even difficult students like me bears witness to the fact that he is convinced his mission in life is to flood the world with more funny people. It's an eccentric evangelism, maybe, but like many eccentric evangelisms it has a seed of revolution in it.

As he explained to me over our lunch, "Comedy really is an overdeveloped defense mechanism, and you can either know that and be healthy or deny it." Perhaps I've chosen not to explore my own defense mechanism because it's not the type of thing I like to make public, but, because of Matthews--who admits he's "teaching even when I'm not teaching"--at least I recognize how the defense mechanism works.

Matthews himself is planning a kind of comeback in the form of a one-man standup show, and he uses his introductions at the open-mic nights as a testing ground for new material. Making people laugh isn't so much like sex, anymore for him--it's more "like a wave, like a warm blanket."

Maybe this is why, like many evangelisms, Matthews' brand of standup succeeds at giving quite a few students a workable framework for their otherwise squandered talents.

Beth Schumann took the stage on the second-to-last open-mic night. With her short, spiky hair, intense eyes behind chunky glasses and nasally voice she immediately emitted a stage presence. And then she began her routine: "I was recently diagnosed as manic depressive. I have mixed feelings about that."

The audience laughed. I thought I saw the glimmer of a shine.

Take Your Shot

*The San Francisco Comedy College Open-Mic Nights take place at the San Jose Improv, 62 S. Second St., San Jose, every Wednesday at 8pm. Tickets are $10. For more information on the Comedy College, call 415.921.2051 or 877.735.2844, or visit the website at sfcomedycollege.com.

*Starting April 21, The Gaslighter (400 E. Campbell Ave., Campbell) will host standup comedy nights, Mondays at 8pm. Cover charge is $5. 408.866.1408.

*Rooster T. Feathers (157 W. El Camino Real in Sunnyvale) is the South Bay's longest running standup comedy club. They feature open-mic nights the last Tuesday of every month, 8pm, $5. 408.736.0921.

*Big Lil's Comedy Cabaret (157 W. San Fernando St., San Jose) hosts a Wednesday night standup comedy showcase--and KRON TV scouts there for talent! Cover is $5. 408.295.7469.

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From the April 3-9, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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