Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Take my life ... please!

This appeared in The Times today:

EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael Mancuso is an award-winning staff photographer at The Trenton Times. He recently graduated from comedy school – and has decided to keep his day job. Here is his first-person account of that adventure.

Take my life ... Please!

Catch A Rising Star Comedy School offers hope for would-be stand-up comics

On the first night of class, the main message longtime Philadelphia radio personality and
stand-up comic Steve Trevelise gets across to me and seven other students enrolled in his
comedy school is that you don't want to do other people's jokes, instead, he says mine your
own unique life experiences for humor.

Sounds personal. It is.

Co-instructor Jimmy "Roundboy" Graham, also a veteran comic, stresses the same idea -

So this isn't going to be a "comedy karaoke" where, after a few lessons on microphone
technique and audience rapport, I can walk up onto the stage under the lights for five
minutes and safely recite time-proven one-liners from the likes of Henny Youngman.

I'm supposed to make people laugh telling stories from my boring life?!? I've been working
diligently for 50 years to keep my soul hidden. I have to bare it now?

When I surprised my family and closest friends with the news that I had enrolled in the class,
held at the Catch A Rising Star Comedy Club inside the Hyatt Regency Princeton, I never
heard anything like "Oh yeah, I can see you doing that!" The reaction I got more commonly
was nervous laughter: "Oh ... heh, heh, really? ... Y-y-you did?" In fact, I got my first taste
of getting a really big laugh unintentionally, when I told my 22-year-old son Andy that I had
enrolled in comedy school. This normally reserved guy who laughs one shot at a time, like a
starter's pistol, suddenly became a semi-automatic weapon.

"We're gonna have a lotta fun!"
Steve Trevelise

Class 1
I am playing it fairly cool so far, as I listen to extremely supportive talk from our instructors,
two guys who have very long resumes in the business. My first wave of deep terror creeps
up and hits me while I watch Steve talk about how to hold the mic. I don't want to hold a mic.
I don't really belong here. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. Nonetheless, minutes later,
I get my first chance at standing on the comedy stage under the lights at "Catch" (as we
insiders call it) and speaking into a microphone - the whole experience ... minus the room full
of (potentially hostile) strangers.

My classmates are supportive. They know it's going to be their turn next. Steve, in his
relaxed and friendly way, asks a few questions from the darkness beyond the stage lights
and pretty soon, I'm holding the mic in the right place, chest-high and away from my
face while I'm telling a story from my youth, about the time I was working in the Sixties at
downtown Trenton's Mayfair Theater as a 16-year-old usher wearing a powder-blue blazer
going down the aisle with my flashlight, quietly asking older, stronger and way cooler guys,
right in front of their friends, to "Please keep the noise down" or "Please keep your feet off
the seats."

My classmates respond positively to my recollections. I grin inwardly, feeling giddy, even
dizzy, as though I had just downed a Red Bull with a whiskey chaser and I don't drink either
one. I'm normally very reserved and I was becoming uncomfortable at how comfortable I was
becoming, standing in the spotlight, talking about myself.

"It takes a year to get a good tight 25 minute set."
Jimmy "Roundboy" Graham

Class 2
One week later, I come to class wishing I had had more spare time during the past week.
I didn't work hard enough thinking of topics, premises and punch lines. Some of the initial
glow is fading. I'm feeling a little overwhelmed. We're getting into the technical side and
analyzing the mechanics of comedy and I fear I'm losing some of the romance. I want
comedy to be my mistress, not my wife.

Steve calls comedy the last vestige of free speech. I guess I'd better stop my internal
whining, pull myself together and go on with renewed resolve. This isn't grammar school. I
don't have to be here. I asked for this.

Jimmy, who calls himself "Roundboy," has the gravelly voice and rambunctious manner of a
football coach, which he also is, speaks to us about energetic, enthusiastic stage presence,
until he glances my way and mentions "... or maybe a deadpan delivery could work for
some." He's got me pegged. Deadpan is my only shot.

Class 3
We have a guest comedian sitting in with us tonight - Joe Fortunato, a long-time friend of
Steve's. He's also a filmmaker and he's the one who will be videotaping our graduation
performance. When I observe Joe's face, I can envision a team of comedy writers inside his
head furiously scribbling notes on scraps of paper and handing them to his brain so he will
be ready at any given moment with a comment or a comeback.

As the class progresses, I notice that he and Steve are instantly coming up with funnier
lines off the tops of their heads than anything in my homework, which I had a whole week

to prepare. When I get onstage to read some of my lines, Steve encourages me to "sell"
my material in my own unique "voice." Meanwhile, magnified by the microphone, I hear my
actual voice echoing in the empty room, quivering like a bowl full of jello in the club car of a
moving train. I'm not the only one in trouble. Tonight, classmate Stephanie has a migraine
and struggles to finish her five minutes.

Class 4
With graduation, and our first five minutes in front of a live, paying audience only 24 hours
away, the time to hesitate is through. It's time to light our fire. After a pre-game pep talk from
our coaches, we each take the stage for final run-throughs of our acts and this time, there
are no do-overs.

As in any art form, the greatest practitioners of stand-up comedy have done so much
studying and practicing behind the scenes that when they perform, it appears to be effortless
and so natural that it seems easy for anyone to do. Based on my performance tonight at
dress rehearsal, on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being, say, George Carlin, tomorrow I will
definitely be a proper fraction.

The room at Catch a Rising Star in the bottom floor of the Hyatt is packed with people eager
to laugh. It's up to us to deliver. Tonight, we sink or swim - or tread water ... or perhaps do
a dead man's float - for five minutes. Can you feel my confidence? The clock is running and
the heartbeat is racing. Just before I go on, coach Jimmy grabs me by the arm like I'm his
quarterback about to run onto the field in sudden-death overtime and tells me "Silence is OK.
Leave room for the laughs." We each had to write our own introductions. Steve reads mine
to the audience. “And now here's a guy who's down on himself, so you don't have to be...
Michael Mancuso!" I take the stage to polite applause and lay a cue card down at my feet.
That's not totally professional, but then, neither am I. And so I begin.

Things aren't coming out exactly the way I wanted to say them, but inside I pat myself on
the back for heeding the advice of coach Jimmy. I do let the jokes breathe. I get through
my five minutes of fame, wind up my act, thank the crowd and tell them they've been great.
Wait. Do they really care what I think? I'm the vulnerable one standing under the bright lights
begging for approval. They don't need me. Maybe not, but they are nice to me and for that I
am most grateful.

As each of us has our turn on stage and then retreats to a designated corner of the room,
I look around and suddenly I feel a tangible bond with my comedy school classmates. I'm
proud of each one. I have an idea of what they've gone through. And if I don't pursue a
career as a stand-up comic, and believe me I won't, I at least gained some poise for my daily
interactions with people. Now that I've been there, I can paraphrase a line my brother, a
physician, uses from his professional education and adapt it to my experience. "So you think
you're funny? Where'd YOU go to Comedy School?