- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2005

Ghada Anis stands on the stage of the DC Improv comedy club, blinking against the bright lights that illuminate her black-on-black outfit and slightly trembling hands. She surveys the crowd, takes an audible breath and plunges into her five-minute stand-up routine.

“My name is Ghada Anis,” she says. “I know what you’re thinking. With a name like that I must be from Nebraska. Well, I am.”

The crowd chuckles. Emboldened by the first laugh, Ms. Anis, a 41-year-old nurse from Southeast, is gaining confidence. She rips into her heritage, making fun of her matchmaking relatives, speaking Arabic and funny foreign accents.

“You wanna hear what ‘Happy Birthday to You’ sounds like in Arabic?” she deadpans. The crowd nods.

“Happy burrrrzzday tuuu yuuuuu, Happy burrrrzzday tuuu yuuuuu …”

By the song’s third line, Ms. Anis has brought down the house.

She knows how to get laughs, but Ms. Anis is no comedian.

Ms. Anis, along with 18 other novice performers who took the stage tonight, has just graduated from the Improv’s stand-up comedy class. The monthlong course led by veteran comedian Matt Kazam teaches the art of public speaking, crowd fusing and telling jokes.

A few of the students are serious about a career in comedy. Some registered on a dare from friends. Many are going through a major life transition. But every last person in the room thinks he or she is — or at least could be — funny.

But can you teach funny?

If funny had a formula, wouldn’t late-night TV have a lot more variety? If everyone could be funny, would anyone care if Dave Chappelle broke his contract with Comedy Central and fell off the face of the Earth?

“Some people are just naturally more funny than others,” says Flip Orley, a comedian and hypnotist who performed at the Improv late last month, “but almost anyone can learn to tell a joke in an acceptable way.”

Mr. Kazam agrees that he can usually tell right away if someone has the gift for comedy.

“The gift” is both the ability and the desire to make people laugh, but comedians say it often comes from a dysfunctional past.

“A lot of comics come from a fair amount of pain, and it’s sort of their way of dealing with stuff,” Mr. Orley says.

Mr. Kazam concedes that his stand-up class can’t teach people to be comedians, but he says it can provide them the right tools to hone the craft of stand-up and find their “inner funny.”

Allyson Jaffe, principal of the comedy school, says the class also works because not everyone enrolled aspires to be a comedian.

“It’s a creative outlet for people from their day jobs,” she says. “It’s a place to escape and explore their minds. Some people do it because they want to be performers, and some people just do it because they want to set a goal and achieve it.”

For Ms. Anis, the class was a way to blow off steam after quitting her job at a pharmaceutical litigation firm and returning to nursing, her original vocation. She also wanted to improve her public speaking, but deep down, Ms. Anis took this class for the same reason everyone takes it — she was curious to see if she was just funny to her friends, or if she could be really, truly funny.

Mr. Kazam says there’s a big difference between “funny” and “comedian,” but says the art of joke writing itself can be reduced to a science. He says people laugh for only two reasons — commonality and superiority. The trick is to establish a premise that sets off one of these triggers, then build with an engaging setup and finally deliver the punch line.

To demonstrate the process of joke writing, Mr. Kazam asks everyone in the class to volunteer joke premises. The group deconstructs them, extracts what’s funny and builds them back into successful jokes. Some of the premises are good; some seem abysmal.

“I have a phobia of dimes,” throws out Laurie Finsten, a 48-year-old self-described “recovering stripper” from Silver Spring.

The strange premise draws looks from the group, but Mr. Kazam starts picking away.

“What’s funny about dimes, guys?” he asks.

Brows furrowed, Mr. Kazam begins listing expressions that used the word “dime.”

“Dime bag, dime a dozen, drop a dime …”

Suddenly he breaks into a smile.

“I wanted to drop a dime on you, but I couldn’t find a pay phone,” he cracks up triumphantly. “Nowadays, you gotta drop a fax … or drop a cell phone … or drop an e-mail on someone.”

The class erupts with satisfied laughter.

Mr. Kazam can pluck punch lines out of thin air, turn them on their heads and position them atop any premise for the greatest impact. His facility is probably the result of both being “born a comedian” and years of practice and performances.

Mr. Kazam’s the pro, but the students are also coming along quite nicely. The comic timing is budding; the crisp word choice; even the mischievous grin that crosses their faces before they deliver a particularly funny line.

Ms. Anis says she doesn’t think the class made her funnier, but says she’s become more aware of what other people perceive as funny.

“I can tell my friends things that they think are funny, but that’s because they know me,” she says. “When you tell strangers, you have to get to the punch line quicker.”

Armed with four weeks’ worth of tips and tutorials, Ms. Anis and the other students descend on the Improv. The novices pace nervously in the green room, memorizing their routines one last time.

They walk out, one by one, and the crowd holds its collective breath. There’s nothing worse than a comedian who isn’t funny, but tonight everyone pulls it off.

No, they aren’t as funny as Mr. Kazam. Most probably aren’t even up to par with open-mike comedians. But the inner funny bubbles up from each and every class member. The jokes are done right, the crowd is fused, and the timing is perfect. The students studied the craft, and the results show.

Back in the green room after her routine, Ms. Anis is shaking with adrenaline and pride. She knows she’s not cut out to be a comedian, but at this moment, there’s only one thought racing through her head.

“I was nervous until I got up there, but when I got up there I wanted to stay,” she says. “I want to go back and do it again.”

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