- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2003

Seventh-grader Joe Livingston at Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School in Silver Spring knows he's guaranteed a good laugh on Thursday afternoons.
Not because the school week is almost over, but because it's time for the weekly Comedy Club after-school program, in which young jokesters use growing pains as punch-line fodder.
"You could say I look forward to it," Joe, 12, says with a deadpan expression. "Between a teacher who hates me but pretends to like me and bad grades, this is pretty good," says this middle schooler, whose sense of humor and knack for sarcasm go well beyond his dozen years.
Joe and three dozen other students between 11 and 13 years of age attend the school's Comedy Club, the only one of its kind in the area, perhaps the nation, according to school administrators.
The program, which has been in place for eight years, may be bound for other schools in the next school year, as the Art Gliner Humor Center at the University of Maryland has taken an interest in implementing the concept elsewhere.
Local playwright and director Harry Bagdasian (director of the "Spirit of America" performance and a founding member of the Helen Hayes Award) and co-founder Lisa Itte started the middle school's program in the mid-'90s, when he had a daughter at the school. That daughter, Katherine Bagdasian, is studying theater at the University of Maryland.
Mr. Bagdasian started the club to give students, including his daughter, a creative outlet and because humor is a source not only of laughter, but also insight, self-confidence and creativity, he says.
"Humor and comedy help give students perspective on their lives and life in the 21st century," Mr. Bagdasian says. "This [program] also teaches them problem solving and teamwork."
The Comedy Club meets through the entire school year, culminating in April with a performance of the students' own comedy revue.
This year's revue, "CSI: Comedy Sketch Investigation," written and performed by the students, pokes fun at CBS' hit show "CSI," ditsy and dorky teenage behavior, video games and overbearing parents.
"The Comedy Club also teaches the kids how comedy material is born," Mr. Bagdasian says. "They watch comedy on TV, and they may not think about all the work behind it."

What makes this program unique is the students come up with the material that they later perform, says Lawrence Mintz, director of the Art Gliner Center.
"Some high schools have improv activities, but that tends to be glib, tour-de-force kind of stuff," Mr. Mintz says. "But writing a script is what makes this so special; it forces [the students] to probe more deeply, to express things that bother them parental conflicts, bullying, dating, teaching to the test."
Upon hearing about the program last year, Mr. Mintz assigned a couple of University of Maryland graduate students to follow each Comedy Club meeting. The graduate students are to write a report at the end of the school year with recommendations on how to implement the comedy-club concept elsewhere.
Ben Fisler, one of the graduate students, says he's very impressed with the program. "I think it's great," says Mr. Fisler, who's working on a doctorate in theater and performance. "We'd like to start at another school in the fall, but it may be delayed until 2004."
One of the problems in "deporting" the program, Mr. Fisler says, is that working with original material requires a seasoned playwright.
"Harry's an experienced playwright, and he can take the students' ideas and just run with it," he says.
Exactly how future middle school comedy clubs would be set up and at what schools is not clear yet, but Mr. Fisler says he will recommend trying to keep the concept of developing original material.
Joe has written several sketches for this year's revue, including "Eat Your Vegetables" and "Why Adventure Games are Stupid." Other writers of the 65-page script include Ryan Rice and Rachel Solomon, both 13.
"I want to be an actor one day, and I think writing a script and acting is a step on the way," Ryan says.
Rachel has similar goals; she wants to be a Hollywood actress.
"It's so much fun to write and then get to see the end product," she says. "This is the highlight of the week."
They agree that to write a good skit, you have to write about something you know well, such as, in Rachel's case, sleepovers. You exaggerate funny and silly behavior, add a punch line and, voila, a skit is born.
Whether it works becomes evident during rehearsal. If no one laughs, it's back to the drawing board, Mr. Bagdasian says.
"It just evolves as we go along," he says.
Joe "who's so good he should work as a writer for [late night television host David] Letterman," according to Mr. Bagdasian has other plans. He wants to be a lawyer.
"But I'm sure I can use humor and comedy in the courtroom," Joe says.

On a recent afternoon, as the students rehearse their lines on the school's stage in the odorous gymnasium, it's apparent how the script keeps evolving.
During the "Sleepover" sketch, which is about four girls making crank calls, gossiping and rejecting young guys, one of the young actors, Louie Rosen, says his character needs improving.
"This isn't funny," he says candidly. He says when his character, a dorky kinda guy, is dismissed by the girls, he has to react strongly, in a teenage kinda way.
"Maybe I should just go have some comfort food or something," he suggests, at which everyone cracks up.
Michele Orr, mother of one of the "Sleepover" girls, is at the rehearsal and says she's pleased with the work of the club.
"Kids take everything so personally at this age, and I think this helps them put things in perspective," Ms. Orr says. "And it's such a good lesson to be in front of so many people."
Later, another student asks if she should have a more sarcastic tone when she delivers her line.
"Absolutely," Mr. Bagdasian says. "Don't hold back."
The Comedy Club has more than an endorsement from the school's principal, Jerry Lynch, who says expressing and learning about humor is an important survival skill.
"Without humor you can't make it through the day," Mr. Lynch says. "Humor and comedy help kids and adults learn to keep things in perspective."
Also, frankly, any creative after-school activity is to be applauded, he says.
"All children in middle school should be part of a group, be it football or drama. We certainly don't want our 700 children to leave at the end of the school day and just do nothing. That's how they get into trouble."
Along with all the writing, acting and social skills the students may acquire at the Comedy Club, it's also, well, a blast.
"It's the best feeling when the audience laughs at something you wrote," Joe says. "You get a laugh, and you know it's working."

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