The best graduation speech this year on Long Island is Janie Robinson’s. “I can’t bowl, I stunk at ceramics and I’ve been thrown out of bingo for talking too much,” the 38-year-old dyslexic hairdresser from Hauppauge tells an audience at Stand-Up University, a school for comedians at the Levittown club Governor’s.
That’s enough to earn Robinson a B.S. in shtick. Off-stage, the patter continues. She confides that when she tried to use a glue gun while working on a crafts project, she burned and glued three fingers together.
“I don’t know so much if I’m a funny person,” she says. “But I do a lot of things that are funny.”
The least funny of which was to enroll in Stand-Up U., where aspiring performers analyze, dissect, do homework and even—gasp!—have to study. “My husband,” she says, “kept questioning, ‘Isn’t this a comedy class you’re taking?'”
Oh, yeah, it is. And some of the humor is unintentional. Only two hours before the first of two consecutive “graduation” night performances, the only things the 19 nervous Stand-Up U. students see at the comedy club are two ashtrays, four packs of cigarettes, two lighters and an empty room. By the time the show starts, though, the club is filled almost to capacity with friends, family and assorted masochists. A full house is the least you could do for the students, who each shelled out $275 for a seven-week course. This Monday night is their big moment.
Bits are to comedy students what term papers are to college students. And it’s clear that not all of the Stand-Up U. students will follow in the footsteps of Andy Kaufman, Jerry Seinfeld, Lenny Bruce and other comics who perfected their material on Long Island. During last-minute rehearsals, a heavy-set guy with a booming voice inadvertently leaves out his ass-wiping bit and then ponders substituting the word “heinie” for “ass.”
Karyn Villante, trying to perfect her stream-of-consciousness monologue about being a full-time housewife from North Bellmore at age 38, finishes a run-through and suddenly has an announcement to make: “I’m fuckin’ scared now. I wasn’t scared until I did that.”
Professor Peter Bales and his assistants, Steve Lazarus (a Yankee Stadium vendor) and Rich Walker (a claims adjuster), try to guide them. But it’s the audience that will do the grading. “Some people think they can come in and be instantly funny,” warns Bales. “But nobody can come in and be instantly funny.”
Bales, a comedian for 20 years and well-known on the local circuit, reveals that he bombed every night during his first year of work. Of one of his first shows, he recalls, “the room was empty and I didn’t know it.” (That was probably funnier than anything else he said in those early days.)
Bales, in reality a 45-year-old history professor at C.W. Post and Nassau Community College, insists that stand-up comedy can be taught. He and his team follow some basic rules of education: Give the students homework (for example, list five things you dislike about yourself), teach concepts (like setups and punch lines) and encourage class participation (stand up and perform).
Scott Strunk, a 19-year-old Blockbuster clerk from Bethpage, claims to have the stuff. “My whole life is an act,” he says. “Even when I was little, people would approach me and listen to my comments. People I didn’t even know.” People tell him, he says, that he sounds like Casey Kasem. But Strunk doesn’t know who that is.
Just before going on, Karyn Villante sits doubled over and rocks back and forth. Afterward, she says, “I’m glad it’s over. But I want to do it more.”
That’s before she sees a videotape of herself. As she watches, her expression changes from pensive to bewildered to pained. “They’re not laughing,” she moans softly.