Feb. 26 2014 12:00 AM

Stand-up comic teaches budding comedians the art of writing jokes


Like any other art form, comedy is an evolving system, where the prevailing social climate and scandal du-jour inform what makes the masses laugh. But we’ve come a long way from the days of Henny Youngman’s “take my wife … please!” one-liners. Subject matter ranges from the frenetic, culture clash-mining wit of Dave Chappelle to the cringe-inducing self-deprecation of Louis C.K. And at the heart of every prominent funny person, beyond charisma and presence, is the joke: A written observation or story, molded to elicit laughs.

And one local comedian thinks he can teach you how to write one.

By day, Robert Jenkins is an attorney; by night, he’s an award-winning standup comedian — he took third place in the 2013 Funniest Person in Grand Rapids contest. Jenkins, 31, grew up listening to the incendiary humor of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, and in July 2012, he gave it a whirl.

“People always told me I was funny in college,” Jenkins said. “I’ve bounced around a lot, so I had friends I didn’t get to see much. My plan was to do stand-up and then post videos, and it would be like me saying hi to my friends.”

But after the thrill of his first performance, he was hooked. For 18 months, Jenkins performed sets in Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Lansing and along the east side of the state, methodically refining his set.

“I’m a technical person when it comes to jokes” Jenkins said. “I like to break them down and get into why something is funny.”

That culminated recently when he was asked to create a joke-teaching workshop by the founders of SmittenDust Studio, an arts-focused teaching space in Dimondale. So starting Tuesday, Jenkins will lead a weekly series of four two-hour workshops devoted to the craft of joke telling. About 80 minutes of each class will be devoted to writing, and the remaining 40 split between a guest comedian doing a presentation and Q&A session. The classes will teach skills such as developing a voice, getting started in the comedy world and dealing with hecklers. The class will culminate in an on-stage performance so the fledgling comedians to try out their new material.

According to other up-and-coming comics, a joke workshop is valuable. Michael Geeter, an engineer from the Detroit area, took comedy classes taught by another comic. He said he learned how to survive onstage, but not how to write a joke.

“The biggest problem I had in my class was that people weren’t writers,” said Geeter. “People … didn’t know how to figure out a joke. We were taught the basics of comedy, how to have presence onstage, how to handle a crowd. Not how to hone our (joke-writing) skills.”

Since his classes, Geeter has performed his routines all over the state, developing his style. And though he brought proseand poem-writing experience into his comedy, he heralds the need for a writing course for others.

“To me, writing is everything,” he said.

“You can’t just get up there and riff. You’ll forget. You’ll pause, if it’s not an idea you’ve built around a subject. When people don’t (keep writing) … you might get laughs but you don’t grow.”

Echoing that sentiment is newcomer Daniel Ryan Balderas, who performed his first stand-up routine this month.

“It’s rewarding to see what it’s like to tell a joke,” he said. “To see people waiting on the punchline. The mechanics are very rewarding if things go right.”

He intends to continue, and says a writing seminar could be helpful to others.

“The best (comics) are always talking to people that are more experienced or people they think are funnier than they are,” he said. “You make yourself funnier by not being willing to settle. And if you can be with other inexperienced people and receive insight from someone that has had moderate success, I think that could be very helpful.”

But besides the desire to bathe in the spotlight, basking in the adulation of strangers, there are other, maybe less obvious benefits to learning how to write a joke.

“People write jokes for all kinds of reasons,” Jenkins said. “People start presentations or speeches with a joke. Figuring out how to tell a funny story helps people in social situations. But (sometimes) someone tells a story they think is hilarious, but when they get to the end, nobody laughs. There could be something funny there, but you have to learn how to get to that funny.”

Can’t Stop Laughing

Four-week stand-up comedy workshop with Robert Jenkins Begins Tuesday, March 4 7-9pm 257 South Bridge St., Dimondale $100 payable in advance smittendust.blogspot.com

How to Write a Joke

by Robert Jenkins

The joke: "I'm thankful for having both my parents because they taught me different things. My Mom taught me to never hate anyone. My Dad taught me to ignore my Mom.

The breakdown: "One conventionally held premise is that all kids are better with two parents. So, the joke starts with the setup that I'm thankful for both my parents. Then the punchline shows how having two parents could be counterproductive."

The lesson: Don't invite your parents to see your stand-up routine.