In a New Yorker cartoon, two cannibals are eating a clown. Says one to the other, "Does this taste funny to you?"
It certainly would to award-winning comic Lee Navlen, who can see the funny side of almost any situation. Lee will be sharing his perspective with wannabe comics in six Thursday night classes, "You Take the Mic," at the South Orange-Maplewood Adult School, beginning Mar. 7.
Wait! Is it even possible to teach someone else how to be funny? In this community, that's not a problem, says Lee, a 20+year resident of Maplewood and South Orange. "There are a lot of very creative people here. They often have a background in the arts, the theatre. People who take a comedy class already know they're funny. All their lives they've been told, 'You should do stand-up.'"
That's exactly how Lee himself ended up on stages at Carolines on Broadway and the Greenwich Village Comedy Club. He's also a regular at Scotty's Club & Comedy Cove in Springfield (where his students' final exam has them performing before a live audience). In earlier careers he was a senior producer at Fox News for a decade, before returning to the stand-up stage full-time. He has also acted in films, "usually cast as the angry Irish dad, angry Irish cop or angry Irish drunk. Sometimes, all three at once!" He's also played an angry Jewish lawyer in the web-series "Goodstein," and produced musical programs, including some at the now-dark Highland Place in Maplewood.
But, Lee says, "There's nothing better than getting people to laugh. Laughter can be very addictive."
Never mind if you don't know how to begin. "No material? No problem," Lee assures.
"Just get on stage and talk about life, your wife, your dog, anything. The idea is to get used to the mic and the sound of your own voice.
"Bottom line: I'm teaching courage and confidence first, then material."
Talk about courage: a teenager with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) is taking Lee's class this spring for the fourth time. "He came to class with a book of funny one-liners, but when we went to graduation at Scotty's he did five minutes on being autistic. He set the room on fire! There were about l00 people in the audience and not one was not laughing!"
Stand-up success does not always come so easily, Lee warns. "There are thousands of stand-up comics out there performing and only a hundred are making a living. But don't give up, Lee counsels. Some of his former students are now performing at clubs in NJ and Manhattan.
Stand-up training is not just for comics, Lee points out. "Learning to crack a joke helps with public speaking, especially if you're in marketing or sales."
Think you could do stand-up, too? Heed Lee's professional advice:
First, move the mic stand out of the way! So many comics forget.
Practice. Have a friend with a bar and a backroom? How about the local Elks Club or a beauty salon? Get five, six, seven comics together and make it a space for stand-up.
Know your audience. "If you've got a room full of 20-year-olds, don't do jokes about going to the doctor."
What about hecklers? "Sometimes they're just trying to get laughs themselves, or impress their girlfriend. Try to work them to your advantage. Sometimes I just say, "You wanna do this?"
What if you die on stage? Last night's biggest joke gets no laughs tonight. Stick with your prepared material. And don't worry about repeating the same jokes. Tonight's audience hasn't heard it. It was funny before and it will be funny now.
You might bomb, but remember it's just five minutes of your life.
Final advice to would-be stand-ups: Don't give up your day job!"
Journalist and Adult School trustee Rose Bennett Gilbert laughed all through this interview with Lee Navlen.