When you talk to Christine Farrell about comedy, you hear words like honesty, science, muscle-working, risk-taking, mistakes, cruelty, set-up-and-punch, killing and dying.
An actress who's been a member of SLC's theatre faculty since 1991, Farrell teaches "Comedy Workshop," a course that sounds absolutely not funny. In fact, "when students first step up to the microphone, it's horrifying," she says.
One of her recent students, Alumnae/i Relations Director Sally Davis, knows how serious comedy is. "It's really a defense mechanism to be funny. You have to be willing to embarrass yourself, to cut yourself up before others have the chance to."
Lots of performers talk about risk, but the comic really takes it. "Sally knows you have to go with the moment," says her teacher. "Impulsiveness is exciting and is what makes a better artist—to tell the truth in a moment, to take that risk."
So how do you teach people to be funny? The nuts-and-bolts sound simple enough, beginning with developing an awareness of self. "I give the students notebooks and tell them to write down anything they think is funny," Farrell says, "They find it everywhere, usually beginning with the fall break and their first trip home."
Yes, your worst suspicions confirmed: families are the mother lode for funny material, especially when newborn comics are learning to mine for jokes. "Then comes the hard part: you have to get them away from their family. They have to become their own writers and form a family in the course. We spend a year developing each student's own comic voice, working on rhythm, timing, selling it through body language, learning to set up [the joke] and [deliver the] punch. If you have the instinct for comedy, then that muscle is there for you, you can work it."
Standup is a special kind of growing up, and for Farrell's students, everything leads to the apotheosis: spring Comedy Night. "It's a very scary moment out there. We have audiences of one or two hundred people. They may be students, but there's a point at which they're not going to be sympathetic to you anymore. They just want you to make them laugh. And once you've stood up, alone, with nothing, you become a different person." Jokes can die, she says, and performers can kill them.
But Farrell knows that comedy is really about life, not death. "When a performer's spirit is open, loving, they finally come through. When I hear an actor say, 'Oh, I don't do comedy,' I always think, 'Oh, you don't do life?'"