There must be a lot of Bay Area folks itching to rant, rave and tell jokes in front of strangers because the stand-up classes at the San Francisco Comedy College are filling to capacity.
Kurtis Matthews, who has operated the college for the last 13 years and started performing comedy himself in Hollywood 30 years ago, said his students aren’t always those trying to become the next Daniel Tosh or Zach Galifiankis.
“A lot of people, they’re doing comedy for a hobby, or they’re doing it for business, or they’re trying to meet women or whatever,” he said.
Whichever the case, Kurtis and his team, including Will Franken, a nationally-known stand-up, are ready to get beginning and advanced students off their tucheses and onto the stage. That stage is the venerable venue, the Purple Onion, where SF Comedy College students perform on Tuesdays through Thursdays.
Corey: Where do your students typically come from?
Kurtis: Probably the Internet first; they’re looking for a comedy class. There’s really only about seven good comedy teachers in America, and we’re the only ones in the Bay Area. I think people find us mostly online and word-of-mouth amongst comics.
Corey: How did you end up getting to use the Purple Onion as your regular comedy space?
Kurtis: Mario (Ascione), the owner over there, was looking for good comedy shows to come in. We just connected with him, and he saw the quality of work was close to other shows they were doing there, and they took to us, and we took to them. It’s been a good relationship, good marriage.
Corey: In your experience, do other comedy classes across the country get the chance to perform in an iconic venue like that?
Kurtis: None of them do. In fact, we offer more stage time than others. A lot of comedy classes are just classes. Our comics, they work four nights a week—one night a week at our facility and three nights a week at the Onion. Nobody else does that; it’s a unique situation.
Corey: What are some of the important subjects you try to hit in the beginners’ class?
Kurtis: First and foremost, I’ve yet to meet a person that doesn’t want to do this, that can’t take direction, that can’t be funny. The only thing that keeps everybody off the stage is some weird, undefinable fear. With beginners, it’s getting them over their initial fear. It’s giving them decent structure and ways to develop material. We give them techniques to work onstage without the use of material. I believe audiences are coming to see a personality and to meet somebody more so than they are to hear a written, well-performed act. We give them structure. We amped up the character stuff with Will Franken teaching right now.
In the first 5 weeks, the signature of my school is we create strong performers. They might not have the greatest material at the end of five weeks, but they’ll be pretty confident performers when they get out there—and that’s pretty interesting enough for most audiences.
Corey: What things have you seen performers in your beginner class do that really surprised you?
Kurtis: As messed up as the world is right now and as fearless as people are, they’re just willing to get out there more than ever before and speak their truth. The new crop of comics tends to be more fearless than in the past. ‘Look, I’ve got issues, and I want to talk about my point of view.’
Corey: Can you guesstimate the percentage of people who do the beginner who go on to do the advanced class?
Kurtis: Ballpark, 50 percent. I think there’s a 98 percent attrition rate in stand-up comedy with or without classes because it’s hard work. It’s very mental, and a lot of people find a reason not to do it. Or they lie to themselves about how hilarious they are, and they never really continue to work on the art form.
Corey: You’ve heard a lot of material over the years. Is there stuff that still surprises you or makes you laugh?
Kurtis: I really like the well-written stupid jokes. That’s what I like in comedy. Then again, I’m a big Brian Regan fan. I take myself out of the equation when I’m teaching because it really isn’t about what I find funny. If an audience is laughing at it, then it’s funny. I like when a really intelligent person in real life will come up with a really stupid joke that I wouldn’t expect from them. I’m not shocked anymore. I opened on the road for Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks so I don’t get shocked. What’s shocking anymore in stand-up comedy, strangely enough, is comics that work clean. Comics that work squeaky clean that are clever and funny; that’s different now.
Aside from traditional stand-up classes, improv, specialty and one-on-one courses are also offered at San Francisco Comedy College (in SF and San Jose) and schedules and tuition information is available at sfcomedycollege.com.
Corey Andrew has been interviewing comedians and writing about comedy for the last decade and a half. In 2011, he published the book, “Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians.” Corey was a writer and performer with Midwest sketch troupe The NonProphets before moving to the Bay Area with his family a few years ago. If you have ideas for future columns about comedy, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/coreywrites.