Apr 23, 2019

Comedy class is a laughing matter

Ron Loder laughs at his classmate’s performance during a special Saturday meeting of Professor Mary Parker’s communication and humor class.
Juan Villa / The Collegian

Fresno State is known for many things, but a sense of humor is probably not one of them.

In Professor Mary Parker’s comedy class every spring, students with quick wits and an iron resolve can jump on the fast track to center stage by performing their very first standup routine.

“The audience wants to think that you, as the comedian, have never put any thought into what you are saying,� Parker said. “Steve Martin once said that it took him 10 years to get a good hour of material. We only want about five minutes, but that demands dedication.�

The class is broken up into two parts over the course of the semester.

In the first half, students take an in-depth look at the academic side of humor, focusing on comedy as a personal and social function, how humor is used as a coping mechanism and the benefits of laughter for your health.

“It’s like a workshop that helps the students find things about themselves that they can laugh at,� Parker said. “In a way, it’s kind of like therapy.�

The second half of the semester is prep work for the final exam show.

Every student in the class must get on stage at The Bucket and perform five minutes of standup comedy, which will then be evaluated by the audience.

“To see what these students can accomplish in such a short period of time is wonderful,� Parker said. “They take something that is very difficult, commit to it, work at it, then let all of their thorns show without worrying about being pretty or perfect.�

In order to prepare for the show, students must write a stage script and rehearse it numerous times in front of the class, polishing the jokes and working to make everything flow smoothly and naturally.

“There’s always a chance that someone might get offended by what you are presenting, but humor is a coping mechanism,� Parker said.

“Comedy is all about taking a chance and making something awful quite manageable. Humor was a big part of the holocaust for survivors, because laughing at the situation helped them survive it. That’s why most people that are funny are also dysfunctional, because they are survivors,� Parker said.

Parker, who has been teaching this class for 14 years, said that she loses many people on the first day that think the course revolves around “just telling a few jokes.�

“Egos take some real blows in this class,� Parker said. “It is really hard for people that grew up thinking they were funny with their friends. Here, you don’t have any history with the strangers in the audience, so you only have about 20 seconds to get their attention.

“You have to do something spectacular, or they won’t listen to you.�

Prior to starting the class, Parker spent three years doing standup comedy down in Los Angeles.

“It was a really radical thing to do in 1986, because I was a wife and mother of four,� Parker said. “I had been diagnosed with cancer and had one of those life-changing moments that make you think you need to decide what to do with your life.�

When she read about the idea of teaching a comedy class, she jumped at the chance.

“This class is filled with dysfunctional people like myself,� Parker said. “We like to have fun and we don’t fit in a mold. Some of the students are quiet, some are out of control, but they are all fun and I end up laughing more than anyone else in the class.�

Parker said that many parents have come to her expressing how their children have grown and changed in confidence because of the class.

“It just really helps them with life,� Parker said. “I had never thought of it like that, but I have students come up and tell me how doing a comedy routine in front of a huge audience just puts everything in perspective.

“We become a family that knows everything about each other and some of moments where they finally break through and get the humor and laugh with it are some of the most rewarding.�

The class final will be held on May 3, during a 7 p.m. performance in The Bucket.

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