Funny Fest Story as appeared in The Fairbanks Daily News MinerA nurse, a math teacher, a soldier and a scientist walk into a bar — but the punchline comes later.Actually, the punchlines come days later, during the live performances of the Fairbanks Funny Fest. That’s the part that the public sees — and the part that feels a little like the end of summer camp for the participants — but the process goes unseen by outside eyes, and that’s the part I spent last week exploring. It’s the seventh year of the annual workshop hosted by Jerry Evans and Glen Anderson, who bring up a headliner from the Lower 48 to impart gems of comedic wisdom on the participants.The first few minutes of the workshop felt funny. Not funny, but awkward. Picture this: A dozen work-a-day jokesters who are never without a wisecrack gather in a room and fill it with total silence, save a cell phone being powered down. No eye contact, no getting-to-know-you banter. Silence. Maybe it’s because there are a lot of first-timers. Each class usually has 18 to 20 members, but it’s down to about 12 this year, split pretty evenly between chicks and dudes. Only a couple have done the fest before, so there’s plenty of raw talent to work with.I thought the first night would be the push off of a grueling three-day workout, where routines were created, altered and finally perfected. I pictured one-on-one training with a super big comedy star, plenty of drama and maybe a reality-TV style temper tantrum, followed up by a heartfelt group hug. Not so much. It’s the people who join the festival who really make it happen — the raw talent that comes with the package just needs a little refinement before it’s ready for the stage. That’s where Evans, Anderson and this year’s headliner, John DiCrosta, came in. A simple alteration of a joke — changing “Jose” to “occupant,” for example — turns a funny concept into a real zinger.DiCrosta, our headliner/teacher, gave us a little pep talk early on in the class, and it started like this: “Have any of you ever heard of me. No, I didn’t think so, and that’s a good thing. I’ve been making a living doing comedy for about 30 years, and you’ve never heard of me.” His point, of course, is that you don’t have to be headlining in Vegas every weekend to make ends meet as a comedian. “There are a lot worse ways to make a living,” he said.His career started in the early ’80s with ventriloquism, with gigs mostly in upstate New York. Around 1986, he dropped the ventriloquism because anyone (at that time) who used puppets or props or anything but a mic stand was ridiculed. This was when stand-up was really getting hot and comedians like Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld were becoming mainstays. In 2000, he moved to Los Angeles and started doing cartoon voices as well as voices for video games, and became a “dancing monkey” for Bill Maher and Craig Kilborn. He was the warm-up guy for those shows and also kept the audience entertained between shooting.“The ultimate payday is sitcoms,” he said. The 22 minutes of an actual sitcom is usually shot over five to six hours, so it was his job to keep the live audience entertained throughout. “Except for a show like ‘Will and Grace,’ most sitcoms are boring as hell for five hours.” With a little help from his lifetime friend, “King of Queens” star Kevin James, he worked as the warm-up guy on that show, making $2,000 to $3,000 a night for a five-hour shift. For awhile, he struggled to find work and decided to pick up the ventriloquism act again. It killed.DiCrosta — with the aid of Evans and Anderson — highlighted the basic rules of comedy to help us all avoid standard pitfalls. As much as those tips helped us all improve, everyone who stepped on stage the first night had something funny to say, and it wasn’t even part of a routine. Valerie, a nurse at the local correctional facility, told us about a pregnant woman “tweaked on meth, but crying about not getting her prenatal vitamins.” Doug, who works in quality control, says the concept works on the job, but not at home with his four kids — well, “three and a psycho 13-year-old.” Jennifer — a self-”unemployed” former waitress, cracked everyone up with two words. “What kind of families go to your restaurant.” Jerry asked. “Broken ones,” she said. Matt told us about a job interview for a think tank, which he finds to be an odd concept. “So, what are you doing.” “Just thinking.”And petite, soft-spoken Peggy took her gentle place on stage wearing massive fur boots, and in the sweetest little voice said, “I’m an artist and a sculptor … and I play hockey.” Maybe it doesn’t read as funny in print, but it’s probably the most hilarious thing I’ve ever heard. The point is, everyone came with something funny, whether they knew it or not, and we all spent the next three days “finding the funny” in our lives and turning it into a three- to five-minute routine.The second night of the workshop found me late — but only because I took a wrong turn and ended up halfway to North Pole before I figured it out.It was more of the same, except people seemed to have their material at least a little better formatted.Some people really had it together and got some solid tips on how to make it better. Others — and I will totally put myself in this category — had further to go. The most interesting people to watch were the ones who simply needed to “cut out the fat” because you could see why their stuff was funny, but getting to the point was definitely in order. By night three, I was fascinated by how far some people had come in three days. I’m talking about people who had never set foot on stage before who were suddenly ripping it up, making the class laugh at material we’d already heard twice. At this point, it’s just minor tweaks suggested by our teachers.I guess that’s the big secret of stand-up comedy: You don’t have to be some kind of comic genius or have a brilliant idea to make people laugh, just the bravura to get yourself on stage. Anderson told us the only difference between comedians and funny people is that “comedians write it down.” Workshop participants had taken huge strides by doing simple things like getting to the punch line faster or using the rule of threes.Three, you see, is the magic number. It shows up everywhere — Three Little Pigs, Three Musketeers, The Three Stooges — and for whatever reason, it works. Hitting up an audience with a joke followed by one example gets a laugh, pop on a second and you’ll get a bigger laugh, and then you slam ‘em with a third and they’re rolling on the floor. There might be a mystical science to it, but the bottom line is that it works.Early on in the class, Evans promised “the perfect atmosphere” for a first-time performer: an audience that’s accepting, enthusiastic and forgiving. By Friday night, we could all see he wasn’t lying. The people who came out to see the show were ready and willing to laugh — even if someone spaced on stage or used notes.All I could think throughout the two performances — and forgive the sentimentality — was that I was ridiculously proud of everyone in the class. Even though we hadn’t been together more than six hours during the workshop, I felt like we’d all run the gauntlet together and come out kicking on the other side. And now I can’t go to Fred Meyer without someone saying, “Hey, that show was great. It really looks like fun.” And they’re right. It really is a lot of fun. So whether it’s you or that funny guy in the office, do more than consider it next year. You’re bound to come out better on the other side. Of course, nothing’s 100 percent gold. Just before I stepped on stage to make my debut at the Fairbanks Funny Fest, one of the workshop’s creators imparted one last bit of comedic wisdom on me.“You don’t have to be nervous,” Anderson said. “It’s like when you’re gearing up for a really big Ultimate Frisbee match and you’re really tense, ’cause it’s, like, a really big game, but then you get out there and you see the trees and smell the grass, you’re ready — and it’s all good.” What?Michelle Peterson is a freelance writer and budding comedian. But she’s keeping her day job — for now.
The Funny Fest is back with Guest Instructor/HeadlineJon Dore!WORKSHOP Space is Limited! Young, Old, Shy, Class Clown, Life of the Party? Learn the art of Stand-up Comedy with guest instructor Jon Dore. You'll learn how to structure and present a 3-5 minute Stand-up Comedy routine, then perform in front of a supportive and encouraging audience, as you become the opening act for the hilarious Jon Dore. Workshops: Mon-Th Jan 10th-13rd 5:30-7:30, Shows Jan 14th & 15th at The Pioneer Park Theater.To apply for the Funny Fest, e-mail Jerry@alaskacomedy.com and tell us:*Name*Contact info*Why you want to join the Funny Fest*Favorite comedian(s) / Funny MovieClass sizes will be kept small and preference will be given to 1st Time Student.Named one of “10 comics to watch”by Variety, Jon Dore recently starred in the critically acclaimed ABC-TV series“How to Live with Your Parents”. Dore hosted HBO Canada’s Funny as Hell, and was the star of his own award-winning ‘mockumentary’ series, “The Jon Dore Television Show.” The series ran for a successful two seasons on IFC and The Comedy Network. Dore starred in the stand-up specials “Comedy Central Presents...Jon Dore” and “Comedy Now!”, appeared on a number Comedy Central’s specials including “Live At Gotham”, “CC: Stand-Up: The Bonnaroo Experience” and “Mash Up”, made guest- starring turns on “CBS’s How I Met Your Mother”, and was the lead in the CBS pilot My Life As An Experiment. A regular on late night talk shows, Dore has the honor of being the first stand-up to appear on “Conan”, and has returned many times (TBS).