Sam Walch was always the class cut up, the family clown, the one who knew how to use humor to socialize with both strangers and friends. But when he took those tendencies on the road as a standup comedian for eight years, he worked on jokes, punch lines and his comedy routine the way an elite athlete trains. That’s one of the myths about comedy – humor may come naturally, but being funny on a nightclub stage takes repetition, practice and guts.
Walch, 55, is an instructor in the College of Arts and Sciences, teaching public speaking and theories of comedy. It’s something he started in 2004 and never fails to enjoy. In recent years, he has found himself enjoying his volunteer role as a coach of local public officials and notable personalities who are doing comedy to raise money for an event called Laughter is the Best Medicine. It benefits SalusCare, a local not-for-profit organization that helps people with mental health and substance use issues in Southwest Florida.
“It gives people a chance to do something on their bucket list,” says Walch, who joined FGCU360 one sizzling summer day to discuss the question everyone always asks: Can you really teach someone to be funny? His sky-blue tie-dyed shirt and causal demeanor complemented his quick smile as he said confidently, “Yes.” He recognizes the look on students’ faces when they achieve that feeling – the adrenalin rush you get when you make people laugh. “It’s so powerful,” he says. “When you finally hit it, it’s so addictive.”
Here are Walch’s tips for how to do successful standup comedy: Remember anyone can be funny: Anyone who loves the feeling of making people laugh can be a comedian. When Walch emceed at a Gainesville comedy club, he saw housewives, doctors and street people evoke laughter. “I’ve never met anyone without a sense of humor,” he says. You just need acute observation skills, a bit of emotional detachment and a dose of cynicism.
Don’t panic if a joke falls flat: Comedians are supposed to push the envelope and be one step over the line, “but not jump way over the line.” Newbies to standup comedy can only learn this by performing. When a joke is met with silence, just move on. If a joke is met with wincing, you know not to do that joke again. “If you panic, then it’s over.”
Keenly observe your audience as you perform: When people look uncomfortable after a joke that involves politics, gender or mean spiritedness, then it’s time to pull it from the routine. Walch recommends in particular watching women in your audience because they tend to be better barometers of when you’ve gone too far. “You may hear an ‘uh’ or ‘ewwwwww’ from a woman quicker than you would from a guy.”
Memorize your routine: Being on stage is wholly different from practicing in private. If your routine is not committed to memory and an audience member flusters you, you lose your rhythm. Once a crowd senses that, you’ve lost them. Practice by going to open mic nights. Fifteen minutes can feel like an hour if you’re not prepared.
Make sure each joke has a punch line: There is no formula that works 100 percent of the time, but if you structure your routine so it flows logically and punctuate every joke with a punch line, that’s what triggers laughs. “There are only so many premises out there, so make your joke your own story and use your own delivery style. We all see things different ways, so use your attitude and cadence.” Consider a joke a scripted version of a story with the sole purpose of making the audience laugh.
Set a laugh-per-minute goal: When you write jokes and punch lines, keep in mind you need a laugh every 15 seconds, otherwise your audience will lose interest. “It’s hard to write that much material,” Walch says. That’s why most comedians are Type A, uber-focused people off stage. They write, they practice, then they write more.