April 15-21, 2004
San Francisco Comedy College finds a home in Santa Cruz
By Christa Martin
When the then unknown comedienne Janeane Garafolo walked off the stage, Kurtis Matthews was next in line. He was in luck. The crowd loved her. Garafolo´s style was quirky. She was unlike other women hitting the comedy circuits doing the typical shticks about male bashing and menstrual flows. That night Garafolo had more than warmed up the audience for Matthews.
It was the early years for both comics. Garafolo went on to become a movie star. Matthews landed various spots on television shows and later launched the San Francisco Comedy College (SFCC)—a place that trains funny people, and even a few that aren´t so funny. (Matthews is convinced that even the boring can become amusing.) The college has been creating laughs up in the city since 1999 and now the comedy is trickling down the coast and infiltrating the Actors´ Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz. This town is about to be served a hefty, professional dose of humor—henceforth. Not only will the college hold weekly performances at the Actors´ Theatre on Sunday nights at 9 p.m., but before each show, starting on April 4, a beginner comedy class will also be taught by the SFCC staff.
“It´s not corporate comedy, bang-bang-bang shtick stuff,” Matthews says. “We´re going to find people who are willing to take more risks and talk about more topics: AIDS to abortion to crack to addiction.”
This isn´t Bill Cosby material that´ll be coming out of the performance space in downtown. It´s some raw, real, edgy stuff.
But a beginner class in comedy? How do you teach someone to be funny?
“If they´re willing and want to be funny,” Matthews says. That´s the key ingredient. “It´s easier to teach someone to be a comic than to get a sense of humor. I´ve yet to meet someone who can´t be funny.” The secret? “Being themselves. Not trying to be funny or have an act. Be real in the moment. Create material based on who you are. Anything a person talks about, there´s an audience for.”
During a four-week, $200 session, students will learn the basics to becoming a comic: joke structure, how to rehearse, techniques and points of view. Matthews doesn´t use a traditional comedy model in teaching. Instead he gives his students tools that they can then use to individualize their styles. He´s not interested in having them sound like him or like each other. Originality seems to be the unspoken mantra here.
Students come from varied backgrounds: some want to pursue professional careers in comedy, others are business people longing to sharpen their presentation skills and others are just checking things out, trying a new hobby. After graduation, there is an advanced class available to people that want to further their comedic studies. It will be offered at the Broadway Playhouse.
“There is no, ‘My humor is better than yours,´” Matthews says. “I don´t tell people what´s funny. If they get laughs they´re doing something right. The truth is, to be a great comic, you have to stink first,” even if you´re one of those people who was seemingly born funny, like Rich Stimbra, a locally based student of SFCC. He´s been a self-noted comedian his whole life, with people always commenting on his hilarity. After his father died in 2001 he started taking the funny business very seriously. Even this humorous young man bombed at his first time in front of an audience during an improv class at UC Santa Cruz. But he pressed on and kept laughing, and went on to study with SFCC.
“[It´s like] getting on a bike with training wheels first,” Stimbra says. “[It´s a] nice, safe environment in front of peers who care about you.”
By now Stimbra has ditched the training wheels and has some advice for fresh-faced comics: speak about things that are really, really important to you and don´t hide behind material.
And what he didn´t say, but probably holds its weight among comedic wisdom: don´t forget to laugh.
Members of the San Francisco Comedy College will perform at 9 p.m. on Sunday, April 4, at the Actors´ Theatre, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $5 and these shows will continue on all Sunday nights. Beginner comedy classes also start that night at 6 p.m. April 4 is a free session. Otherwise, the four weeks of classes are $200. For more info, visit www.sfcomedycollege.com.