Be funny or fail: Iowa State University course teaches skills for use in various professions

For course final, students perform before audience

Vanessa Miller
Published: December 10 2013 | 3:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 12:40 am in
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As a computer engineering major at Iowa State University set to begin as a software developer for Google in the spring, it’s safe to say that Curtis Ullerich was not the class clown in school.

But last week, before an audience of more than 50 in a popular ISU nightclub, Ullerich, 22, stood behind a microphone, in the glare of the spotlight, and rattled off a string of jokes.

“Is anyone else more of a Netflix marathoner?” Ullerich said as he began his standup routine, which also served as his final exam for ISU’s inaugural Comedy College honors course.

The class, which debuted this fall, taught ISU honors students how to write and tell jokes in a standup format, improve their sense of humor and use comedy in everyday life.

“The class description originally did not say that we would be doing a stand up routine as our final for the class — so that was a bit of a surprise,” Ullerich said. “I don’t know for sure that I would have taken it if I knew that. But I’m glad I did.”

In its first semester, the course quickly filled up with its maximum 17 students and then attracted a wait list. Its professors — a sort of “odd couple” including ISU economics professor Peter Orazem and professional entertainer and humor instructor Gavin Jerome — said every student had a different reason for signing up.

Some wanted to learn standup, while others hoped to feel more comfortable in social settings, hone their sense of humor or simply spend a few hours a week laughing.

One student confessed he took the class because he heard the final was in a bar.

Ullerich said that although he has no plans to swap his new job at Google for life as a standup comedian, the course has given him tools and ideas about how to use comedy in his life and career.

“There is a time and place for it,” he said. “But it’s usually better than not to be able to find the humor in things.”

Beginnings

The genesis for the class began a decade ago when Jerome was teaching comedy courses in the private sector and ISU professor Orazem signed up.      

“He turned out to be one of my finest students,” Jerome said. “Who would have thought an economics professor would be funny? But he is. He is fantastic.”

Orazem said he signed up for the course on a lark after a suggestion from his priest, who also went through Jerome’s training. He said he’s been dabbling in comedy ever since, after getting hooked during the class graduation — which took place behind a microphone at a bar.

Jerome, who began entertaining professionally in 1986, took a hiatus from teaching about a decade ago so he could concentrate on conducting humor workshops in corporate settings for clients such as IBM, Pepsi and Target.

But last year, during a charity comedy show in Iowa, Orazem ran into Jerome and asked if he would be up for teaching again.

“I said, ‘Only if you teach it with me,’” Jerome said. “So he and I have been doing this together.”

Jerome said he dug up his old notebooks and teaching materials, and the pair changed the curriculum to adjust to today’s new technology and comedy trends.

“Peter and I designed the Comedy College 2.0 experience,” he said.

On day one of the course, students stand behind a live microphone and start getting comfortable, Jerome said. Over the semester, they learn how to flex the four parts of the humor muscle — the sense of humor, the ability to write jokes, the capacity to deliver jokes and the learned tricks of the trade.

During every class, the professors look at “practical applications,” giving students ways to use the day’s lessons in work and life. That could include public speaking or improved writing.

“I really believe that the ability to use humor in corporate America is the most important survival skill you can possess,” Jerome said.

The final exam — the standup comedy show — is pass or fail.

“You have to get one laugh — one laugh from the audience and then I’ll pass you,” Jerome said. “If you bomb, if you get up there and you do not tell a single funny joke, then I have to fail you.”

Right now, the course is only offered as an honors seminar. But students from across campus have been emailing asking how they can get a shot at it.

“We are going to try to move forward and offer this for as long as people want it and for as many different areas that want it,” Jerome said.

Practical applications

Even before Orazem began teaching the comedy course, he employed his humor training to liven up his economics classes.

“I use it in my classroom all the time,” he said. “I can react to things in ways that enliven the lecture a bit.”

Comedy in general is not new to ISU junior Bohan Li, 21, who used to perform in variety shows and comedy plays in China before coming to the United States in 2011. But what is new to Li is American humor, which is why he signed up for ISU’s comedy class.

“I’m using it to improve in social situations,” Li said. “I thought the comedy college could introduce me to informal American culture and be useful for my career going forward.”

Li has no plans to become a standup comic — he’s on track to become a mechanical engineer. But he wants to stay in the United States and begin working after graduation, and he sees the value in humor.

“People who don’t know how to use humor in their work, no one will want to work with them.”

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