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Knock 'Em Dead: At Harvard, Crafting Comedy Is No Laughing Matter

The delivery of a comic’s set is meant to create a certain illusion—that this is the first time the comic is telling these jokes, though he or she has reused and rehearsed them dozens of times. “It is very much a performance art that people don’t really think about,” Morone says. “It’s really like a mental manipulation. The whole thing is founded on lying to your audience, making your audience think that you’re doing these things for real.”

This is where watching comedy comes in, Zonfrelli and Morone say: it helps them internalize the stage presence and intonation of established comics. Further, it is useful in developing a style to study comics who work similarly; Zonfrelli listens to Jeselnik on Spotify before performing. “I’ll listen to his timing, I’ll listen to his pacing, I’ll listen to just the inflection he has as he delivers punches. Then it just gets me thinking about [performance] in terms of a comic instead of a guy who’s going to go up and talk to people,” he says.

Zonfrelli and Morone agree that inspiration for a joke can come at any time, anywhere. “I like to think that people who like comedy notice the funny parts of life as they go around, and the comics are the ones that write it down,” Zonfrelli says. He and Morone—like several other campus comics I speak with—have a running list of joke ideas compiled in the “notes” function of their smartphones. They conversely find it difficult to sit and come up with jokes on command. “I have several Word documents of the least funny shit,” Zonfrelli confesses.

Kindler says the same is still true for him. “For me and for most people I know, it’s impossible to sit in a room and produce humor,” he says.

“I guarantee—I feel like the guy on TV saying ‘No money down!’” he continues. “I guarantee that any comic will be 50 percent better almost immediately if they do one thing that I do that most comedians don’t do, which is: every time something funny happens in your mind, and you think it’s funny in that moment, write it down.”

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LAUGHTER AND ERROR

The Adams Upper Common Room is full. It’s March 25, and the audience has assembled this evening for the first stand-up comedy night organized by Harvard Speaks, an organization that promotes public speaking by undergraduates. The first comedian, Dan J. Fitzpatrick ’15, checks the microphone stand—the mic is missing.

He launches into his set without it. “I think we should basically treat the zipper like a form of male cleavage. You just adjust the gap to the appropriateness of the situation,” he proposes. “‘I really want to show Kate that I care.’ How do you get out of that friendzone? You unzip your chinos all the way down.”

He and Carina M. Livoti ’14, who also performed at Harvard Speaks, sit with me after the show. The writing process, they tell me, is only where their material starts—it’s impossible to improve it without performing for audiences. Their jokes exist in a state of endless evolution, changing with the crowd’s reception. “We’ve both been doing the same jokes for several years, but they’re far from what they started out as,” Fitzpatrick says. “You’re always cutting bad punchlines or adding new things.”

Improvisation on stage can lead to entirely new jokes. Kevin E. O’Donnell ’16 is unable to practice stand-up off stage, he says—but in a kind of reverse stage fright, he is uninhibited on stage, and his set works. In a recent performance, he improvised a transitional line that he says got him one of his set’s biggest laughs.

“I said, ‘Well, now’s the time in my stand-up set that I do interpretative dance. It’s an avant-garde interpretative dance that consists of me reading other jokes,’” he says. “I got comments on that line.”

“I was like, ‘Maybe that means my jokes are shitty,’” he adds.

Performing frequently is not the only factor important to improving as a comic—seasoned professional Kindler emphasizes performing for different audiences as well as performing often (nightly, he recommends). “When comics start and they stay in a small town for too long or only have stage time in a city that has one club, it’s hard to develop,” he says.

The Boston area provides that diversity—student comics have performed in local clubs including The Comedy Studio and ImprovBoston, community events like Harvard’s annual Arts First festival, and student-organized shows. Within the college, though, the lower pressure and array of comedy organizations is creatively liberating. “That’s the beauty of college,” Livoti tells me. “[There are] stand-up organizations where we can organize our own shows and people will actually show up, so you can try out lots of different things. I did something in a ghost costume once.”

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