When the car door shut, I was no longer on a ride with three college-aged guys; I was launched into a stand-up comedy routine.
“Dude, how big do you think the crowd will be?” first year Cheyne Minto asked senior Dallas Akins.
“How should I know?” Akins shot back.
“It’s your club,” Minto said. “I mean I’ve been to mics where the crowd was just my friends and I’ve been to mics where there’s actually a crowd.”
“Well I guess we’ll see,” Akins said.
The jokes flowed naturally as the two students finalized their sets and decided on the order they would perform in. Akins first, followed by Minto. As we approached the club, both were palpably excited””Minto, who is used to performing his material, and Akins, who has only recently jumped into the stand-up world.
Akins walked up to the booth to sign up as a performer. A few seconds later he turned around slowly.
“The club is closed,” Akins said after the women at the ticket booth told him the open mic had been canceled to accommodate a different show and quickly added that the group “should totally come back next week.”
So with the open mic canceled and no other options, we turned around and headed for the door.
“Dude great set,” Minto joked with Akins. “Let’s just tell everybody it was a hit.”
And just as the ride to the club started, it quickly turned into another set with jokes rolling left and right and punch lines clashing off each other every few seconds.
“I made it to the club and was ready to perform,” Minto said. “So that was successful. I can write all the jokes I want but they are useless if I never get the courage to actually get on stage.”
The Science of Comedy
Minto has been performing stand-up since high school in California. The 18 year old said he cannot remember a moment growing up when his family did not encourage his comedic pursuits.
“At my high school graduation I got two awards. I got an award for Chinese and one for””it was called the Aardvark Award””and it was for comedy,” Minto said. “And I remember distinctly at the celebration dinner afterwards with my family there was not a single mention of the Chinese award; they were only proud of the comedy award. That’s just my family””there is never a serious moment.”
While this outing was going to be Minto’s first open mic in San Antonio, he has wasted no time in the move to Texas and has already joined Trinity’s short-form improv troupe the First Time Offenders and performed at the San Antonio-based theater The Overtime. Minto said no matter what he is doing, comedy plays a huge role in his life.
“Oh, comedy is my life,” Minto said. “I was thinking the other day how the times I truly feel happy are when I am making other people smile or laugh.”
But it is not all games to the Los Angeles native. For Minto, comedy is as much a science as it is an art. This is an uncommon descriptor not usually associated with comedy, but it’s an integral part in Minto’s process.
“At the base level of comedy, you’re playing to an audience and that audience is made up of human beings that all take things differently. But there are certain triggers that you can use in comedy that will make them laugh,” Minto said. “The teacher I had in Los Angeles really broke down every joke that a comedian told into a list of seven or so different triggers that really made the joke work. And in that sense I think there is a structure and a science to comedy.”
However, Akins, who is 21, said he sees stand-up a little differently.
“Stand-up is just a stream of consciousness, your projection of the world. You’re just doing a one-man show,” Akins said. “It’s a very selfish art.”
Akins, who plans to graduate at the end of the year, got his start in theater then transitioned into improv before he ever considered stand-up.
“I think it’s just like, stand-up for me is all the games that I want to play and all of the things that I want to do and talk about,” Akins said. “Whereas improv is about playing with everybody else on stage.
The science of comedy, or as Akins calls it, “a muscle to be worked,” attempts to go deeper and get at what is beneath the surface: what makes something funny. Both Minto and Akins search for this, no matter how they refer to it.
“Comedy is a muscle to be worked””it’s receptive to ideas, it’s aware of the environment,” Akins said. “It is a part of our brains that we’ve shut down for years and years since we were kids. That’s really all you’re doing; you’re waking it up.”
Games for kids
Junior Alejandro Cardona’s obsession with improvisation began in early April of this year. Since then it has done nothing but grow into a fierce passion. However, as funny as an improv show may be, Cardona does not consider it inherently comedic.
“I come into comedy from improv and I have a hesitancy to call it “improv comedy.” Improv is more than comedy, comedy is a happy byproduct of it,” Cardona said.
Cardona, who is from Cali, Colombia, said his interest in improv stems from his natural curiosity. Cardona said a drive for him in understanding improv and comedy surrounds the questions “Why is that funny?” and more importantly, “How is that funny?”
“Improvisation is not funny in the same way that a lot of comedy is funny,” Cardona said. “It’s not set up in ‘set-up, punch line,’ it’s not set up in ‘situational comedy,’ and it doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories of any of the comedy we see in any other medium.”
Closely related to his view of comedy is the famous Chris Gethard quote, “Let’s not get caught trying to be funny.” Cardona said this has helped him hone his craft and define what improv is for him as both a performer and a director.
“One of the biggest notes an improviser will get early on is “˜don’t be funny,'” Cardona said. “If you try to be funny, an audience will detect that instantly. An audience can smell bullshit like a hound. My personal view of comedy is it’s not about laughs “”it’s about truths. I think that comedy is fundamentally recognition.”
This philosophy plays a heavy role in Cardona’s understanding of what it means to be funny and influences his approach and teaching style. In his role and experience as a director, Cardona seeks to help his performers bring out their point of view and ultimately find their voice.
“Anyone that wants to learn how to be funny needs to tap into their own point of view and their own truth,” Cardona said. “And if you manage to express that and you manage to see your unusual perspective on something, everyone is going to love that.”
However, as graduation draws closer for the third-year student, Cardona has been forced to consider his possibilities of pursuing comedy.
“One thing that has a bearing on me is the fact that I am not a U.S. citizen. I don’t get to stay in the country after my visa is up,” Cardona said. “So my plan is contingent on what can I do literally legally in the country. Part of me as an improviser is that I don’t make plans. I just want to go to the places where the industry is and literally try to get in any possible way that I can. And I think that is what a comedy career looks like; a lot of comics say there is no career in comedy, just because it is a crapshoot.”
Because of this, Cardona has even entertained the idea of returning home and bringing the art and history of improv with him.
“I play around with the idea of going back to Colombia and opening up an improv theater because I think it has a place everywhere,” Cardona said. “It is really hard to get anything up and going, but I actually think because I have these lessons and experiences that I could go back and bring this craft that I’ve learned here and translate that same history of discovery that happened in Chicago and New York in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s.”
This history he refers to started, as he says, as “games for kids.”
“It all started with games for kids because it is the very safe grounded basis for developing material, and slowly we started straying from that,” Cardona said. “The thing about improv is that it provides tools and forms. It provides a template and principles for you to play with, but eventually principles become tools become toys and you see the best improvisers, who are the best comedians, playing with those things. They know their craft so well that they don’t need rules or principles, so what they are left with are toys. And it is fundamentally childish, and it gets at something that is fundamentally human and that is just a part of all of us.”
Akins, who started performing improv in high school, also compared improv comedy to “games for kids.”
“Improv is like going back to kindergarten and the playground, and you just make-believe,” Akins said.
The senior physics and theater double major has also considered starting his own improv troupe.
“I think if I give it the dedication that I want, I think I can get really good at improv, it’s just about working that muscle,” Akins said. “I think I’m going to just move to Chicago, get some physics job there and just explore the scene for a while, hone my skills as an improver with the ultimate goal of being good enough to start my own troupe. And then if I ever get that good, ideally we’d go from there.”
Interest grows with time
Class of 2015 alumna Shannon Perry, 22, is not currently pursuing comedy. But that does not stop her from aspiring to it one day.
“I think the attraction to do improv comedy is sort of always on your mind even when you’re working in other professions,” Perry said. “So it’s something that I don’t think you ever lose your passion for. And it’s something that you can always try to hone your skills for without actively pursuing as a career.”
Perry is spending the year as a carpentry fellow in Berkeley, California. As a theater major at Trinity, she specialized in technical training, but split her class time between technical direction and performance. Since graduating she said her interest in comedy has not dimmed even as she focuses on other parts of her career.
“I am working in theater right now as a carpenter “” so really the other side of the spectrum, getting to watch great performers and comedians but not being the one on stage,” Perry said. “But I am always thinking about what is going on in the world of comedy right now. And having just graduated recently, I like to keep up with what is going on on-campus right now in terms of like, what are they doing this year? So that’s something that is kind of on my mind.”
While it is always on her mind, Perry said how she goes about finding her path in comedy depends on where she is and the experience she can gain in the industry.
“Depending on what city I’m living in, there are comedy troupes that offer classes, and the route that I’ve seen people take is they take classes with a comedy troupe,” Perry said. “Once you’ve taken enough classes, you can audition for the troupe and hopefully your audition allows you to become a member of that troupe. And I think those first steps would be to take that route.
“I think to reach a dream job it is not to have skill in just improv comedy but to have skill in writing comedic skits and skills having to do with more than just personas,” she said. “So I’ll have to get a lot better at the writing side of it and being able to show I have a range of comedy.”
Perry said even though it is not her main focus now, she hopes to fall into comedy later in life and continue her passion in multiple ways.
“This interest in comedy only grows with time,” Perry said. “It can be so inclusive, comedy can. It can be so welcoming to people with all kinds of voices that I don’t think it is something that you have to jump right into as a career””you can kind of let yourself fall into it with time. Which is what I am hoping will happen.”
Overall a pretty good set
The drive back to campus was not negative or disappointed but rather hopeful with an eye on the future. Both Akins and Minto joked about how their closers have “crushed it” with the make-believe audience and how they could not wait to go back next week. Overall, a pretty good set.
“It was still fun,” Minto said. “A lot of stand-up is in the preparation. I was excited to see how my material would work with a Texas audience. These first few [sets] will allow me to feel the vibe of a San Antonio audience, what they like and what they don’t like. I plan to hit comedy clubs and do as much as I can to solidify my style and maybe develop a presence in San Antonio and maybe other areas throughout Texas. If I’m going to be here for the next four years, then why not?”