The anatomy of a laugh

If you’ve ever found yourself standing on a makeshift stage in the early hours of the night with nothing but a microphone and a bottle of water, facing a dwindling crowd of students who are halfway through dinner and wondering why this guy is in the middle of J Street going, “So, who here likes the Patriots?” you would understand the devastatingly exact art of stand-up comedy.

I won’t try to understand that knot of emotions that plants itself in the pit of each and every comic’s stomach after a show. Nobody except for the brave comic deserves to understand that. I know that they are doing something that is unreasonably harder than it looks, for something that most people probably take for granted, a good laugh. These guys live for something as simple as a smile.

“It’s a rush,” said junior Jesse Baltes, one of the two GW finalists who was chosen to represent GW in the D.C. Improv’s “District’s Funniest College.” “It’s comparable to a soccer player scoring a goal in front of a crowd of people.”

Not that Baltes claimed he wasn’t nervous. “I was really, really nervous,” he said, “my hands were shaking while I was on stage.” The strange thing is, when a comic is compelling to an audience, nobody even notices.

“Okay,” Baltes said at the open of his set, “Now’s the time that I pander to the audience,” and he launched into a series of “so anyone from [state]?” remarks. Baltes worked the audience with a familiar sense of self-deprecation that made every admission he said after this seem honest, and therefore, funny.

“Two things about myself,” Baltes said, “I’m lazy and I’m creepy.” His insinuation that he knew every girl in the audience because he stalked them on Facebook was met with a “no you didn’t!” kind of laugh, similar to the laugh that graduate student Reed Rosenthal got when he opened his set with the fact that he was living with his first female roommate. Rosenthal added that he was not used to seeing tampons in the medicine cabinet and then mentioned in passing that he was wearing one. “They say ‘extra comfort’ on the box,” he said, “but I’ll tell ya.”

The college crowd at 7:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night, is a strangely difficult to stir. Like any other crowd they have to be “warmed up,” that is, they have to be slightly edged into the position where not only will they find things funny but will actually want to laugh. The comics had to know how to press on when a joke hits the ground with an audible thud.

“I was really nervous,” said senior Brian Golding, a tall, gentle-humored contestant who made the final cut along with Baltes. “My only audience so far has been my girlfriend.”

Golding, like most artists who are experimenting with their craft, has an attentive interest in stand-up comedy. He has seen almost every recognizable comic under the sun perform live, and he agrees that there is “definitely a craft” to writing and performing stand-up comedy.

“You have a kind of instinct when you’re looking at your material,” Golding said. “Of course everything I write stems from what I find funny, but later I consider the audience while I’m working on my material. You have to think about what they will find funny.”

The Funniest College Competition, is going on its second year, after GW alumnus David Angelo won second place last year (first place went to Georgetown). This year five colleges are involved, in addition to GW, Georgetown, George Mason, Catholic University and University of Maryland are each sending two contestants. The winner will be hired as the host of a DC Improv sponsored show at the State Theater, in Falls Church, VA, and will be given a “guest spot” at the Improv.

Most people for whom a night at the Improv is just a good laugh with a two-drink minimum might not quite understand the components of a good set, but the comics are certainly trying.

The D.C. Improv’s “District’s Funniest College” contest is Wednesday, Feb. 23 at 1140 Connecticut Ave. N.W.

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