JUST KIDDING

Stand-up comics as young as 10 and 11 are taking US showbusiness by storm. John Carlin visits an academy of juvenile humour that's churning them out
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Tricia runs on stage, light on her feet, like Peter Pan. "I just turned 13 Friday," she trills, pausing expectantly for applause, which the audience delivers generously. "Mom says my body's changing. She wants to give me `the Talk'. You know, the one about the birds and the bees. Although I don't really think I need that because my mom is pregnant, and between the vomiting and the mood swings... I think I'd rather just shoot the birds and squash the bees."

Then she does her Shakespeare skit, begining with the observation that, although the Bard is "groovy", modern audiences might need a little help in the translation. So she trots off a series of Shakespeare quotations in convincingly metallic Olivier English, punctuating each with a home- spun Americanism. For example: " `Double, double, toil and trouble,/Fire burn and cauldron bubble'; which means," - she assumes an expression of brattish disgust - " `Oh no, not tuna casserole again!' "

The audience appreciates the joke and laughs heartily. But then it would. This is not a live performance. It's a rehearsal. The venue is a school for stand-up comics called the Comedy Gym, in Austin, the capital of Texas. It is the only school of its kind in the US, possibly the world. About a dozen students have turned up this evening, all of them adults except for Tricia and a pale little boy in glasses. They are taking it in turns to practise their routines before their peers, whose job it is to shout advice and encouragement from the floor. More than a school, it's a mutual support club for devotees of one of the world's loneliest professions.

Sam Cox is the therapist-cum-teacher who has been scraping a living single- handedly running the Comedy Gym for the past 10 years. A large, soothing man, he is watching Tricia on stage, a smile playing about his lips. At the tuna casserole joke he breaks in.

"When did you write your stuff?"

"This morning."

Sam raises an eyebrow but otherwise refuses to be intimidated. "Let's think of some more stuff from your own experience. What are 13-year-olds into these days?"

"Thirteen gallons of hair-spray."

"Really?"

"Oh yeah, they each have their own personal little holes in the ozone layer."

She's ad-libbing. Sam takes notes and suggests she find a way to incorporate the ozone holes into her show tomorrow. "You should slow it down a little," he adds. "Try to connect more with the people in the audience. Make eye- contact." She nods and runs off-stage to a round of applause from her fellow students.

Her place is taken by the little boy in glasses. His name is Paul Quinn, and he is 11 years old. He seems to be a natural show-off, who clearly enjoys being on stage but has an alarming tendency to forget his script. Fearing that he'll go blank, he has brought along a crib-sheet to the rehearsal. Following the instructions set out by Sam in his one school text, The Comedy Gym Workbook, he takes his cue from real life. Adult comics introduce their jokes by talking about their mothers or husbands. With Paul, it's "My little sister drives me crazy" or "My teacher hates me". The punchline - "My teacher hates me so much she takes away my school lunch money" - doesn't quite come off because in the struggle to read them he loses the flow. The adults, seeing in the child's discomfort an image of their own worst nightmares, try to encourage him. But they are laughing in the wrong places. Paul, not a shy boy, squirms. You can see him wondering, "Are they laughing at me, or with me?" Sam comes to the rescue.

"So, Paul, tell me what's going on in your life? What's bothering you?"

"Girls."

"What is it about girls?"

"First they act like they like me. They wink and smile at me. Then when I go and talk to them they say I'm stupid."

"I've got news for you kid," a male voice cries out from the back of the class. "It doesn't get any better!"

"Yeah," Paul says, revealing a quickness of mind that has not been apparent in his stage act, "my dad says, `Get used to it.' "

"Do they stare at you?" Tricia inquires.

"Yeah," Paul replies.

"Well, that's a sign they're trying to scare you away. I know. I do that," says Tricia; upon which the whole class roars with laughter.

Then some adults take their turns. They are under instructions to temper their language for the benefit of the kids. They don't. They tell jokes about lesbians, oral sex and the erotic appeal of fat women. Tricia sits on her father's lap, all ears. He is lanky, pony-tailed. She's a picture of concentration, eyes darting from the comedians on stage to Sam, when he makes a comment, to others in the class when they shout out a suggestion.

There is a particular urgency to this session because tomorrow night the two kids and the dozen grown-ups in the group will be performing before a live audience at the nearby Capitol City Comedy Club, on the outskirts of Austin. This is their last chance to rehearse, taking it in turns while Sam listens, make notes, gives advice. The others are free to bawl suggestions. Banter is the medium of instruction.

This evening's class is normally reserved for adults, but Tricia and Paul have decided to come along anyway. In Tricia's case, especially, this is typical. According to Sam, none of the other 20 children to have passed through his hands since he began his kids' class last year has displayed more dedication. She conveys a sense of knowing that, if she works at her craft, the world is her oyster. As she watches the adult performers, her father strokes her hair, smiling dreamily. She is drinking in information, digesting it for future use. She's thinking beyond tomorrow's show. She has a plan.

The adults can see it. At a bar later that night, Chris Allen, a 22-year- old rising star of the Comedy Gym, predicts a great future for Tricia. "The kid's a talent. By the time she's 18 she'll have got further than any of us ever will."

STAND-UP comedy is merely the most recent outlet that Tricia Storie has found for her artistic talents. She has been performing for five years at the Texas Renaissance Festival, an annual jamboree held in a mock medieval village near Dallas where locals rekindle their long-dead ancestors' imagined appetite for jousting, Shakespeare and roast boar. She has also played the lead in a professional stage version of Alice in Wonderland. But for now stand-up comedy seems to offer the most potential.

It is a genre which has exploded on the US scene in recent years. The number of nightclubs dedicated exclusively to comedy has risen to 330 nationwide from barely a dozen 20 years ago. Stand-up comedy has also become a staple on cable television. The children have evidently been watching; and showbusiness impresarios have been watching them. In the past two years, child-stand-up comics have been popping up in specialist clubs in New York, Los Angeles and Austin. The growth of the comedy market in general has led to a vast increase in demand not only for good comics, but for variations on an artistic form whose scope for novelty is by nature limited. Hence the current wave of child performers. Next week, Sam Cox will begin a big new class devoted exclusively to children.

Barry Secunda, a comedy talent scout based in Hollywood, says that the opportunities for children are excellent. "The market is really open now for kids, especially with the expansion of cable television," he explains from his Beverly Hills office. "The potential for talented kids is terrific. And it's only going to get better. From a business point of view I'm excited. But I'm torn on this subject. I worry about the impact on the child's psyche of becoming involved in showbiz. They run the risk of becoming adults too soon, of becoming disenfranchised as children in the marketplace."

Mr Secunda's misgivings do not prevent him from expressing a keen interest in learning more about Tricia, an apparent contradiction that he tries to resolve by noting that the effect showbusiness has on children varies from individual to individual, and that a great deal depends on whether or not they come from stable families. But the question remains whether transforming children into commodities is altogether a good thing - especially in an environment so enormously pressured as stand-up comedy. They say in the stand-up business that when you go on stage and the audience doesn't laugh, you "die". The adults at the Comedy Gym, aged between 20 and 40, exhibit the whole range of personality types, from wild extroverts to twitchy neurotics; all live on their nerves, for when they stand alone before an anonymous, paying audience everything is on the line, their egos, their charm, their intellect - for each alone writes his own jokes. If they are deserving and fortunate they will be loved. But they may just as easily be humiliated and scorned. Barry Secunda, who deals with stand- up comics all the time, says he is in awe even of his adult clients. "The only other thing I can imagine that would be so solitary is being a prize- fighter - without any clothes on. It's about as brave as anything I can imagine."

If it's that harrowing for the adults, how do the children cope? "With the adults it's like their whole life's on the line when they go on stage," Sam Cox says. "The kids get worked up and nervous too. But less so. There's a lot of stuff they don't understand yet. They tend to worry more about not remembering their lines."

"WHAT you look for in a kid, above all, is intellect," explains Cox the next day, sitting in the garden of his small home in the outskirts of Austin, his two small boys clambering all over him. "The kid has to be alert, see the funny side of things. Must also have a personality, come across to the audience as likeable. Tricia has all of those things. At 20, maybe sooner, she will be where others are at 35. The main thing is that she has such a strong desire. She keeps with it. The first kids' class was chaos. They were climbing up the walls, slapping each other. Tricia was the only one who sat quietly, listening intently, arms folded. She applies what I teach her. But she's also a natural trickster. She likes to impress people with her wit. She's a trouper. She has showbiz in the blood."

What about the children who don't? Are their parents exploiting them? Is there a sense that some of the parents who bring their kids to the Comedy Gym do so out of a desire to profit from child labour?

"At first I thought the parents maybe saw dollar signs but now I don't. More typically they say, `I don't know why he wants to do this - I certainly wouldn't.' Their main motivation is the fulfilment of their children's dreams. The parents tend to be extremely cool. They're mostly teachers or computer people. They tend to look for intellectual stimulation. Often they're parents who find their kids aren't interested in sports or art but are turned on by the comedy thing. Typically, the way it starts is like this morning when a woman phoned to say her kid kept on pestering her to let him join the class. She said she figured he'd be good because he had the family in stitches all the time. Then when the kid comes along I interview them about their family, their brothers and sisters. To have been sent here in the first place they're always kids who've shown comic tendencies, and so if I fish around enough I usually extract some funny stuff from them."

There are some parents, he admits, who send their children to the comedy school just to get rid of them, "a place to drop the kids off for two or three hours while you go shopping at the mall"; but such arrangements tend not to last. The children who succeed, he says, are the ones whose parents are enthusiastically behind them, helping them to write their material at home.

So far, around 20 kids have been through Cox's hands. Nearly all have gone on to perform before live audiences. Would he encourage his own children to be stand-up comics? "Only if they wanted to. It's the same as the other question people ask: `Why don't you do stand-up?' The answer is that I never had a strong drive to it. It's the writing that keeps me active. I love it."

Sam can state with confidence that writing is his calling because he has tried nearly everything else. When he was 16 he left home in Lubbock, Texas, and took a freight train to California. "I hung out, good timin', Venice Beach, the Summer of Love, all that Sixties stuff." Then he got a job fighting fires for the National Forest Service for three years before returning home, going to university and then going back to California, to actor's school. He played small roles in movies but dedicated most of his energy to writing plays and short stories. In 1980 he returned to Texas and became first an MC then a tour manager for local bands. He travelled all over the US and Europe before joining a comedy club in Houston in 1983 as MC and stage-manager. Three years later he started the Comedy Gym, making some money on the side lecturing ("Presentations with a punch", "Success and fun through humour") and writing jokes for television shows. "I don't make a ton of money," he says. He readily admits that his wife, who is Dutch and works in video production, is the main breadwinner. This summer they are planning to move to Holland, which he hopes will provide a platform for some sorties to teach comedy in Britain. He barely speaks Dutch, but he hopes to teach in Holland too. Would he learn Dutch? "Sure, I'll pick it up."

Sam's willingness to venture off on yet another adventure, to start afresh aged 48, illustrates perhaps the biggest difference between Americans and Europeans. We Europeans tend to accept that our place in life is for the most part predetermined by circumstances of birth. In America, the Dream runs in the blood. Even if, as in the case of Sam and most of his pupils at the Comedy Gym, the pot of gold remains elusive, Americans preserve an unshakeable faith in the notion that just around the corner opportunity beckons. An innocent optimism, more than any other quality, is what defines Americans. No better example exists, as it turns out, than Tricia Storie and her family.

THE Stories live 45 minutes north of Austin, deep in the Texan bush, in a large trailer home, America's favourite metaphor to describe white poverty. Dogs that look like strays, but actually belonging to the neighbours, hang around the yard, playing with the Stories' three children. Robert Storie, who is 36, is unemployed. His wife Kelly, also 36, is heavily pregnant. The family car is an ancient jalopy that doubles up as an alternative travelling home when the family travels off en masse, for weeks at a time, to events like the Texas Renaissance Festival and other state fairs. That is how the Stories make their living: finding part-time work as waiters (in Kelly's case medieval wenches), or performing gypsies, or participants in "living chess" matches. Tricia, the only member of the family to secure a contract for next year's Renaissance festival, does "walk-around" there, like the characters who dress up in Mickey Mouse costumes at Disney World; only Tricia dresses and behaves as a French nun called Sister Jezebel. Tricia has two younger sisters who last year contributed to the Renaissance atmosphere by playing the part of street urchins.

The Stories, in short, are a family of modern troubadours. In a society where the lowest form of insult is to call someone a "loser", they stand on the surface of things as an example of failure, as an offence against middle-class family values.

Yet look more closely and the conclusion is irresistible that the Stories are a model family, Kelly and Robert model parents. Robert's affection for Tricia is fetchingly evident in the absent-minded manner that he stroked her hair at the Comedy Gym. His affection for her two younger sisters, Katy, 11, and Jamaica, 9, is demonstrated by his determination not to present Tricia as the only star of the family; Katy and Jamaica, he says, are better students than Tricia and more avid readers.

Conversation moves on to books, and especially Dickens. Tricia trots off a few quotes from A Tale of Two Cities. All very genteel; in fact, the atmosphere is beginning to feel curiously dreamy - a Jane Austen drawing- room scene in the Texan bush - until reality strikes with the sudden awareness that it is 6 pm and that in an hour's time Tricia and Robert will have to drive off to the show at the Capitol City Comedy Club. Even then, however, the only hint of nerves that Tricia displays is to check that she has memorised correctly her "To be or not to be" speech. "Kelly's the bright one here," smiles Robert, holding a can of beer. "She's the one who reads." Kelly, accepting the compliment without protest, says that she taught the girls to love books, which she succeded in doing partly by rationing their intake of TV. "There are some things I don't want them to watch. The Simpsons, for example, because they're always so sarcastic. And I don't like the Ninjas either, so it saves us a lot on toys."

The girls all seem unusually mature. Katy pipes up at one point to say: "In Britain I heard that it's illegal to watch TV unless you pay the government money. Is that really true?" Considering that they were born in a country many of whose adult inhabitants think Britain is a town in Ohio, they are not only exceptionally articulate but exceptionally well-informed.

The secret, Robert says, is not to speak to them like children. "We never talk down to them and we've read to them a lot from an early age. We talk to them in an intelligent manner. Why talk to them like everyone's goofy?"

At school, though, most of the children think Tricia is goofy. "It's nice for her to go to the comedy classes because she's kind of different," Kelly says, "and the kids at school pick on her a lot." Why? "Because I have my own personality and they don't," Tricia interrupts, quick as flash. What does she mean by that? "What I mean is that they all want to be the same. There's the group of mainly Mexicans or Mexican wannabes, who dress in clothes five sizes too big for them; there's the cheerleaders, they're OK, they're pretty cool; there's the Preps, who, like, break a nail and go into a panic like it's the end of the world; and there's the Snots, who think they're better than anyone, but I'll prove them wrong. They have this sheep instinct," she adds matter-of-factly. "Like they're one big herd, except some of them have been dyed, one white, one black, one blue, one green."

Inevitably, Tricia's parents have entertained the thought that Tricia might one day pull the family out of poverty to fame and wealth, in the rags-to-riches tradition of countless Hollywood movies. But there are, in Sam Cox's phrase, no dollar signs in their eyes. Tricia does not get paid, for example, for appearing in front of paying audiences. (A cut of the takings goes to the Comedy Gym instead.) "She does it for the fun, for the experience," Robert says. "We'll stop this if it stops being fun, if it becomes a burden."

There seems to be little danger of that. "I want to be an actress, definitely," she says. "Mainly on Broadway, because I like to sing. I also like doing accents." Which accents? "English, Irish, Scottish, French, Russian, Australian. I learnt to do the English one watching My Fair Lady."

To one with the potential - and, it seems, the desire - to be another Audrey Hepburn, stand-up comedy could well turn out to be only a stage along the way, an opportunity to hone her craft. "But I like it a lot. It's pretty groovy. You get a chance to make jokes and people laugh." Tricia pauses, as if to announce that she is about to switch from innocent child to self-deprecating ironist. "They laugh because I'm a kid and they don't want me to have to go into therapy."

ONE or two of the adults who appear in front of a paying audience at the Comedy Club the following night look as if electric shock treatment might not be enough to cure their condition. They are the ones who tell a joke, then pause for a laugh that never comes. Then try again, and again, with the same result. Their hopes and fears are so nakedly exposed to 150 beer-drinking Texans that you can see them wilt before the barrage of silence. The jokes lose their thread, the punchlines their conviction. You sense that they would like nothing more than to run away. But they cling on in their desperate solitude for the alloted five minutes.

The first performer to go on entertains no such doubts. Powell Coffey, a fat boy of 10, has the confidence of a fat man of 50. He pauses between jokes, sustaining daringly long silences which in themselves are funny. "I was waiting for you to laugh," he complains, only provoking more laughter. As with Tricia and her birds and bees, the comedy sometimes derives less from the joke than from the adult audience's perception that he talks about sex in a manner unnervingly knowing for his years. "I was with a friend the other day and we were playing the Dragon Game. You know, the one where there's two little dragons mating. Then we saw Madonna on TV and my friend said, `Wow, she must have a lot of little dragons living with her!' "

A semi-circle of little round tables, each with two chairs, skirts the front of the stage. They are all empty save one, where Tricia sits alone drinking a giant lemonade. She's enjoying Powell's show but, more than that, you could tell, she was absorbed by his technique. Nothing suggests that she will be next on. Her father, a couple of tables back, is also entirely relaxed, chatting about Texan politics as if he were just another member of the audience. How come Tricia is so nerveless? Robert's logic is irrefutable. "I tell her about public speaking, `You've been gifted with more words than other people, so they gotta listen to you.' "

Tricia runs on stage wearing a big grin and a floppy hat with flowers. She looks like Annie Hall aged 10. She tells her birds and bees joke, then the lines from Macbeth and the tuna casserole. When the audience laughs she pulls her hat down over her ears and smiles with practised coyness. " `To be or not to be'," she recites in her Olivier voice, " `whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or, by opposing, end them...' - that means," (she twists her face and snarls) "Get a life!" Then, still doing her Olivier, she begins, " `First, let us kill all the lawyers...' " and stops. "Oh, I don't have a joke for that. I just like saying it." No crack gets a bigger laugh the whole night. Again, like Powell's joke about the dragons, it would not have succeeded so well had an adult told it. The formula is clear: child stand-up comedy works better the more precocious the child is, the more surprising the understanding of the adult mind.

Tricia's genius is that she is a child with the wit of an adult. Talking to her you can forget how young she is, how far she still has to go before she achieves her ambitions. You can find yourself asking her the sorts of questions interviewers ask Meryl Streep - like: how important is success to you, Tricia? "Very important," she replies, solemnly, as if she's been asked that a million times; adding: "I've got a bunch of people already who want me to thank them when I win my first Emmy." It doesn't sound spoilt or obnoxious. Partly because she is, as the admiring Sam Cox says, a sweet-natured child. But mainly because it's probably going to happen. !

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