“How To” Classes

Posted on 09 August 2011

In the middle ages the universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which can be translated as the “community of teachers and scholars”, was seen to be an institution which existed largely for social benefit. Universities were to create expertise that could help cities and nations to deal with significant problems.

I taught storytelling for computer game design at two different universities for nearly a decade. In that time I watched one university in particular go from being interested in intellectual inquiry, to promoting any class for which students would be willing to part with their money.

You may ask, what does this have to do with comedy? Well everything, if you start parting with money in order to learn how to better write and perform comedy.

Comedians and writers are not in a widely lucrative industry. Years can fly by while you are struggling to become successful. You want to learn from people with real knowledge. You want people who can help establish you in your chosen industry. Anything less and they are unjustly running off with your limited resources.

Right now the media industry is rife with “how to get rich quick” motivational speakers, who will teach you how to break into film, television, and computer games for a fee. So how do you tell the snake oil salespeople from people with real information?

What experience do they have?

Find out what they have done in the past. Have they succeeded in the field into which you wish to enter? Have they performed to rave reviews in Edinburgh, have they had a television show produced, did their movie garner awards at film festivals? People with experience at least have anecdotal insights. Now what worked for them may or may not work for you, but it’s a step up from people speaking with no experience.

I will offer you a couple of caveats. Just because someone has found a way to succeed, does not mean they know how to effectively communicate that knowledge. They may be a terrible teacher with no self-reflective understanding of their own process. If you are feeling worshipful of their artistic achievements, you may be tempted to take all they say as given. Beware of any instructor in the arts who makes absolute statements. Such statements shore up their position as “the expert”, but are not respectful of artistic experimentation and growth. Creative advice should be descriptive not proscriptive.

How successful are their students?

You could be in a class taught by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino, and Michel Gondry. However, if not a single one of them produces a student who is capable of succeeding through genuine merit, then it is a waste of time for anything more than getting an autograph. Upon occasion you get instructors who may not have a stellar resume of their own creative success. Yet, a number of their students have gone on to be published, produced, and/or win awards. Don’t be blinded by the light, find the people who get results.

Who recommends them?

Are they being recommended by former students who have not yet made a name for themselves? This shows they are great at motivational speaking, but not necessarily great at getting you a job. Are they being recommended by people famous in their industries who have never taken their class? This shows they have friends in high places, but not that they are able to impart knowledge.

Are they teaching through a respected institution or are they a touring show renting out facilities for their course? This is a little tougher because many institutions are less deserving of our respect than they used to be. Also, a good snake oil seller may equally fool a festival, university, or special event. I have seen this far too many times when it comes to new media. Someone starts selling how to make money as a film producer using smartphones, and since the festival organisers want to learn more, but know nothing of the field, they are bamboozled into paying someone to pass on useless information.

So they pass all the tests.

Remember that no one teacher will have all your answers. They can’t. Each artist’s journey is their own. Each artist’s process is their own. It is important that you go into your class knowing this.

Hopefully, your teacher WILL say things you don’t agree with. This means you are thinking for yourself. You are developing your personal process. Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile asking questions rather than arguing with your instructor. Some of the stuff you will disagree with, but some of the stuff could be priceless in helping you to become the best creator you can be. This is why it’s worthwhile learning from a variety of teachers. Pick and choose what they have to offer that’s useful to you and don’t worry too much about the rest. Well, I say that, then get extremely annoyed when someone trots out archetypes. But generally I have found this to be true.

Peace and kindness,


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