Just Kidding Around: Teaching Kids Comedy

Posted on 16 September 2011

For the last eight weeks I have been teaching comedy to a group of eleven kids. These kids ranged in age from seven (!) to twelve years old. When I first volunteered to teach the class one day a week, I was under the impression this was for a group of high schoolers. It was only the week I started that I discovered how young my pupils would be.

I originally made an outline where I would teach a little theory, we would do a few exercises, then work on a show for a graduating performance. I had to throw the outline out.

On the first day we introduced ourselves, talked about our favourite comedies, and decided on what we wanted to do. The kids wanted to do stand-up and they were especially keen to do sketch comedy. Their school frequently uses play-acting as a way to develop creativity and social skills. So sketches were an easy step for them. We also did one game from The Improv Encyclopedia.

I am deeply grateful to my TheatreSports training for making this course work. I borrowed heavily from it, as a way to teach the kids best practise and theory for writing and performing comedy. Now certainly some of what I taught went against what Keith Johnstone (the founder of TheatreSports) taught. He was trying to avoid jokes and gags and focus more on characters and spontaneous, collaborative storytelling. I included all of it.

Probably the most important part of TheatreSports, of which I made use, was the swearing in. After forming a circle this is the oath we all repeated at the beginning of each class.

I solemly pinky swear

to support my comedy team mates,
to help everyone shine,
and to remain focussed.

I shall not waffle nor whine,
I shall not strut my stuff at another’s expense,
I shall remember this is meant to be fun, fun for everyone.

So when occasionally no one is laughing or I forget my lines,
I shall be comforted and smile, because it just doesn’t matter.
Laughter and smiles are still to be had at another time or place.

Some of you may recognise parts of this from the Improv Ten Commandments. It was vital to drill into the kids’s heads that comedy is all about fun, and not to worry if they weren’t getting the laughs. If they truly became stuck during a performance, it would be perfectly all right to thank the audience (you ALWAYS thank the audience) and leave. Struggling brings the tone down. An audience respects a performer who knows how to graciously bow out, and are happy to give them another chance at another time. Simply standing in front of that mic shows tremendous courage.

What I managed to fit into the eight weeks:

  • Microphone technique
  • Building a persona
  • How to warm-up an audience
  • How to tell a comic story
  • Writing jokes using standard joke forms
  • Comic timing
  • Thanking the audience

This sounds like a lot, but these were done at a very basic level. Also, the kids picked things up quickly. I only had to show them once where to hold the microphone and how to find the sweet spot, and never had to show them again.

Building a persona, how to tell a comic story, and writing jokes were taught with the use of MadLibs style fill-in the blanks handouts. The joke sheet used the most was: Why did the _____ cross the road? To __________! In fact I told them that if they forgot their joke during the joke relay to just say, “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side!” It would become a running gag and parents would find it funny coming from the kids.

One surprising blank in the kids’s knowledge was that a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They understood that a story needs characters and an event, but did not grasp that the characters must be changed by that event. In an avant garde piece you might dispense with story and have characters drift through an endless series of occurences with no resolution, and I believe this is valid, but it’s a stretch for comedy. Endings are what provide that moment where a punchline can be delivered.

So I carefully selected a couple of the more “G” rated sketches from School of Comedy. We watched them and discussed beginnings: Who is in this sketch? Where are they? What are they doing? We discussed middles: What is the event that changes things? We then discussed endings: What are the results of this change? What is the punchline?

On the night of the performance the kids and I were all quite nervous. Nevertheless, we pulled the evening off with aplomb. I knew the kids would be fine. It was an audience of all their greatest supporters: their families! And what’s cuter than a bunch of kids telling jokes? My nerves had more to do with the logistics of the night, such as not having access to spoons for people’s hot drinks.

The funny thing that night was how once the kids started getting laughs for their stand-up routines, they didn’t want to get off stage. They just started improvising new material. I needed a shepherd’s crook to pull some of them behind the curtains.

Would I do this again? I may, but not straight away. It was a little like trying to herd a room full of ferrets, hilariously funny and exhausting at the same time. The kids were great. I learned much about my art in finding ways to communicate it to them. To my Just Kidding Around troupe I say, “Thank you, you’re AWESOME!”

Peace and kindess,

Katherine


4 responses to Just Kidding Around: Teaching Kids Comedy

  • Meshack Sang says:

    Hello Can you help me setup a comedy school here in Kenya,

    Thanks

  • camille says:

    Hi there Katherine,
    Enjoyed reading your account of how you set up and delivered the comedy club for kids. I notice that you are considering helping Meshack set up a club in Kenya – I would be keen to hear how that is going, and whether you might consider doing the same in Zambia? I am an secondary school English teacher here and I am keen on creating opportunities for my students to realise just how fun studying and using English can be.

    Keen to hear from you.

    Best,

    Camille

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