Can a MasterClass by Judd Apatow or Steve Martin Make You Funny?

Illustration by Andrew Rae

The Hollywood Reporter asked writer Tom Chiarella to immerse himself in online courses to see if their comedic gifts can really be passed along.

When I was a grad student at the University of Alabama, I signed up for a "master class" with Margaret Atwood, a visiting writer, who had just published The Handmaid's Tale. On the first day, the guy next to me raised an eyebrow and said, "Ready to crouch at the feet of the master?" It made me cringe. I don't need a master. I dropped the class.

This seems like a terrible anecdote to use in the first paragraph of a story on taking comedy master classes. Grim intellectual moments are not funny. Or maybe they could be, in the right hands. In any case, I want that opening to be funny. And lately I have a hard time finding the funny.

Part of the problem may be where I live, in rural Indiana. My nearest neighbors are a deer processing warehouse and an old guy who lives under the covered bridge. I'm not a rube. Not completely. I was a writer-at-large for Esquire magazine for 20 years. I wrote a guide on writing dialogue that has stayed in print for 20 years. I once had my life optioned for a sitcom at NBC. I worked for Rosie O'Donnell for 28 days. So I have some chops ­— marginal chops anyway.

This is why, I'm told, THR asked me to take a look at the two new MasterClass Courses in comedy, a 25-episode class taught by Steve Martin and a 32-episode lesson by Judd Apatow (at MasterClass.com). They are billed as both practical advice for first-timers and a refresher course for those who have dabbled. I'd seen MasterClass.com courses advertised on Facebook: Learn directing from Werner Herzog! Storytelling from David Mamet. It's an entire university of fairly plainspoken, suddenly graybeard heroes — from Helen Mirren to James Patterson, Malcolm Gladwell to Spike Lee.

These high-production monologues feature jaunty music, film clips, writing exercises, comment pages and PDF summaries. Each 10- to 15-minute video lesson is split into chapters ("Finding Your Comic Voice," "Pitching"), which are in turn split into segments, titled with the rules of, well, the master: "Give Yourself Room to Be Bad," "Love Your Rivals," "Small Stories Can Change Lives." You could binge an entire course in a single weekend. At $90 for one complete course and $180 for an all-access pass, they are cheaper than any seminar at any regional Marriott anywhere.

But are they worth it?

Comedy is hard. Look how many laughs I've missed in the top half of this story alone. And learning comedy from Steve Martin seemed a little like paying good money to learn matchstick counting from Rain Man. I had my doubts.

Of course, neither Martin nor Apatow gave a workshop on telling jokes (which is what I was secretly hoping for). Instead they spoke at length about the difference between performing comedy and writing it. About writer's block. About lucky breaks. About collaborating with other writers and actors. Yes, they each dropped names. And yes, some of the ensuing advice was bland or obvious, like Martin's suggestion to tap into your own cultural perspective, or Apatow's advice that anyone can make a film on their phone.

But much of it was surprising, challenging even — like when Martin suggested that an aspirant should write a manifesto. I actually did it: "I do not compose on a computer," mine said. "Everything must be drawn. Seen. Then I list. My stories originate in lists, since they're the only things that stick with me." Apatow said to treat comedies like dramas, which is probably something Sophocles said, but he then brilliantly broke down a set of his films to show the truth of it. I liked being reminded that there is more than a little pain in the proposition of a 40-year-old virgin.

Days passed, and their watchwords filled my head. Martin: "Make the problem worse." Apatow: "Discover your own band of misfits." If you know their work, you know how true this stuff is. Martin wrote The Jerk and Bowfinger — exaggeration was his co-pilot. Apatow made a great TV show (Freaks and Geeks) and more than half a dozen movies, out of his own band of misfits.

Still, none of it applied to my writing. Not initially. I did discover that, by entering into a kind of one-way conversation with each of them, my ability to see comic structure and comic possibility in a pretty banal daily experience was sharpened. I trained myself to just get through my day without asking for huge laughs, or for discernible structural momentum. But I used to teach this stuff — storytelling — and I'd forgotten my own best advice, which was their best advice, too: Look around you, at the people eating with you, at the problems they bring to the table.

There came a Friday when I found myself eating with my wife in the local bar: The Bainbridge Tap. The lunch menu is burgers, rings, fries. The specialty of the house, however, is fried smelt. I don't know why. Neither did the waitress.

The bar was populated with folks I recognized but don't know well. The guy who changed my truck tire. The woman who makes sandwiches at the convenience store. The former marshal. The part-time farmer who plows with a gun on his belt. They waved to me when I entered (except the marshal). My own band of misfits! And when we ordered our food, there was an exchange I wrote down:

Wife: What kind of fish is smelt?

Waitress: It's fish.

Wife: I know. What does it taste like?

Waitress: Well, it's fish, but people like it.

Wife: Is it fishy?

Waitress: Fishy fish?

Husband: We'll have the fishy fish. With mustard.

I followed that by undertaking the most pointless exercise in the writing business. I wrote a play. It's called "Smelt," which seemed more promising than "Fishy Fish." It involves an active shooter and a husband and wife trapped in a small-town bar when the former marshal forbids anyone to leave. I didn't write it for myself, though that's likely all it will ever be. But it exists, and I wrote it because Apatow and Martin reminded me of the pleasure of extracting a story from an aimless afternoon, and making things count. Truth is, Martin and Apatow are damned good teachers. They made me think about my watchwords, reexamine my own rules. Maybe I already knew them. Maybe you do. But I listened. I worked. I came to see that we all need our masters.

This story first appeared in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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