Stand-up and deliver
Graduates of Theater 150’s Comedy Workshop earn their degrees in funny business
By Lisa Snider 07/19/2007
On the weekend of July 20, seven students from Ojai’s Theater 150 Comedy Workshop will graduate. But instead of receiving diplomas, they will be expected to deliver punch lines to a live audience. I caught up with this group of mirth makers during their last class, where they ran through their final rehearsals.
“Being in your 70s isn’t that bad — it’s the new 68!” proclaims a confident John Gropper, a retired computer science executive. He is standing behind an unplugged microphone and making his delivery to his fellow students, who are in stitches despite having heard parts of his act several times over the last eight weeks.
Until a few nights ago, when he found his way onto a Los Angeles stage for an open mic night, Gropper had never performed before. Initially, he was terrified. But just two minutes into his act, he remembers thinking to himself, “Wow, I own this room.” Gropper says he owes a lot to his instructor, professional comedian Cary Odes. “He brings stuff out in you that you didn’t know you had.”
Odes works closely with another student, Carol Cintron, on possible endings to her witty and sometimes provocative male-bashing routine, which her husband of seven years and fellow student, Dave, takes in stride. “We came to terms with that long ago,” he says. “It’s all in good fun.”
Odes encourages his students to draw humor from everyday experiences. “It’s got to be authentic, or it’s not worth doing.”
Craig Smith, a local grade school janitor, has sourced plenty of zingers from his custodial duties, but for this weekend’s show, he will delve into his life as a pack rat. And this isn’t just a hobby for him: He has his eye on the ultimate prize. “Oh yeah, I want to quit my day job and go into stand-up.”
On the other hand, Justin Testa of Goleta, a returning student, looks at this self-imposed assignment in a different light. “I’m kind of a coward,” he says. His job as a government-funded computer programmer gave him sufficient comic fodder for his previous act, but this time he is working with all new material. “It’s about where I live and work and being stuck with people I don’t have much in common with.” I tell him to break a leg, and he says, “Yeah, that would at least make it entertaining.” It seems this kind of performance anxiety isn’t going to get cured with a little blue pill.
With a John Candy build, shades, baseball hat and a Hawaiian shirt, one look at Jim Eaton and you just know he has something funny to say. Eaton drives a bus for Santa Barbara MTD, which he describes in his routine as a $400,000 dollar vehicle the ladies love. He claims stand-up is just a hobby, but his MySpace page reads like that of a professional comedian, complete with a long list of upcoming gigs in the Santa Barbara area. Among them are his scheduled bus routes, where you’re invited to ride along and be part of the show.
Odes offers more last minute advice to his class of clowns, saying, “No matter what happens, the audience just wants to laugh.”
A professional comedian from Los Angeles who did stand-up for 20 years, Odes started workshops in Ojai for Theater 150 five years ago. Some of his L.A. students have even gone on to make a living in stand-up: one is filming a bit for cable; another is working for a cruise line.
His students have always been a diverse bunch, including teens, senior citizens, an autistic kid — he even did a stint teaching former gang members in prison. “It really gave them a positive way to express themselves,” Odes says.
Odes knows from experience what audiences can look forward to this weekend. “It’s great to see people from your own community; your own neighbors making you laugh.” He says that is what gets audiences interested, particularly because they know it is real. “These guys are courageous, and they’re really good.” Odes says it takes more than a good monologue to get on a stage and deliver punch lines. “It’s emotional parachuting.”