AMES, Iowa — Jacob Sporrer is crouched down in front of his classroom, clutching a microphone and turning an imaginary steering wheel.
“So me and my dad are driving down I-80 … listening to 'Amazing Grace.' He says, 'Son? You'd tell me if you were gay, right?' ”
Sporrer raises his eyebrows. His classmates crack up. He had them at “Amazing Grace.”
Most of the 20-year-old engineering major's other classes are a lot headier. But on this night, his topic is being mistaken for gay by everyone from the movie store clerk to his dad to his girlfriend. His grade depends on getting laughs.
That's because Sporrer and his classmates at Iowa State University were enrolled this semester in Comedy College, a new offering for honors students to learn the basics of the craft of standup comedy.
The course is co-taught by professional standup comedian and motivational speaker Gavin Jerome and economics professor Peter Orazem, who has taken off-campus classes from Jerome and found a new hobby in standup as a result.
Many of the students didn't realize the class would be so hands-on, but after a few weeks of lecture, they began writing their own material. They had to perform whenever called upon, although they did get one pass if they weren't ready. Some class rules: Cheer for all performers until they reach the microphone. Feedback should be constructive. Figure out your own style of funny.
“From the first day of class, we set up the atmosphere that we're all in this together, and you laugh with us and not at,” Jerome said.
When Sporrer finished his bit — stroking his facial hair and ending with a double entendre about getting a beard to stop all the questions — he got lots of applause, and several tips for next time from his audience and professors.
He's learned to shorten his jokes and focus on scenarios that don't require as much explanation. He's dropped the ones that don't quite work, like one about the movie “101 Dalmatians” that took about five seconds too many to figure out.
“You have to put the scenario in the audience's head in a sentence, and make what you think is funny actually funny,” he said. “That kind of standalone is something you don't think about.”
The students also learned that being funny to your friends who love you is a lot easier than being funny to strangers. They learned to plan timing and punchlines and make tweaks when the response wasn't what they expected.
And for Veronica Day, who grew up in a family where every gathering can turn into a joke-telling throwdown, the 20-year-old biology major has gained an edge.
She was often teased for her sense of humor arriving a little later than everyone else, but it's her family that's laughing now.
“The first time I came back and told a joke using some of the techniques I learned, my dad said, 'Wow, you actually learned to be funny!' ”
Her family, and that of many of her classmates, were in the audience last week for the two-night final exam: A showcase where every student had to perform 10 minutes of material at the night club the Maintenance Shop. To pass, their professor told the audience, they would each need to garner not five, not 10, but one laugh a piece.
Spoiler alert: they all passed.
Most looked comfortable on stage, though a few kept notes nearby. They all brought in laughs with jokes that went from tame to tawdry in a club environment not unlike an open mic night — if an open mic night included classmates, teachers and parents. But that didn't stop them from delivering the occasionally off-color material they'd been perfecting all semester.
“After the first few jokes, I was very nervous,” said Sporrer, who realized halfway through that his legs were shaking. But during a joke about playing racquetball, he ripped off pull-away pants to expose his gym shorts. He briefly wondered, did I really just do that? And then, poof. Nervousness was gone.
The feedback from most of his friends outside the class sounded like this: “Well, that was unexpected.” He believes that's because he's learned to tell jokes that could be funny no matter who delivered them, which is a little different from his natural sense of humor.
“I think most people who know me didn't expect me to be super funny,” he said.
Day also left her family surprised after her set, which ranged from an explanation of a clichť-ridden teenage life in Iowa to the frustration that comes with filling in the bubbles on standardized tests.
Her timing was great, Day's father had to admit. But he had questions about that list of clichťs — especially that joke about losing her virginity on prom night: “Sorry, Dad!”
That was just a joke, her father said, right?
“Welp,” Day told him. “You never know!”