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A Stand-Up Professor

When Mount English Professor David Wehner, Ph.D., graduated from Williams College in 1985, his classmates went off to become doctors, lawyers, and investment bankers. He thought, “Comedian; yeah, that would be fun.” At a party two years earlier, he overheard future Hollywood star Don Cheadle mention he performed on amateur night at a local comedy club. “I turned to Don incredulously,” Wehner recalled, “‘You mean, I could go up on amateur night?’ ‘Yes’ Don answered, and two weeks later, I was on stage.”

wehner-in-text.jpgWehner didn't know that he was graduating into an unprecedented comedy boom. In 1980, 20 full-time comedy clubs existed in America; by 1985, there were 200. After college, he secured work tearing tickets at the front door, performing on amateur nights, and observing as much comedy as he could at the Comedy Works in his home city of Denver—the club where Roseanne Barr got her start. In nine months, he began to do stand-up full time and continued for six years.

Wehner then became a high school English teacher and went on to get a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. At Minnesota, Dave taught an early version of a class on stand-up comedy, which evolved into the Mount course, The History, Poetics, and Politics of American Stand-Up Comedy.

As the title suggests, Wehner organized the course into three units. The first covered the history of stand-up comedy, decade by decade, from Mark Twain to the present. For example, for the 1930s students studied the radio comedy of George Burns and Gracie Allen, and for the 1960s they examined the album comedy of Bob Newhart. “One of Bob Newhart’s albums,” Wehner said, “actually was number one on the Billboard album charts.” Covering more recent history, Wehner taught students the hierarchy of signals Johnny Carson applied to the performances of comedians who appeared on The Tonight Show, from quick brush offs to the rare but highly prized invitation to sit on his couch. Wehner associated his own work with the observational comedy that emerged in the 1970s, best known in the work of Jerry Seinfeld. Here the “the focus shifted from telling mother-in-law jokes to really commenting on life,” Wehner shared.

The second course unit, the poetics of comedy, covered the craft of writing a joke and structuring a comedy act. In this section, Wehner taught the rule of the “K” sound. Comedians find that words with the K sound draw more laughs. Comics tell the story of a comedian who performed on The Tonight Show and had a punchline about driving a Ford. During the commercial break, Johnny Carson leaned over and simply said, “Say Buick. Buick is funnier than Ford.”

Theorizing further, Wehner tells students that understanding the 44 phonemes used in English can enhance the comedic effect. Punchlines using phonemes enunciated in the front of the mouth tend to go over as funnier than sounds enunciated in the back of the mouth. He asked his students to apply this principle by discovering five good comedic words and five bad ones. “There’s a lot of crossover between literary study and comedy," Wehner said. "When we study poetry, for example, we pay attention to the sound of words and the ways they are organized. The same is true of comedians.”

The course's final unit covered the politics of comedy. One question that arises in studying comedy concerns the male dominance of the profession. One theory holds that stand-up comedy originated from two sources: vaudeville and burlesque. In such settings, Wehner explained, “the men were supposed to be funny and the women were supposed to look good, so it could be a result of cultural conditioning.”

Another political dimension to comedy is the tendency for comedians to purposely go after topics that many will not find funny. “They talk about things that are not generally the topics of polite conversation,” Wehner said. Sarah Silverman, for example, has a bit about 9/11.

When planning the course, Wehner worried about sustaining a full semester studying comedy. “The author E.B. White said dissecting humor is like dissecting a frog: you can do it, but you usually kill it in the process,” he quipped. Happily, students enjoyed and appreciated Wehner’s class. Shea Rowell, C’19, an English and music major, said the “class expanded my notion of what literature can be.” Fellow English major Kaitlyn Heintzelman, C’19, reflected, “Dr. Wehner’s comedy class was unlike any other class I encountered at the Mount; we laughed a lot, but the jokes we analyzed provoked serious discussions about politics and society.”