Me and Stephen Colbert: How funny is that?

It started with a crush on Stephen Colbert.

I am 45 years old and happily married. But Colbert is a force too powerful to resist. I look up his interviews and stumble upon this: he took classes at The Second City Chicago leading up to his debut on their main stage.

Classes? The  famous improv comedy venue is a school?
I have to try.

They call it their training center and there are many classes: improv, of course, acting, a directing program, and writing. 

Writer Amy Crider takes her place among The Second City alumni. / Photo by Jessica Zernhel

The writing classes don't require students to perform. I am struck by how affordable it is. Each eight-week long class is $300. Cheaper than any creative writing class I have found.

I sign up.

The first class in the six-term program is "Intro to Comedy Writing."

Sixteen people begin, but by the end of the term, half have dropped out. Their reasons for leaving may be the reason I am reveling in it: the class isn't improv or even comedy at first, but basic creative writing.

The ones who drop out hadn't even brought a pen and paper to the first class. We are given writing exercises in every class, like "list 10 names for a racehorse."

Now I find myself making lists of ten as I write my historical novel, like Ten Things a Medieval Monk Hears in the Silence of a Scriptorium.

We are sent to the lobby to write a description using all of our senses; the smell of the popcorn from the movie theater, the smooth feel of the escalator rail.

Our classrooms are Spartan with rough plywood walls. We sprawl on old Salvation Army sofas or perch on small straight-backed chairs, notebooks in our laps.

I completely enjoy this first class because I come with no expectations. Those who drop out are generally young comedians hoping to go directly to Saturday Night Live, I think. 

Most of the other students are young professionals, there for a variety of reasons. If they feel competitive following in the footsteps of such Second City alumni as Colbert, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Tina Fey, Mike Myers and Chris Farley, it doesn't show. 

In my final class, there are seven of us, including an emergency room nurse, a microbiology post-grad student, some professional writers and two sales managers.

Nurse Gordon Simon, 29, says he took the class to do something creative instead of always doing "the science-y, nurse-y thing." 

Sales manager Jessica Zernhel, 30, says she has wanted to move to Chicago and get involved in Second City since her high school days in Ohio.

Another student, Jesse Vincent, says he signed up because he found himself watching comedy sketches on television and thinking he could do it better.

"I just got sick and tired of watching sketch comedy shows on T.V. that weren't funny and saying 'I could write something better than that,' " says Vincent, 26.

After Intro comes"Writing 1, where we learn about different types of sketch premises like the "fish out of water" or the "moral dilemma."

The Second City's Piper's Alley  / Photo by Amy Crider

A "fish out of water" might be a tourist in a foreign country. My moral dilemma sketch is about opening a package addressed to someone else.

I feel my sense of humor clashing with the instructor's in this class, not just because of the criticism I get, but because of the praise she gives to others whose sketches I find dull.

But I notice something about the sketches she praises, as well as the Second City scripts we get to read: the important thing is developing character. 

I am writing what I think are funny punch lines, such as a Paris Hilton character saying to her assistant about her dog, "Her nails have to match her extensions." 

But the humor comes from well-rounded characters, not jokes. This is because Second City is about satire. As my Writing 2 teacher Jay Steigmann puts it, satire means "exposing human folly."

It's all about character. It's about people and the flaws that make them funny.

Most of my best sketches come in the Writing 2 class: a parody of Gosford Park, a mugging that turns into a reunion.

Steigmann, a political science major who took up theater in college, enrolled in Second City's directing program when it began in 2004. One of the requirements of the directing program is to teach a class, and she has taught at Second City ever since. Steigmann also writes, produces and directs her own shows at theaters such as Live Bait.

Writing 3 focuses on source material. We look at newspapers and discuss personal anecdotes. I am nervous about this class, about using personal experience, because I have had a weird life. 

I have had long stretches of unemployment and spent much of my first marriage delivering newspapers in a rural area. Who will identify with that? 

Some of the sketches from Writing 1 that I find dull are about hanging out in bars. I've never hung out in bars. My college was 15 miles away from the nearest bar.

Still, I manage to produce, and the last sketch I write is chosen for our student show. I base the sketch on my in-laws' real life experience of having packed their house to move and then getting stuck waiting for their buyer to escape mortgage limbo.

Did I mention? In Writing 1, 2, and 3, you also write a five-page sketch every week.

Writing 4 is the process of writing the student show which gets rehearsed in "Writing 5." Sketches are rewritten five or six times.

Each student gets one or two sketches in the hour-long show performed in Donny's Skybox, the tiny theater at the top of "Pipers Alley" where the classrooms are located.

Now it has been almost two years since I started this and I'm in rehearsals for our show, called "E Pluribus Screw 'Em" - a title I am slightly embarrassed to say was my idea.

Our teacher, Mary Scruggs, who is head of the writing program, is directing. It amazes me to see how much an actor adds to the written words. I'm also surprised at how hard Scruggs is making them work. I keep thinking, "that's good enough," but Scruggs continually fine tunes everything. 

Even for a five-minute sketch, she asks them to think about their motivation, their objective. It's acting; it's not just being funny.

I wonder as I go through this, if Colbert went through the same things. Perhaps I sit in the same classroom he did.  Maybe the same couch, by the looks of it.

Opening night for our five-week run is 10:30 p.m. May 23, with two other student shows preceding ours. Tickets are $10.

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