Mathew Klickstein | The Kansas City Star | June 21, 2016
On a spring day, Krista Jarboe stood in the center of a University of Kansas classroom wearing sweats and a stone-cold Buster Keaton countenance.
“I hate double standards,” said Jarboe, who was horseshoed by a group consisting of 15 or so fellow students and her gray-bearded, bespectacled professor, all studiously taking notes.
“A guy sleeps with a ton of girls, and he’s a ‘legend,’ ” she said. “I do the same thing … and I’m a ‘lesbian.’ ”
Jarboe was kidding. Sort of.
The 22-year-old theater major self-identifies as “queer” and is passionate about LGBTQ rights. But she was also telling a joke.
Her stage wasn’t in a comedy club. It was in a classroom full of students who were chuckling and anxiously awaiting their turns during one of the final sessions of KU’s popular undergraduate seminar in stand-up comedy, offered every other year by the theater department for the better part of the last decade.
The seminar’s instructor and creator, John Gronbeck-Tedesco, is an elite scholar in the nascent academic discipline of comedy who tasks students with writing seven jokes per session and performing two in front of the class.
During a typical lesson, Gronbeck-Tedesco — or John GT, as students and faculty call him — shows videos of professional comics and assigns homework on performance theory and joke writing.
Stand-up comedy is no Mickey Mouse course: Gronbeck-Tedesco has failed students in the past and often gives out C’s. To succeed, students must be willing to step outside their comfort zones.
“It’s less ‘A for effort’ and more ‘A for courage,’ ” Gronbeck-Tedesco said.
The class might have taken its last curtain call: Gronbeck-Tedesco is retiring to focus on playwriting and producing.
“We’ve been very happy with the class and would love for Professor Gronbeck-Tedesco to teach it into perpetuity,” said Henry Bial, KU’s director of the School of the Arts. “But he’s retiring; he’s paid his dues to the university for 30-some years.”
Gronbeck-Tedesco, who has taught various theater classes during his tenure at KU, has a special passion for comedy that stems from his studies in philosophy and the classics while training to be a priest. After a change in direction, Gronbeck-Tedesco transitioned into a concerted study of theater and especially comedians, whom he sees as the philosophers of our modern era.
Bial said continued budget cuts may make it difficult to continue the class in Gronbeck-Tedesco’s absence.
“But based on its popularity,” Bial said, “if we could identify an appropriate person to teach it down the road, we would at least explore the possibility of bringing it in again.”
On May 11, Gronbeck-Tedesco held his final exam at the Jackpot Saloon in downtown Lawrence. The free event — fittingly called “The Final Insult” — allowed members of the public to watch students perform sets that had been finely honed over the semester.
That night, the Jackpot was a sweaty monster of 165 elbow-to-elbow students, parents, friends and townie barflies. Some were intensely invested in the show and laughing away, while others restlessly looked at their phones or chatted with friends.
The sets included the typical medley of “white dudes suck,” dick and poop jokes one expects from the millennial milieu, including a fairly inventive scatological gag involving Santa Claus. But there was more going on than sardonic complaints about how hard it is to be young and depressed in today’s America.
It’s clear that many students have absorbed Gronbeck-Tedesco’s notion that comedy has become an important agent of social commentary and change accessible to a larger pool of people than simply those engaged in the sociopolitical niche.
His philosophy is that comedy reaches everyone. Whether liberal or conservative, politically motivated or not, we all love to laugh.
“Real life is so serious — there’s a lot of heavy stuff happening around us,” said Becca Huerter, a 22-year-old graduating senior in the class.
Huerter said comedy helps her escape and cope with life’s challenges. She spent much of her Chanute, Kan., upbringing overcoming discrimination for not only being Latina but, as she put it, “not being Mexican enough” because of her lighter skin. She said other kids compared her to first-generation Latinos and perceived her as “White Mexican.”
“That hurt,” Huerter said, adding that as a young girl searching for her identity, she attempted to play up her Latina heritage. But channeling this frustration into comedy turned out to be far more constructive.
“Now I’m like, ‘This is who I grew up to be,’ ” she said with an impish smirk, “and for the rest of my stand-up career, I’ll probably just shit on small-town America, because that place molded me into a bitch who does not give a fuck.”
On stage at the Jackpot, Huerter wore a childlike backpack and joked that she resembled a 20-something Dora the Explorer. After her set, she wasn’t mad. She wasn’t sad. She was “so fucking Zen,” she said.
“You don’t always find a space to talk about these things,” she explained. “In comedy, you can bring these issues up.”
Like Huerter, Jarboe feels that perhaps the greatest value of the class was finding a comfortable forum where she could try things out without reaping the whirlwind of an angry, confused or — worse yet — bored public audience.
“In comedy, it’s not like you’re trying to offend people,” Jarboe said. “It’s that you’re trying to get them to think differently. Our teacher is really good at telling us when to bring it back, when it’s not OK.”
Bial agreed that the class is a “safe space” for students learning the craft. This can be crucial in an age of hypersensitivity mixed with electronic voyeurism that has famously prompted Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld to proclaim that they will no longer perform on college campuses because of concerns about backlash for potentially incendiary material.
“Performance classes tend to evoke strong emotional responses,” Bial said. “That’s by design. That’s not by accident. If there weren’t some strong reactions, then the students would probably not be coming close enough to the edge to really make it a comedy class.”
Of course, there’s something to be said for just going out there without the safety net of a class.
“You can’t get a master’s degree in comedy and expect open mics not to hurt,” said Dennis Chanay, 29, a prominent Kansas City comic.
Chanay admitted that when he first popped into the Final Insult, he thought the idea of a comedy class was a joke. But by night’s end, he was envious he hadn’t taken advantage of the class while studying political science at KU.
“These people were at least as good as those who go up at Stanford’s on a Tuesday their very first time,” Chanay said. “They definitely have been learning something.”
Amber Lehman, a 25-year-old Lawrence comic, was similarly impressed by the show, which at one point was interrupted by Gronbeck-Tedesco stepping onstage to request that rowdy crowd members move to the back.
“This was a way worse crowd than what you’d normally get,” Lehman said, “and these kids handled it way better than most of the comics I know.”
“If that had happened to me, I would have been like, ‘I’m out! I’m done!’ ”
Lehman’s boyfriend and fellow Lawrence comic Ed Parker, 35, said a surefire sign of amateurism in the comedy world is being edgy just for edgy’s sake — which wasn’t the case at the Final Insult.
The students, Lehman said, were capable of covering potentially offensive material in a palatable way: “Edgy the whole family can agree on!”
Thanks to Gronbeck-Tedesco’s tutelage, Huerter is one of many students in the class who learned how to go to the edge without falling over it.
“I think that was the best piece of advice John gave us: Not surrendering to the audience,” Huerter said.
“You have the mic. You have the power to entertain.”