What I learned at school

Michael Connell on performing comedy to teenage pupils

You think you’ve had tough gigs?

Ever performed for the Hells Angels? Told jokes between the strippers at an Army party? Been the entertainment at a gangster’s wedding?

I dream about those sort of gigs now.

That’s because for the last few years I’ve been performing in high schools.

In the clip at the foot of this article you can see me performing a show I’ve been developing in Australian high schools for the last few years, which I’ve filmed as a special. The show gets great laughs now, but developing it nearly killed me.

When I started doing shows in high schools and I was getting heckled by some kid in short pants, or facing a wall of stony silence from teens too cool to laugh, I’d start to fondly remember that gig I did when the junkie got stabbed.

I decided to create a comedy show for high schools after recalling back when I was a pupil and we were always having talks by motivational speakers, musicians, and a seemingly endless parade of ex-footballers. Surely I could be more entertaining than them!

I remember wondering; 'Why don’t other comedians do this?' Then I started doing them and quickly discovered why.

These are the main pitfalls:

Too cool to laugh

When you perform in a comedy club the audience has come to have a laugh. They want you to do well.

When you perform in a high school the audience hasn’t come to have a laugh. They’ve just been pulled out of maths class and herded into the auditorium.

They don’t care about you or the show. Since they’re teenagers, usually their main concern is looking cool in front of their friends.

A great way to do that is to make you look like an idiot.

At school shows students often don’t want to laugh, or they want to disrupt the show to impress their friends.

Teens have a herd mentality (even more than adults), and if the toughest or most popular kids aren’t laughing at my stuff the others won’t either. If it’s a very tough school, the students won’t want to laugh as it’s a sign of weakness.

Often there’ll be students who want to wreck the show to impress the others. They heckle, throw things, laugh sarcastically during set ups, whisper jokes, etc.

Some schools are worse than others. I once arrived at a school to do a show just as the police were arriving to deal with a stabbing.

I’ve also found it’s impossible to know what a schools gonna be like before I’ve performed there. I always thought poor schools would be tough and rich schools would be easy, but I’ve had hellish gigs for snooty grammar schools and delightful crowds at schools in slums.

When I started performing in schools I had no idea what to do. How could I get them to laugh? How could I get them to pay attention?

After some terrible performances I worked it out. In every school there’s one or two cool kids at the top of the pecking order, the key is to win them over – fast. To get the crowd to laugh I realised I needed to show them that I posed no challenge to their position as coolest person in the room. So I start the show making some self deprecating jokes about my appearance. Basically, I put myself down before they get a chance.

The top kid invariably enjoys laughing at others’ misfortune (you probably remember this from your own high school days), and once they start laughing the others see it’s OK and they follow suit.

This usually stops the heckling and other disruptions as well. Once the top kid gets into the show, his flunkies see he’s into it and so they pay attention too.

Teachers’ fears

When I started performing in schools I figured that the students would be up for anything in the way of material, it was the teachers who’d be worried about what I was going to say.

Turns out I was right, but I had no idea of the minefield of hot button topics teachers would want me to avoid.

As a comedian I always work pretty clean, so I thought I’d be fine. When I started writing my show for high schools I left out obvious things like swearing, jokes about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, etc.

I soon found out though teachers have a whole list of topics they want you to stay away from. Some of them are quite bizarre. For example, I used to have a joke about a guy who ended up living under a bridge because he didn’t study at school. It was pretty silly, and involved him getting a career as a troll.

Two teachers from two different schools said I shouldn’t do it in case it inspire some students to start living under a bridge (and possibly becoming trolls).

This is an extreme example but I’ve also been asked to not make jokes about mugging (it might encourage them to try it), or cheating on tests (same reason), etc. even though the jokes clearly condemned these negative behaviours.

I’ve never found working clean to be much of a challenge, but writing a show for high schools was really tough. I was constantly walking a tightrope between what the students found funny and what the teachers would allow.

I can understand why teachers are like this. They’re probably surrounded by parents and government officials who’ll get them fired the second a student hears the word ‘evolution’.

In the end, they’re the ones paying me and so I kept editing until I’d developed a show that students found funny and no teacher could possibly object to.

Gotta be educational

Unlike at a comedy club it’s not enough that the show is funny, the students have to be learning stuff too. This is fairly obvious but I’ve been surprised about how demanding schools are on this point.

Before I began performing in high schools I assumed that I could just subtly weave in an educational message. It’s basically what I do in my festival shows; present an hour of jokes with a subtle current of ‘racism is bad’ (or whatever the message is), and leave it up to the audience to work out.

Schools, however, really want your message to be front and centre of your talk. Again, it’s difficult to find a balance between entertainment (which the students want) and education (which the school wants).

Essentially you’re performing for two different audiences, with slightly different demands, at the same time.

Bad facilities

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been booked to perform at a school, and they’ve expected me to perform in the gym.

No lights, no PA, they just shove me in a room and say: ‘OK. Be funny now.’

I’ve performed in sweltering portable classrooms, in school gyms, cafeterias, and every other unsuitable venue you can think of. I remember once doing a show while the principal constantly interrupted by making announcements over the PA system.

Performing in schools means performing in some very tricky environments.

I now have a portable PA and light that I carry around in my car so that if the school’s facilities are terrible I can do something to improve them.

Still, it’s never as good as performing in a real comedy club.

Final thoughts

Performing in high schools is one of the toughest things I’ve ever done as a comedian, and this comedy special I’ve just filmed is one of my proudest achievements.

Now that I’ve developed the show performing at the schools is really rewarding, but getting there was really tough.

If you’re a comedian considering touring schools, my advice is have a good long think about it.

If you love working with young people or imparting a message it can be really rewarding. If you just want to expand your options of where you can perform, you’ll get more money and better crowds in just about any other field.

  • Class Comedian, Michael Connell’s high school comedy special, can be viewed for free here.

Published: 14 Sep 2012

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