What It’s Like to Take Steve Martin’s Comedy MasterClass

steve-martinYou must have seen it: the commercial/trailer for “Steve Martin Teaches Comedy.” Facebook tells me it surfaced in early March, when my brother excitedly posted it to my wall. And it was quite the trailer to be sure, with its lush production values, zippy pacing, and promise of quality guidance from an unimpeachable comedic figure. I can think of several comedians who have comedy cred, are successful, or seem like they would make great teachers, but not too many who would fit the bill for all three.

In that sense, Martin must have been the perfect “get” for the program, representing everything you’d want from a comedy instructor. And even though he’s been a little more subdued recently, Martin continues to pop up in weird places and contexts, from art galleries to concerts to, weirdly, a track on the latest Gorillaz album. Like the classic physical comedians he idolizes, he seems content to bumble around and poke his nose pretty much anywhere.

For a while, it felt like the ads for this thing were everywhere, too. Stephen Colbert even had Martin on The Late Show to do a bit about the class, which, if it was meant as a promotion, was, shall we say, maybe not the best branded comedy has offered. But what about the course itself? The trailer left my mind humming with questions. Would it be worth the $90 price tag? Well, the folks behind Steve’s class were nice enough to grant me an access code, and I was finally able to find out for myself. After making my way through the whole thing, I’m afraid the only answer I can give is the most frustrating one: It depends.

It depends the most on who you are, how much comedy work you’re already doing, and how you react to self-help in general. For budding creative people who need a little prodding, it can keep you on task and engaged with what you’re doing. As it turns out, sometimes even a video of someone telling you to get off your ass and go perform is enough (at least for me). If you’re naturally distrustful of celebrities promising to change your life, though (and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be), then you might find yourself tuning out.

Martin may be the name that got most of the press, but there’s another one you should know: MasterClass. As in, the company behind this enterprise. You might remember the ads for their other productions, such as the filmmaking class with Werner Herzog or the acting class with Kevin Spacey. A stroll through their instructor listing is a master class itself in the art of turning celebrities into experts. Serena Williams showing you tennis! Garry Kasparov beating you in chess! Voice lessons from Christina Aguilera! Usher teaching you…uh…“the art of performance”! The pairing of discipline with person, each with their own handsome-looking trailer, is exciting all on its own, though I’m not quite sure what Jane Goodall’s course on “conservation” really entails. I would do it to learn how to make those chimp noises alone, though.

Let’s get back to Steve. He seems to at least understand the inherent absurdity of courses like this. The very first shot in the opening video of his MasterClass isn’t of him, but the empty desk in his turquoise “office”/mind palace, his banjo propped up in the corner. Later, he picks it up and plays it for a bit, breaks into a cheesy grin, and proclaims “Welcome to your non-refundable master class in clawhammer banjo! Good choice!”

Like the other MasterClasses, Martin’s is broken up into video lessons, usually around 10-15 minutes apiece, introduced by “wacky” (ugh) animated title cards covering different topics. There’s usually at least one clip from something Steve was in and a workbook with recaps, links, and assignments, as well as endless banjo and xylophone music on the soundtrack. If someone has ever tried to charge you more than $90 for a copy of the entire screenplay of Roxanne, then this course will pay for itself. You can also record yourself asking an extremely brief question to Steve, which he might respond to (as of this writing my query about when it’s okay to laugh while you’re onstage goes unanswered).

Though this could have been clearer, your goal by the end of the course (I think) is to develop a tight five-minute standup set and a fleshed-out comedy sketch, as well as a bit of live performance under your belt. While I’m assuming Steve had a hand in the readings and exercises, there’s nothing to dissuade you from thinking that they just plopped him in front of a camera, let him talk for few hours unprompted, and then cut the footage into bits. The links are also hit-or-miss, ranging from Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism to one of those YouTube compilations of hecklers getting “owned” that didn’t really illuminate much.

Some of the exercises were genuinely helpful, and I did find myself getting way more organized in my own comedy journal. Before I took this class, I had worked through several improv and sketch comedy classes and done open mics as well as lots of work with different local sketch troupes. I would usually tend to rewrite jokes over and over as I came up with different sets, wasting time, ink, and what little page space I still had scribbling versions of the same bits endlessly like failed equations. Now I’m a lot more methodical, starting with the broadest possible topic, writing a whole bunch of jokes under it, then picking the best ones and going narrower and narrower. My notes are easier to read (at least for me) and I do think this method is going to make me more attentive. But it’s entirely possible you already work like that, in which case the assignments won’t seem especially challenging. I’ll go ahead and admit that, as of this writing, I haven’t completed all the coursework, but I do plan to keep writing and performing. Fortunately for me, you don’t appear to get graded or anything, otherwise I probably would have wound up with a stern lecture and a whack on the knuckles from the Headmaster of Comedy Academy.

As rigorous as the assignments are, there’s no real incentive to complete them aside from your own work ethic. Finish your sketch? The most you get is a “Congratulations!” from the workbook and encouragement to keep trying. If you’re engaged with the course and performing, then you’ll probably feel accomplished enough. I would have liked a little something more. Even National Novel Writing Month gives you a neat little certificate for hitting your word count.

Interspersed throughout the course are some video sessions with a group of four real-life students, each at differing levels of comedy experience (one of them was Beth Newell, the co-founder of Reductress). I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I would have loved to see some reality show-style interviews with these students about how helpful the feedback really was. There’s no final performance video of them putting the revisions into action, so I can only guess how much they took Steve’s advice. You do, however, get to hear Steve Martin say the phrase “shark penis” over and over while dissecting a novice comedian’s bit, which is admittedly pretty great. And no, I’m not going to give you the context.

Let me zero in on the biggest issue I had with the course, which could probably apply to a few of the other MasterClass offerings, too: It’s too broad. I can understand wanting to reach as many people as possible, but no single person can cover every single thing there is to know about comedy in 25 short lessons, no more than Reba McEntire can teach you how to play every single country music instrument. Why not have Reba describe singing or songwriting specifically, for example, instead of a general course on “Country Music”? Similarly, I wish Steve had focused more on standup instead of trying to cram in other topics like sketch and public speaking in a few of the later lessons. That being said, the single most helpful video involved Steve unpacking his comedic play Meteor Shower line by line to teach about character development, exposition, and dialogue. If you’re going to have a course centered around one person’s career, having them go through some of their work bit by bit is kind of the most instructive way to go.

You may not walk away from the course as an expert comedian, but you will certainly be an expert in Steve Martin. Entire sections of the course are devoted to different aspects of Steve’s life and personality, from an oddly placed lesson on his comedy influences to anecdotes and case studies about what did and didn’t work for him. Throughout the course, Steve is quick, frank, charming, and a thoroughly positive presence — exactly what you want from the leader of a class like this. Fun facts: A pretty great throwaway scene from Bowfinger I’d totally forgotten about apparently came to be because Martin didn’t want to write any cliche “lovers confront each other” stuff, and he’s been guilty of misreading his audience at times, according to him.

The secret backbone of MasterClass is its forum system where you can post your work, talk to other students, and potentially meet up with other students near you (I haven’t yet, but good luck to you if you do). Once you’ve completed the course, you’re free to go back and access the lessons and materials as much as you’d like. That’s part of why I have hope that MasterClass will improve, since they clearly want people to keep using their site beyond individual courses. Maybe adding more comedy-specific instructors will help refine the curriculum, with other distinctive comedians giving their takes. It helps that you can read the names and descriptions of all of the lessons in Steve’s class before you sign up, which is a good way to figure out if this is for you in the first place, or if you’d be better off writing jokes with a Ouija board or something.

There’s a deep, almost embarrassing desire in me to want these sorts of comedy classes to work. Like an open mic Mulder, I want to believe that courses and teachers can really help budding comedians, that everyone’s just a training montage away from greatness. But the truth is, the best workshop in the world is only ever going to be just a part of your success. Even in 2017, you only get better through good old-fashioned trial and error, not because a famous actor told you what to do.

What Martin’s MasterClass really offers isn’t comedy skills so much as attractively packaged encouragement and some decent basic steps to get started. He comes out and says that his main goal is to inspire people to get out and perform. The class isn’t going to work for everyone, and if you’re already motivated enough to go out and show off your sets regularly it might even feel like a step back. From what I saw, though, many of those enrolled feel just fine about the course as it is, and if they’re getting that sense of community they need from it, then what’s wrong with that? More attention to the online forum and some tweaks to the pacing will hopefully help the service realize its potential and keep users checking in. MasterClass seems to be announcing new courses left and right, so let’s hope more comedy-related instructors are around the corner, too.

I guess what MasterClass is saying is: If you have no one else to do it for, you can do it for Steve. Or a video of him, anyway. The video of Steve Martin will always believe in you, and that’s a gift in and of itself.

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