Professor punch line
Dave Rattigan knows comedy
By Michael Witthaus firstname.lastname@example.org
Listen to Dave Rattigan talk for a while, and it’s easy to imagine the stand-up comic in front of a classroom, pointer in hand, listing the rules of comedy.
“Comedy is tragedy plus perspective,” he says. “If you slip and fall on a banana peel, it’s a tragedy to you. It’s funny to me.”
When Rattigan isn’t busy making audiences laugh, something he’ll do this Saturday at Headliners in Manchester, he’s minting new comedians, or trying to, anyway. He’s on the faculty at two Massachusetts colleges, North Shore Community and North Essex, teaching a how-to class on the art of telling jokes.
But it’s no factory, he says. “It’s six weeks — you can’t turn anybody into a great comedian in six weeks.”
Besides, there’s some raw material that just can’t be molded.
“It’s a little bit like Michael Jordan telling you how to make a lay-up,” Rattigan said. “OK, when you get to the foul line, that’s where you want to start your jump, and you want to go over that guy’s head and pound the ball home. That’s how you shoot a lay-up.”
Six years ago, Rattigan was working a PR job at Northern Essex when the school pitched the idea of a comedy class. “I was resistant towards it,” he said, “and concerned that I’d be unleashing some terrible comedians on the world.”
Over time, Rattigan has learned to temper the urge to “coddle” aspiring comics.
“Half of what a class does is encouraging people to get to the point where they can do a set,” he said. “But I’m more honest with people. I’ll say, ‘Hey, get rid of that joke,’ and they’ll ask why, and I’ll say, ‘Because it stinks.’” It’s much better to learn that in class.
Rattigan has worked professionally for 15 years, with a PG-13 set that reflects his own life.
“Yeah, I draw from frustration and observation,” he said with a laugh.
He’s a new parent, which recently presented an ethical dilemma.
“The other day my daughter lied to me for the first time, at least I believe it’s the first time,” he said. “I said, ‘did you lie to me?’ She looked up at me and said, “it was a misunderstanding.’ I’m thinking, how am I going to correct this behavior? But I’m also thinking, how am I going to get this into my act?”
It’s a dilemma he finds both elating and frightening.
“No one should have children first of all, but if you do that you should probably be a comedian — kids are funny,” he said. “I think in China they actually have entire factories where they just get children to say funny things, and they give them out to comedians.”
Asked about the current state of comedy, Rattigan said it’s still excellent.
“Boston is one of the best breeding grounds” for comedians, he said, and many of them work clubs in New Hampshire and Maine. “The only other place you’re likely to find good comedians night in and night out is New York City.”
On the other hand, he said, “people don’t understand that there’s levels of shows everywhere, a lot of different types of shows. Another thing that people also don’t get is how good comedy is when it is done well.”
So while he encourages his students to get out there, he’s not sure that ubiquitous technology is such a good thing. “Everybody who does an open-mike set throws it up on YouTube now,” he says. “That’s the kind of thing that muddies the water.”
The biggest problem is amateur comics poaching material, consciously or unconsciously. “They may have a bit that they’ve heard and they think that it’s theirs, so they put it on and before anyone can say hey, that’s Justin McKinney’s bit, or that’s an old Robert Schimmel bit or that’s an old street joke, it’s out on YouTube for the whole world to see.”
“I was talking to Rodney Dangerfield once,” Rattigan said. “His dad was in vaudeville, and he said it took him 18 months to get a sketch to work. Now this is performing the vaudeville schedule of two shows a night six days a week. His feeling was that the comedy routine took the same amount of time. You can see guys who have honed their bits forever, and you can see how good they are. My older bits, as long as I keep paying attention to them, they get tighter.”
Rattigan remembers one night in a Boston club when he asked a group of people why they came.
“We’re here for you,” they told him.
“The insecurity kicked in,” says the comic. “I said, what, are you crazy? But it’s good to have people say we do and don’t want this.”