When it comes to dealing with bullies, Maury says the yes, and rule is the most successful approach. “By calling someone a bully, you’re fueling the altercation. If you yes, and the situation, they have nowhere to go with it. You’re almost working in cooperation with them.” Maury details a role-play situation in which one kid made fun of another for wearing glasses. “He was, like, ‘Nice glasses, Four Eyes,’ and the other kid took them off, looked at them, and said, ‘I know, it’s so embarrassing — I can see now.’ Then he put his glasses back on. Not letting [the bullying] affect him allowed him to keep his power.”
In his after-school workshops, Maury incorporates common improv games, such as “Switch,” to help kids build empathy. “Switch helps people understand someone else’s situation. You start a scene and have them opposing one another in some way. For example, Jimmy’s an old man, and Baxter is his grandson. Grandpa is trying to fix a toilet, and all Baxter wants to do is go play baseball, and he doesn’t understand why Grandpa won’t play baseball with him. You do the scene, and then re-do the scene exactly the same way, but have them switch roles.”
Of Maury, McGuire says, “Mike has a real passion for helping people tap into their emotional selves, [and for] helping young people move beyond the silly, petty crap that they deal with all the time and into a place of compassion and empathy.”
The cathartic benefits of comedy are not limited to improv. Stand-up comedian Kim Thompson says, “[Stand-up] saved me. It’s like my antidepressant. Some of my most favorite jokes are based on such dark, tragic moments. If I’m going through a breakup or something, being able to write material that not only makes people laugh but gets them to connect to you, that’s the greatest thing. It helps you realize that you can’t get stuck on certain things in your life.”
Thompson, who performs regularly at the Comedy Store in La Jolla, is not really interested in improv. “It just didn’t speak to me the way stand-up does. I enjoy writing so much, and the writing and performing of my written word appeals to me more.” Despite this preference, Thompson admits that stand-up is a particularly difficult road. “People get fickle, you get fickle. It’s such a rollercoaster. But if you love it, and you’re committed to it, and really connected, you kind of live off it.” An audience might not connect with the specific material performed, but Thompson believes they should be able to relate to the human emotions revealed through her self-deprecating humor.
The night I saw Thompson perform at the Comedy Store, my husband, David, pointed out a “love bite” on Thompson’s neck. The following night, having realized how obvious it was to others, she worked it into her set. She gestured at the bruise and announced, “My homeless ex-boyfriend gave this to me, and I don’t know if it’s a hickey or a premature AIDS lesion.” She was happy with the response to the new joke. “They loved it — I got applause.”
It’s that yearning for connection that drives many stand-up comedians, says Rajan Dharni, a comedian who performs both improv and stand-up. “Most stand-up [comedians] feel constantly like they’re the odd man out. They’re the weird one wherever they are, and they’re hypersensitive about that. I think one of the things that stand-up might offer these people is that, when they say something and people laugh, they know people can relate to their thought or sentiment or whatever they were feeling. Stand-up offers validation. Also, approval — a lot of stand-ups have this obsession for approval, and they get it through laughs.”
Mike Vinn, who is both the manager and a regular performer at the Comedy Store in La Jolla, cautions comedians who take the stage against expectations of getting the laughter they seek. “What comics need to realize is that it’s their job to make the audience laugh. It’s not the audience’s job to make you feel good about yourself.”
Vinn happens to be Kim Thompson’s brother. When Thompson first moved from Chicago to San Diego six years ago, she lived with Vinn, who’d arrived in San Diego by way of the military. Vinn was first to the comedy scene, but his sister, who attended many of the shows, soon followed. “I didn’t have a car, so I went around wherever he went, and I just fell in love with watching comedy,” she says. A friend who manages Mad House Comedy Club downtown, encouraged Thompson to step up to the mic. “He kept pressuring me, and I finally gave in. I had a week to prepare. I did a joke about a bad blind-date experience — I was actually stood up by a blind guy. It went over well, and I’ve been doing stand-up ever since.”
Once his sister was on the circuit, Vinn realized that if he and his sibling/roommate were going to get along, he had to keep his joke ideas to himself. “When we lived together, we would constantly battle.” Of their shared experiences, he says, “We would fight and argue and debate over whose joke it was, who should have it, to where it got to be frustrating.”
Thompson recalls those days as well. “When I first moved here, anytime I did something stupid, Mike seemed to have a joke about it. When I started doing comedy, I was, like, ‘Hey, man, when I do something stupid, I think I should be able to write about it.’” It got to the point where Thompson began punctuating phone conversations with her mother with the phrase “You can’t tell Mike” — all to protect potential material.
“Luckily, our styles are very different from each other,” Thompson says. “What inspires me about my family is a lot different than what inspires him.” Vinn draws frequently on childhood memories, whereas Thompson focuses on the present. “He goes for a goofier point of view. I like to pull out darker things and try to find humor in those.” For example, “We have a dad that is in and out of mental hospitals and stuff. He’s a kooky character. And our mom’s on her third marriage.”