New College students take over McCurdy's for a night of stand-up comedy.
Ashley Strand and Renbourn Chock are discussing a recent trip to the grocery store, debating the funniest way to describe a physical attraction to kale.
"At first, you said, 'The girl at the register is going to think I'm turned on by, like, kale,'" says Stand. "I think it's funnier without the word "like." It's punchier. Just dive right into it."
The off-color regaling of a produce-aisle mix-up is part of Chock's seven-minute stand-up-comedy routine, which Strand is helping him fine-tune. And the only thing better than perfecting a dirty joke is getting college credit for it.
Strand, a professional comedian and New College of Florida alumnus, has returned to his alma mater to teach "Intro to Stand Up," an independent study program hosted through the college's Alumnae Fellowship Program, which invites graduates from a range of professions to return to Sarasota to share their expertise. This is the first time, however, that the school has offered a course in comedy.
Stephen Miles, the school's provost, says the class will teach students real-world skills that apply beyond the stage.
"Learning the art of performance is beneficial to anyone, no matter what they plan to do after school," he says. "If you can learn to captivate a group of strangers and hold their attention for five minutes, that's a great skill to have."
The class, comprised of 10 students, has spent the last month studying under Strand, who transitioned from acting to stand-up comedy after graduating in 1996. The course is meant to be immersive, and it's the only coursework they'll have for the duration of the class.
They've spent weeks revising scripts and studying tapes from comedy greats, and they've even taken a few field trips to spark some observational creativity.
When the course concludes this week, the students will be given a different kind of final exam: They'll take the stage at McCurdy's Comedy Theatre Monday, Feb. 1 to perform their sets and show off what they've learned in front of a public audience.
The idea came about last summer, when Strand performed for the first time at McCurdy's Comedy Theatre. Following a set he describes as going less than smoothly, Strand says he was impressed with owner Les McCurdy's response.
"He could've brushed me off," says Strand. "But he sat down with me and talked and offered me some advice. I could tell he was genuinely interested in helping comedians grow. When I learned I got the fellowship, I knew I wanted the students to work with Les. Not only is he dedicated to helping comedians, but performing to a real crowd in a club of that caliber is an amazing opportunity."
Miles says the live performance will not only give students valuable experience, but it will also allow the public to see the students — normally noted for their academic achievements — in a different element.
Aiden Dalton, one of the students in the class, says even though he's studying marine biology, he's always enjoyed making people laugh, and he saw the class as a creative outlet.
"The first day of class, we just dove right in and started performing," he says. "I had some stuff prepared, but when I saw how funny everyone else was, I decided to just wing it. Ashley has been helping us refine our jokes and stage presence. He's got a lot of experience, and he knows exactly what a crowd will respond to and what won't work."
Strand says teaching college students has been a new creative challenge for him, and he's enjoyed the opportunity to open their eyes to a new form of art.
"You have 30 seconds to make a relationship with a group of strangers," he says. "That's the challenge of comedy. There's nothing else like it. When someone is performing, you get 5 to 7 minutes to live in that person's skin, to see how they view the world and how they process things. It's beautiful."