"Somebody in Chicago advertises, 'Be funny. Make money.' To me that's such a fallacy. There's very little money in (standup) comedy unless you're at the very highest echelon of the profession." That's the clear-eyed assessment of Jim Rauth, "Dean" of his own standup Comedy College here in Milwaukee (and now in Chicago). "It's a tough way to make money, the comedy business."
Rauth points to the film, "Comedian" (produced by and including some scenes with Jerry Seinfeld) as a lousy infomercial for his Comedy College. "But I think it's a good reality check. That one guy (Orny Adams) -- I know a lot of people like him. They put in eight years and they think the business owes them something. The business owes nobody anything!"
Work that warms the heart or satisfies the soul often doesn't pay much. Rauth explains, "It's more about having fun, having a good time. Once people get involved with comedy, once they go through the first 'graduation' with me, I have, probably a 95% return rate."
This fall's 101 Comedy College class "graduates" in a public performance on Fri., Jan. 3, in the banquet hall of Burnham Bowl, 6016 W. Burnham St., at 7:30 p.m. and the public is invited.
Training for standup comedy at Rauth's Comedy College consists of seven sessions (six classes, one performance) each of Comedy 101 through 505, one night a week. Ubiquitous flyers, bearing the college's logo of a cartoon smiley-face sporting a mortarboard announced the first class beginning on Mon., Nov. 11. Nine people showed up; two thought they were going to see a show and with a third, never appeared for the second class though they were all welcomed to participate in the first evening's exercises and did so. One female, who missed the first class, joined the initial six people who remained. These courageous seven (profiled below) are nervously ready to make their first formal public appearance on Friday.
"I tell everybody to keep their blinders on," Rauth says, "and just worry about their space. Don't look at what anybody else is doing. That'll only frustrate you. Just do the best you can do. It's hard work and determination. 'Comedian' shows that very well. There is no easy way to do comedy."
West Allis-born and still resident, Rauth first began Comedy College on the Northwest side in 1999. It's really an outcrop from a local television show he'd been doing on auto repair. "I don't know anything about the subject," Rauth confesses, "but my co-host did." Rauth contributed an air of levity to the proceedings.
With an awareness of his comic abilities, Rauth established his training school. After one year it disappeared from the local scene because Rauth transferred the operation to Chicago, where he has, on average, 12 to 15 students per class. Right now he's teaching four classes in the Windy City with the students at varying levels in their development. "I do have an ear for knowing a good joke. I've always been able to tweak other people's act. It's way easier than critiquing my own act," Rauth says.
In addition to Comedy College-Chicago Division, Rauth produces a show at a place there called Coyle's Tippling House, 2843 N. Halsted St. "It's in Wrigleyville, right next to the Field. It's sandwiched between a lot of improvisational theatres down there. Second City is about a mile from us and the Improv Olympics is about a half a mile to the north. So every Tuesday night I host a show called 'Jim Rauth's Comedy College Showcase/Open Mic.'" For the uninitiated, open microphone nights allow standup comics to come from anywhere and try to refine their routines. There is no preplanned program -- it's a very casual "Come as you are and take your chances" kind of improvisational event.
For Friday's graduation exercise at Burnham Bowl, Rauth will open the program, then present his "students" and close with a surprise guest comic (or two), just as he's done in the past. The seven "graduates" break down to four males and three females, presented now in alpha order.
Mariano ("Mario") Bucio hails originally from Port Washington, "the second of four boys, no girls." A pianist ("I can play it pretty well (but) I've got to keep at it," he observes), Mario is presently a school bus driver. "I know I can make people laugh. I'll say something unconsciously and people will just start laughing like you're doing now." He's conscious that he gets the words right but he misses the joke. Now he hopes to correct that.
Matt Huffman is a native Milwaukeean and acknowledges being the class clown at Hamilton High. "Oh, yeah. Big time. I always liked to make people laugh." Right now he performs behind an auto-paint counter as salesman-comic. "Anyway, last year, at New Years, I made a half-assed resolution to try again to be on stage." Considering he froze up during a 10th grade presentation and "never, ever got back on stage again," his controlled effort Friday is a much bigger personal achievement than it looks.
Gale ("just like the storm outside when I was born. Really. That's how I got my name") Janke is currently matriculating at MATC, majoring in Human Services. Born in Delafield, the West Allis resident found herself attracted to standup comedy because she wants "to go into motivational speaking" and as Rauth pointed out, surveys indicate people's biggest fear is public speaking. Even a 3.65 GPA doesn't guarantee overcoming stage fright, however, although, like Mario, Gale discovered karaoke singing in public seems to help.
"I was born in West Allis because that's where the hospital was," Allison Jornlin answered the standard question. As the elder, she must have become the role model for her younger brother, yes? "Oh, yeah, uh hum, you got that right; describes me to a 'T.'" This designer of Web sites is taking the classes "to learn how to express myself better. At first I thought, 'There's no way of doing that performance.' Now I'm excited about Friday night."
John Martinson is the only one of his six peers whose family showed a bent for show business. "My father used to be an actor. Up in Duluth, where he was born; in Chicago and Milwaukee, later on." And it was Dad who encouraged his shy son to become involved in forensics. "Part of why I'm here is to face my fears and become a better person for it." This Brookfield native admires and respects the persistence and the hard work that his uncle, singer Jerry Grillo, still demands of himself, lo! these many years.
Although born in Waukesha, Bob Pietrykowski spent his youth "in a small berg, six miles outside of Fond du Lac, a place called Eden." Another 2001 New Year's Resolutioner, Bob's in standup because "I literally want to get more endorphins. I figure laughter would do it. I'm laughing when I write the stuff--even if it's not funny for anyone else--and when I deliver it," even if it takes his skit, "Three Faces of (Pure, Cynical and Just Plain) Bob" to accomplish it!
"Had enough of this whole airport security nuisance? The solution is to have everybody fly naked!" So who'll be the first to challenge trim- figured, flight attendant Beth Reichart, to start the rebellion? This McAllen, Texas gal (now "hubbed" in Milwaukee), believes that "humor can get you through a lot of tough times. If you're able to find the humor (in situations), then you really have a gift. I always say, 'Carpe Diem.' And I really do believe that philosophy."
So these are Rauth's latest "Milwaukee-7" graduates and when he was asked, "What sort of audience would be the most desirable Friday night?" without hesitation he responded: "The one that laughs!"