Steve Martin taught me to be funny. Didya hear the one about whale sounds and sex?

Budding comedian Bonnie Burton takes Steve Martin's first online class hoping to find the formula for making people laugh. Then she tests it on stage.

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Bonnie Burton profile photo
Bonnie Burton
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
Bonnie Burton
10 min read

"Are you sure you're that funny?"

That's what I get when I tell people I'm focusing on becoming a professional comedian and comedy writer. It's a valid question. Even if I'm funny enough to captivate a room of drunk friends, can I make a living at it? And by a living, I mean more than just making enough to live in squalor and eat decent pizza. 

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Steve Martin teaches a class on how to be funny. Yes, staplers can be funny. 

Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

As a kid, I reenacted Monty Python scenes so well my classmates thought I might be secretly British. Friends loved it when I did impressions, down to the angry twitch that took over our fourth grade teacher's eye when the class refused to quiet down.

These days, I always manage to get a chuckle from a stoic exec at a company meeting by sneaking sight gags into PowerPoint presentations. When I worked at Lucasfilm, I once snuck a horrible oil painting of a dog playing the ukulele into George Lucas' priceless art collection that hangs on the walls. I didn't get fired, so I figured he got the joke.

But there's a big difference between making friends, classmates and co-workers laugh, and being funny on stage in front of strangers. So I decided to up my game by taking a MasterClass about comedy taught by comedian Steve Martin. The $90 online course (that's about £65 or AU$119) includes 25 video lessons that add up to over five hours dissecting every aspect of comedy -- from finding your comedic voice to dealing with hecklers.

I've taken MasterClasses before -- one taught by filmmaker Werner Herzog left me feeling eager to direct a documentary and another led by astronaut Chris Hadfield convinced me visiting Mars didn't seem so alien. So why not learn the ins and outs of comedy from a man whose humor has earned him an honorary Academy Award and several Grammys?

"I never actually thought I was funny," Martin confesses in his MasterClass video trailer. "You may think you don't have any talent. I guarantee you I had no talent. None. I couldn't sing, dance or act. I couldn't tell jokes. But I just started doing it, because I liked it."

That might sound like the worst pitch ever from a teacher, but it's comforting to know one of the most prolific names in comedy started at the bottom before going on to appear on Saturday Night Live, play sold-out stadiums and appear in more than 45 films. And he's still going. He and Martin Short have a May 25 Netflix original comedy special called Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget For The Rest Of Your Life.

In one week, I binged all of Martin's videos while lounging on my couch in my PJs. Some videos are one-on-one lessons and pep talks. In the rest, he interacts with lucky hand-picked would-be comedians and comedy writers about their work. Watching the videos, I laughed out loud and nodded my head as though I was right in the room with Martin. The lessons range from around 11 to 20 minutes.

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Here's Steve Martin giving advice to some very lucky students in his online class. 

Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

The class includes videos and a downloadable workbook with reviews of the lessons, challenges and assignments, which might include watching one of Martin's film or TV performances. The thing about taking an online course like this is there's no one around to nag you about completing your lessons. It's up to you, and I took it seriously. I finished every written assignment -- downloadable PDFs you complete after each video lesson.

One lesson suggested eavesdropping on arguments and mining them for material, so I did that when writing in cafes or standing in line at the post office. Sure enough, I heard a woman talking on the phone say, "I don't care that you think whale sounds are soothing to listen to. It creeps me out that you put them on when we have sex."

How could I NOT use that in a future act? I incorporated it into a piece about the worst things to play to get in the mood for romance -- whale sounds, bird calls, car crash sound effects and Enya.

I also spent time reading my classmates' comments in an online class forum where you can share your works in progress and ask peers for help if you've hit a roadblock. One student suggested trying new material in places other than comedy clubs and bars to take some of the pressure off -- spots like laundromats, office break rooms and family gatherings. I also learned it's best to not try out jokes on people like hairdressers, manicurists and waiters because they might laugh at anything just to get a better tip. 

In addition to the students' advice, Martin's class was worth it just for his insight on the basic do's and don'ts that a lot of comics aren't privy to in the beginning of their careers. Here are some highlights:

Do's and don'ts of comedy

Do go where the action is. If you want to be a comedian or a comedy writer in the entertainment industry, you have to move to a place where the comedy is, like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Toronto. There's a big appetite for new talent in the industry, so why not increase the chances you'll be the one who ends up at the right place at the right time? You could be at a party or a club that becomes an opportunity to show what you can do.

Do talk comedy with friends and others with similar goals. This doesn't mean just having a quick chat about comedy. The kind of discussions you need to have will last for days. Pitch ideas, talk about topics not covered by comedians yet, hone your ideas. Something will come out of these conversations.

Do think about comedy all the time. Always think of the joke. Everything you see, hear, smell and feel is usable. Eavesdrop on conversations, pay attention to the oddball things that happen in your daily life. Take notes. Critique TV sitcoms and standup comedians. This all adds up to perfecting your comedy skills in both performing and writing.

Do educate yourself. Learn something new. Read more. Every time you understand a new topic, you get more subject matter for your routine. You never know what will inspire you. I learned Morse code just so I could say an entire punchline in a series of beeps. 

Don't be intimidated by starting with nothing. Sometimes not having performance skills already perfected means you can be creative. If you can't dance or sing, that's OK. You can fake dancing and singing, and make that funny. I once did a standup routine wearing tap shoes just to imply I might try to dance, but never did. It got a great laugh.

Don't worry about being an introvert. Most comedians are introverts in real life, but the minute they hit the stage they have a place to shine. The stage is where you can let loose and be heard.

Don't fret about getting head shots and an agent. Before you worry about the marketing end of being a comedian, concentrate on being a good comedian. Spend more time honing your craft than trying to become famous.

There's room for you

Comedy pointers aside, Martin's heartfelt pep talks made me think this dream of becoming a standup comedian and comedy writer isn't so far-fetched.

"Whatever makes you unique as a performer, do it," Martin says in Lesson 24. "Overcoming a lack of talent makes you unique. If you prepare yourself, you can be in the right place at the right time. It can be done. There's room for you."

That's especially good to know when you're a comic like me who bombs a lot. Sometimes my routines get great laughs, but the same routine the next night could fail to get even the kind of courtesy applause reserved for audiences that have to clap when less-than-talented kids take the stage at school performances. But knowing there's room even for the triangle-players of comedy like me makes me try even harder to get the laugh. 

It's showtime!

I was finally ready to put Martin's advice into action with my first standup performance since taking the class. My friend and comedian Joseph Scrimshaw invited me to perform in his new Los Angeles show for geeks called Game Night: A Variety Show. Musicians, comedians and actors share the stage for music, standup and a bit of improv to entertain a small audience (under 100 people) for an hour or two.


Here I am looking (kind of) like a professional comedian in my first standup show after taking Steve Martin's online class. 

Bonnie Burton

It seemed like the perfect place to try Martin's techniques.

My comedy is less about telling jokes, and more about telling funny stories about my life as an awkward farm kid and a Goth teenager. I mix in a few tales about working for disorganized tech startups and an iconic movie company. Think Sixteen Candles meets Silicon Valley meets 30 Rock.

I recounted childhood stories about tricking friends into eating grasshoppers by making them think they tasted like mint chocolate and being bullied as a teen after getting my braces caught in shag carpeting while laughing too hard at a popular girl's slumber party. That earned me an off-color nickname for years.

I got more confident when I allowed time for the audience to laugh without talking over them. Instead of letting my mind race to the next thought, I enjoyed the moment.

The only mistake I made during my set was focusing on a few audience members who looked bored. Really bored.  Like the kind of bored where you can tell they're mentally compiling a grocery list. 

It threw me for a loop when I should have focused on my next bit. Granted, those audience members could have zoned out way before I took the stage -- especially the teenager who looked like he was about to slip into a stoner coma at any second. 

Martin did mention in his class that he always looks at the top of people's heads, not directly in their eyes, when he's on stage, just in case he gets a bad reaction to a joke. Luckily, I zapped back into focus by looking at people in the crowd who were laughing at my stories and managed to stay on track.

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Here's a nervous selfie of me backstage before my first standup gig since taking the class. 

Bonnie Burton

Using Martin's techniques I got a lot more laughs than when l played at San Francisco Sketchfest and variety shows and in a comedy webseries. The applause at the end of my set fed my ego enough to give me a boost of energy to participate in the show's group improv skit at the end. We acted out what it would be like if cats could become more powerful than human superheroes. The audience loved it. I counted this as a win.

A few weeks later, I performed an impromptu comedy skit behind the podium at an academic conference at my alma mater, the University of Colorado at Boulder. The head of the conference had heard I was a comedy writer and asked if I could entertain everyone at a welcome dinner after the university president and other important alumni said a few words. 

I had nothing prepared, but with Martin in my head, I was able to wing it and earn some laughs joking about politics, science and the conference itself. (As waiters cleared the tables, I joked about security at the event being so tight, the staff was collecting DNA from our wine glasses.)  


Bonnie Burton (middle) stands on stage with other comedians for the final improv act during Game Night: A Variety Show at Geeky Teas in Los Angeles. 

Joseph Scrimshaw

I know I'm not Tina Fey or Amy Schumer, though I dream of rising to that level of comedic genius. Martin's class helped motivate me to not just talk about wanting to be funnier in my standup routines, but to try hard whenever I get the opportunity -- whether on stage, in a friend's variety show or at an academic conference.

More advice from the pros

While Martin didn't comment for my article, a few of my favorite comedy writers and comedians did give me their advice on how to be funnier. Here's what they had to say:

"Tweet your jokes, make shorts and videos, put up shows on stages. The only way to get good at comedy is to do it A LOT. Every 'overnight comedy success' has a good decade of working their butt off that you didn't see happen." -- Ashley Nicole Black, comedy writer on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee

"Know you and be you. Trust your thoughts and make sure you have fun first. Enjoy yourself. If you don't think you're funny, no one one else will either." -- George Wallace, standup comedian and actor

"Have a good sense of irony and observe the world around you from that perspective." -- Laraine Newman, comedian and original cast member of Saturday Night Live

"Get up in front of audiences, hone your material and delivery, get comfortable with performing. If you're a writer, study scene structure and joke structure and understand the mechanics of jokes while writing every day to hone your voice. Basically, it's a lot of honing." -- Hal Lublin, improv performer and voiceover actor

"Build it and they will come. I wasn't given opportunities until I made my own. I wrote and starred in my own series and films because nobody was doing that for me." -- Melinda Hill,  comedian and actor

"Find an open mic if you want to do standup. Find a publication that takes open submissions if you want to be a comedy writer. You'll get rejected again and again, but that's what literally everyone goes through. Even the best, smoothest people had some missteps. Don't be afraid of failure." -- Mike Drucker, comedian and writer on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee

"I've done sketch, standup, improv, theater, children's theater, audience interactive theater, storytelling, historical costumed character walking tours, and I had a job shrink-wrapping knives where everyone laughed at you if you cut yourself. Getting to know the mood, the perspective, the rhythm of different audiences helps expand your view of what comedy can be." -- Joseph Scrimshaw, comedian and writer

Martin stresses throughout his class that "doing comedy alone on stage is the ego's last stand," and while I was initially scared of failing in front of an audience, his words reminded me that performing comedy isn't about boosting my self-esteem. It's about putting myself out there to try to make people laugh. I don't want courtesy clapping or a forced laugh, but the kind that makes drinks squirt out their noses. Snot cocktail fountains for everyone!

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