When it comes to stand-up comedy, not much has changed in the last 30 years. Turn up to a pub that runs an open mic night, perform five minutes of embarrassing jokes – repeat. Do that for three or four years, night after night, and you might have a shot at the big time. Maybe. That’s how Christine Basil got started. Same for Dave Hughes. It’s a slow, demoralising slog – a perfect environment for disruption.
Enter Ben Horowitz and Morry Morgan, two blokes who couldn’t be more different. While Ben worked demolition and tore down buildings, Morry, a serial entrepreneur in Asia, was building businesses. But their differences have proven to be complementary, since Ben also happens to be a 17-year veteran of stand-up comedy, and Morry is an award winning learning & development author and trainer. The two have created huge waves in the Melbourne comedy scene, because they’ve just proven that you can teach stand-up. On Sunday April 15 at the Melbourne Town Hall, Gavin Sempel took out second place at the National Raw Comedy Grand Final. ‘Gav’ also happens to be a graduate of the School of Hard Knock Knocks – Ben and Morry’s comedy school.
The School of Hard Knock Knocks (SHKK) was born in 2016, and Gavin Sempel was one of the first students to complete the five-day course. As chance would have it, Gavin also won his seat, and received coaching from comedy veteran, Brad Oakes, as well as Ben Horowitz himself, during the course.
Since its founding, the SHKK has since run over 20 courses across Melbourne, Adelaide, Geelong, and Wagga Wagga, with courses also scheduled for Warrnambool, Brisbane and Sydney. Not surprising, the school’s rapid growth has also attracted the attention of many of the comedy old-guard who are worried – And rightly so. The school graduates around 150 new comedians a year in Melbourne alone, which could be seen as a sizeable threat to the existing pool of comedians that compete nightly for open mic slots.
But Morry doesn’t see his school’s entry into the comedy market as a threat – rather as an opportunity. “Some have a ‘glass half empty’ attitude to our arrival, but they’re just short sighted. We’re increasing the size of the glass. Comedy shouldn’t just be limited to Friday night’s in the pub, or a festival, one month a year. Learning how to write and perform comedy can help with mental health, build confidence and can also be the antidote to the workplace, ‘Death by PowerPoint’. We have as many corporate professionals do our comedy course as we do future celebrity comedians.
One such corporate professional who has graduated from the comedy course is key note speaker and author, Yamini Naidu. Yamini says she did the course because, in her own words, “it’s the best professional and personal development any presenter or speaker can get.” Her two books, Hooked and Power Play, both include sections on the importance of storytelling, and Yamini runs workshops that encourages adding humour to business presentation to increase engagement and ultimately improve effectiveness.
Of course, adding humour to presentations isn’t what’s causing the kerfuffle. Rather, it’s the proposition that comedy can be taught in the first place.
And to that, Ben Horowitz has an answer for the nay-sayers. “Can you teach comedy? Well, what you’re really asking me is ‘can you make someone funny?’. We have a simple question for those thinking of doing our course. If someone – your parents, friends or, say work colleagues – have said that you’re funny, then you’re funny! But if you’ve never heard that compliment, then sorry, you’re not. We can’t make unfunny people funny, but we can teach funny people stand-up comedy. It’s a skill that can be learnt, and that was the case with Gavin, who was a little rough around the edges when we first met him in 2016.”
Gavin’s second place win at Raw Comedy supports other success from the SHKK. The school films each students’ graduating performances, some of which are watched over 5,000 times each, and to date, none of the 80+ graduates have bombed. How exactly the school teaches comedy is rooted in adult learning principles. In his former, more serious life, Morry built and owned one of the largest training firms in China – a company that was awarded ‘Training Firm of the Year’ two years running. He has also written two books focusing on learning & development, and has a Certificate IV in Training & Assessment.
“I’ve been a big fan of Mumford and Honey’s ‘Four Learning Styles’, and for close to 12 years my former team and I applied this learning philosophy to training the staff of some of the world’s largest multinational companies operating in China and Asia in general,” says Morry. “What surprises me though, about those that say ‘you can’t teach comedy’, is that they all acknowledge that acting, painting and music lessons are useful to developing those respective skills. But then suddenly, when it comes to comedy, that’s completely impossible to teach. It’s illogical, and to be frank, ignorant.”
Some may still not be convinced, and to that, Ben and Morry aren’t concerned. “In any market,” says Morry, ”when there’s a disruptor, the first reaction is shock and denial, just like the Seven Stages of Grief. We’re not suggesting open mic rooms are unnecessary, but for those that think slogging it out for four years is the only way to develop a comedy career, then they should have seen our Melbourne International Comedy Festival show, where 40 of our top graduates performed to sold out audiences and killed every night. Structured guidance and a supportive community can develop talent in months, rather than years. It worked for Gavin.”