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Barbara Sehr, 57, a technical writer from Seattle, enrolled in her first comedy class in January, then joined a local group of 45 female comics called the Ha Ha Sisterhood. Political humor is what draws her to two to four open-mike nights a week and one paid appearance a month. "It's hard being a woman in this world today," goes one of her routines. "Even the president of Harvard says women are just not equipped to do mathematics. Can you believe that? A recent poll says 30% of women believe Mr. Summers is all wrong. The other 80% of us are glad that Mr. Summers lives in Massachusetts and can marry a man!"
Parlaying one-liners into a paying gig requires time and patience. That is particularly true for older performers, who despite the upsurge in their numbers may encounter age discrimination in comedy clubs, where twentysomethings and thirtysomethings predominate. Comedy teacher and author Carter advises hopefuls to take part regularly in open-mike nights in smaller, suburban venues as a way to become known to club managers.
Another route to work that pays is through local churches, synagogues, nonprofits and community and civic groups, which may be looking for some humor to liven up a function or a meeting. They are more likely to be open to a baby-boomer comedian--as long as expletives are deleted and mentions of sexual anatomy are kept to a minimum.
Comedy classes--at clubs, community centers and university continuing-education programs--can sometimes lead to a breakthrough. Carter offers a weekly four-hour workshop that meets for eight sessions and costs $485. Commencement consists of a five-minute gig onstage at the Hollywood Improv in front of a real audience. Half of Carter's students are 50 and older. Jeff Justice, a comedian and teacher in Atlanta, charges $349 for a six-session course that meets three hours a week. His students graduate with a four-minute spot at the Punchline Comedy Club in Atlanta.
Even with training, it takes lots of writing and even more rewriting to refine a comedy act, Carter cautions. To come up with five minutes' worth of really funny jokes, you should start with 20 to 30 minutes' worth of material. "You also need a clever line or some kind of shtick that's just yours," Carter adds. "Think Roseanne's domestic goddess."
A would-be domestic goddess is Charlotte Drennen, 54, a housewife from Cartersville, Ga., who occasionally commands as much as $1,500 for her once- or twice-a-month performances at nonprofits, conventions and clubs. "Hillary Rodham Clinton said it takes a village to raise a child," Drennen tells her audiences. "I just didn't know that I would have to marry all of them."
And then there are those who get into performing without really intending to. Tom Richards, 67, is a retired newspaper reporter and columnist in Appleton, Wis. Five years ago, he was writing an article on what it's like to be a stand-up comedian, and the local Skyline Comedy Café allowed him a few minutes of stage time. "I got some laughs, to my amazement, despite my nerves," Richards says. "I became addicted." Sample gag: "I told my wife that I wanted to let my hair grow into a ponytail. She said, 'If you do that, I'll divorce you.' I didn't know it was that easy." He currently does about two gigs a month at the Skyline and other clubs in Wisconsin and Michigan.