Standup Comedy’s Lessons for Library Instruction

by Eamon Tewell, Reference & Instruction Librarian, Long Island University, Brooklyn

More than perhaps any other place, New York City is a top destination for comedians seeking to make it in the entertainment business. At first it may seem that comedians and librarians who teach have little in common. But given the experience comics have in public speaking and engaging new audiences, it makes perfect sense that several comedy techniques also apply to delivering instruction.

Read Your Audience
Comedians, like library instructors, know to gauge their audience’s expectations and modify their act on the fly. Many comedians begin their performance with “crowd work,” which typically involves asking an audience member a simple question such as “where are you from?” and finding a funny response. This engages the crowd and gives the comic a feel for the type of jokes they enjoy.

comedy.jpgApplying this approach to library instruction, consider beginning class with a short anecdote or by asking someone to share a library experience they had. If you have time, ask students to answer a couple questions about their expectations or what they want to learn. A little “crowd work” as you begin a session can help your class connect with you and the content while simultaneously setting a positive tone.

Assess Your Performance
Every so often at small clubs in New York City, comedy superstar Aziz Ansari of the TV series Parks and Recreation makes surprise appearances. Excited audiences watch as Ansari walks onstage and presses the “record” button on his phone. After testing new jokes for a few minutes he departs for another show across town. Like Ansari, many comedians make multiple appearances in one night and record audience reactions each time. Later they listen to the recordings and adjust their jokes according to what got laughs and what did not.

Librarians can take steps to assess their instruction for the same reason that Aziz Ansari meticulously records his impromptu performances: to get feedback. Whether using Poll Everywhere to ask students comprehension questions or concluding class with a One Minute Paper, it is essential to elicit feedback regularly and from a variety of sources.

Every educator knows that there are good days and bad days in the classroom. The best approach is to listen to your audience and adjust accordingly. As any comedian will tell you, no material is perfect the first time around. When testing, redesigning, and retesting methods and content in the classroom, gaining feedback is key to creating a positive learning environment.

Relate to Your Crowd
Empathizing with students’ experiences and needs is a great way to provide good service and encourage library use. All good comedians know the importance of relatability and incorporating personal experiences into their humor, but few do this as well as Louis C.K. Many of C.K.’s jokes and his acclaimed show Louie are based on his personal life, including the highs and lows of living in NYC.

I recommend building relatability by teaching authentically. Try an engaged stance: be natural, take a conversational approach if the situation calls for it. Most importantly, recognize the diverse experiences and voices that students bring to the classroom. Your personality and spontaneity will improve your class and make you easier to approach afterwards.

Mix Your Methods
Teaching librarians know that lectures are not their only option; the range of approaches to teaching is quite deep. In an entertainment industry where use of little more than a microphone is expected, the comedian Demetri Martin uses songs, props, and visual aids to create a style of his own. Martin reminds us that certain messages sometimes require certain methods.

You may decide to use clickers, a game, or a whiteboard depending on the session’s learning outcomes, but a variety of instructional methods will accommodate different learning styles and keep everyone involved.

See Some Live Comedy
If you live in or around NYC, the best way to learn from comedians is to see them in person. I recommend UCB Theatre, which has locations in Chelsea and the East Village. They have multiple shows per night and each ranges from free to $10. For additional options, the website Best New York Comedy aggregates comedy shows daily and includes top picks, with venues ranging from comedy clubs to neighborhood bars. Have fun!