Performing comedy for the first time — whether it's improv, sketch or standup — can be an intimidating experience, which keeps a lot of would-be first-timers from taking a stab at it. Luckily for panicky novices, though, there are several well-regarded programs that hold your hand through the getting-your-feet-wet process. While conventional wisdom seems to dictate that with standup, it's best to get started by performing at an open mic instead of taking standup classes, sketch and improv lend themselves more to curriculum and classes, and several well-regarded schools have popped up over the past several decades to help wannabe performers get started.
As I mentioned in the intro, stand-up isn't as suited for the classroom as sketch and improv are, but if you're looking to take a class before your first open mic, Gotham Comedy Club is one of the best places to start. Eddie Brill, the recently-ousted Letterman booker and current warm-up guy for the show, teaches an "intensive feedback" workshop at Gotham, and it's a great opportunity to get some pointers from one of the most powerful gatekeepers in comedy history.
Introductory Class: "Stand-Up Comedy Class" – 7 weeks of intensive workshop and an eighth week graduation performance - $375 OR "Intensive Feedback Workshop" – A one-day 6 hour workshop with Eddie Brill. Includes a continental breakfast and lunch - $275
Sketch and improv
A pioneer in the field of improv and sketch comedy, The Second City Training Center was the first big modern school to teach improv and sketch classes. Second City's Chicago program has attracted aspiring comedians from all over the world to pack their bags and head to the Windy City ever since alumni like John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray, amongst others became household names in the 70s. While Second City also has training centers in Hollywood and Toronto, the one in Chicago is the legendary, prestigious one. In addition to improv and comedy writing classes, Second City also offers acting, musical comedy, and directing classes. The cornerstone of Second City's program is The Conservatory, which requires participants to audition first. In Chicago, graduates of the Conservatory are able to audition for house improv teams at the Second City Theatre after completing the multi-level program.
Introductory Class: "Improv - Level A" – 8 weeks of 2.5 hour classes or 7 weeks of 3 hour classes OR Audition for the Conservatory OR "Writing 1" – 8 weeks of 3 hour classes (Chicago). Prices vary by region. Typically, intro courses cost $315 for Chicago, $280 + HST for Toronto, and $365 for LA, but early registration discounts are available.
Notable alumni: Alan Arkin, Fred Willard, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Catherine O'Hara, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Farley, Amy Sedaris, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Jane Lynch, Tina Fey
Prior to the UCB heading west, the Groundlings had the improv and sketch market cornered in Los Angeles, but the school is still an influential and highly-respected program for those who are serious about comedic acting and writing. There's an improv workshop – for beginner's who just want to pad their resume and have fun – and a performance track – for those who are serious about performing comedy. An audition is required to get into the performance track's basic program.
Things are a little more cutthroat at Groundlings than the other big comedy theaters' programs. For example, if you aren't approved to go the next level after completing a Groundlings class above Level 3, you aren't allowed to take any more classes at the theatre ever again. It sounds a little harsh, but you can't argue with the school's track record of consistently churning out impressive comedic talent for the past four decades.
Introductory class: "Improv Workshop A" – A beginner's worshop - 6 weeks of 3 hour classes - $280 OR "Level One – Basic," 12 weeks of 3.5 hour classes - $495. One must complete either of these performing classes before taking a Groundlings writing class.
Notable alumni: Laraine Newman, Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens, Conan O'Brien, Lisa Kudrow, Will Ferrell, Cheryl Hines, Will Forte, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Jim Rash, Taran Killam
Established in the 1980s by Del Close and Charna Halpern, the iO Theater is where long form improv was born. The theater has multi-level improv and sketch programs, as well as musical improv and solo performance workshops. This is where Close and Halpern created the improv form Harold, one of the most widely-used forms in improv today. The benefit of both iO Theaters, Chicago and LA, is that there are two stages at the Chicago one and three at iO West, meaning that it's easier for students to get stage time and there are a lot more house teams. Plus, in Chicago, there's a high turnover because performers are constantly leaving for New York or L.A., which makes for more opportunities for newcomers to get on stage.
Introductory class: "Improv Level 1" - $275 OR "Writing Level 1." Both courses are eight weeks of three-hour classes - $275 in Chicago and $359 in LA. Intensive program and musical improv also available.
Notable alumni: Matt Besser, Kay Cannon, Wyatt Cenac, Andy Dick, David Koechner, Tim Meadows, Adam McKay, Mike Myers, Amy Poehler, Andy Richter, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh
**note: There is a sizable overlap between alumni of Second City Chicago, iO, and Annoyance because a lot of Chicago-based performers (especially in the late 80s/early 90s) performed at more than one or even all three.**
The final part of the trifecta of renowned comedy programs in Chicago, the Annoyance Theater was founded by Mick Napier, acclaimed improv teacher and author of the improv tome Improvise.: Scene from the Inside Out, who still serves as Annoyance's artistic director today. Located in an artsy neighborhood in Uptown Chicago, the theater is known for its experimental and unconventional shows.
Introductory class: "Logan Square – Ultimate Beginner" for first-time improvisers OR "Logan Square – AP2" for those with previous improv experience. Both courses are 8 weeks of a 2.5 hour class - $200.
Notable alumni: Ike Barinholtz, Vanessa Bayer, Stephen Colbert, Jon Favreau, Jeff Garlin, Kate Flannery, Jane Lynch, Andy Richter, Jason Sudeikis, Matt Walsh
Founded by the four members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh, the UCB Theatre and Training Center recently became the first nationally accredited improv and sketch school in the country. The school offers a four-level improv program, with advanced classes available after that, and a three-level sketch writing program, as well as courses in musical improv and storytelling/solo work.
Introductory class: "Improv 101" or "Sketch 101" (Sketch Writing). Both courses are 8 weeks of 3 hour classes - $350. Intensive programs and musical improv and solo/storytelling classes also available.
Notable alumni: Rob Corddry, Ed Helms, Rob Riggle, Rob Huebel, Paul Scheer, Bobby Moynihan, Aubrey Plaza, Ellie Kemper, Adam Pally, Ben Schwartz, Casey Wilson, Harris Wittels