Performance » Spoken Word

Laughing Matters

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What kind of person cracks jokes at his own grandmother’s funeral?

If you’ve ever watched local improv specialist Jon Colby in action, you’d know that answer. And, yes, the 36-year-old comedian brought down the house more than once with several bon mots during her eulogy back in April.

“I made everybody laugh four or five times when I gave Grandma’s eulogy,” he says.

He didn’t weave in the jokes and make mourners laugh out of disrespect or for his own edification; Colby did it because he believes humor has a place in most every aspect of life -- and even in death. Which is precisely why his family entrusted him with that honored speaking task.

Colby knew he had a knack for humor even as a youngster growing up in Brownsburg.  - COURTESY OF JON COLBY
  • Courtesy of Jon Colby
  • Colby knew he had a knack for humor even as a youngster growing up in Brownsburg.

“Everything is a joke to me. I no longer have a comfort zone,” Colby explains. “Everything is comfortable to me. I cannot remember the last time I was uncomfortable in a social setting.”

He says too often people try to filter themselves and worry about how they’ll be perceived, how they should look or sound or act. But in his world of improvisational humor, he says one can’t be confined by such worries. It’s more about being yourself and appreciating that -- and seeing that in others. And it’s not just in his world. He hopes to impress upon everyone the importance of quick-witted humor to improve social experiences.

Colby is an instructor of improv, the comedy of on-the-spot scenes and games that keep performers on their toes while making audiences, and sometimes themselves, laugh hysterically. And he will take his craft to Clowes Memorial Hall on the campus of Butler University this evening (at 7:30 p.m.) in a free interactive discussion titled, “A Guy Walks Into a Bar …” How to Tell a Joke. He anticipates an intimate audience of about 150 attendees. His event is part of a series series Clowes will present to coincide with the upcoming featured performance of Jay Leno on Oct. 18th.

Enlisting volunteers from the audience, Colby will use improv exercises to instruct attendees on how to incorporate humor into their lives.

“We’ll talk some about how we can use humor in the workplace, how we can use it in everyday life," he says. "And how to find humorous things in different situations to keep us from being that person that we sit with in a group of people who says something and immediately makes the whole conversation come to a halt.”

An alumnus of the conservatory at Chicago’s famed Second City comedy troupe, Colby has been doing this form of comedy since he was 19. But he knew he had the gift even as a youngster growing up in Brownsburg.

“I remember in third grade sitting next to the teacher’s desk and hearing her work one-on-one with another student who was reading Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham,” he says. “I always had great listening skills, so before long I had memorized the words to that book, and I was pantomiming them behind the kid’s back who was reading to her.”

He says that was when he learned he could make people laugh -- make teachers laugh at him. Meanwhile she was trying to nonchalantly stop him while suppressing her laughter.

“You need to be able to listen,” Colby says. “You need to be able to react constantly to what another person says." - COURTESY OF JON COLBY
  • Courtesy of Jon Colby
  • “You need to be able to listen,” Colby says. “You need to be able to react constantly to what another person says."

The Indiana University graduate is a regular performer at ComedySportz Indianapolis, where he got his start in improv and currently serves as assistant artistic director. Colby has also taken the stage at Second City, ComedySportz Chicago and in Chicago. And he holds down a day job as a teacher at Fishers High School. His classes include mass media, media history, speech and theater.

He says that successful improv performers must stay alert in order to deliver a quip on the spot. It’s all about the timing and quick repartee.

“You need to be able to listen,” Colby explains. “You need to be able to react constantly to what another person says. So often people listen to the first part of a conversation and then it sparks something in their mind they want to say, so they tune out the person speaking and are instead just waiting for a chance to jump in and say what they want to add.”

But he says the key is to break that habit. Listen fully, intently to the entire dialogue. “We miss out on a lot when we do that; and sometimes it’s still a struggle even for me to do it,” he says. “Instinctively we want to move the conversation forward.”

The benefits of improv go beyond one’s ability to be funny on stage.

“It makes people more confident,” he says. “It makes people better listeners, better at observing situations around them. I think it makes people more aware of their own reactions.”

Funny Science

According to Colby, there’s science to support the benefits of laughter in learning as well. He says it’s proven that when a person laughs, his or her body releases dopamine and it causes a chain reaction of physiological effects that cause the brain’s dendrites to want to branch out, looking to make more connections -- to learn and grow. So people are more receptive to learning when they’re laughing and having fun, which is another plus to using improve as often as possible throughout life.

The quick-witted comedic style can even be a way for people to improve their communications skills and help boost their confidence in social interactions, he says.

“In improv, you have to observe what’s going on in order to make a choice, so when you are more observant, you’re also more self-aware,” Colby explains. “That can help people in job interviews, or on dates. It can also help people already in a job attain a position of power, because I think people good at improv are natural leaders and natural teachers, because they learn to work with people.”

You can catch witty man Jon Colby's improv class at Clowes Memorial Hall at 7:30 p.m. this evening.  - COURTESY OF JON COLBY
  • Courtesy of Jon Colby
  • You can catch witty man Jon Colby's improv class at Clowes Memorial Hall at 7:30 p.m. this evening.

This is among the reasons various businesses and schools, such as Eli Lilly & Company, AT&T and Butler University, have brought Colby in to teach employees and students the art of improv.

He previously held a workshop in conjunction with Clowes’ education department that instructed teachers on how to incorporate improv into the classroom, and it’s why Clowes invited him back for a workshop open to the community.

“He’s a local expert, someone knowledgeable on the subject matter,” says James Cramer, community engagement manager at Clowes Hall. “Jon being a Second City alum and being right here in our area seemed to be a really good fit.

Colby hopes that workshop attendees will leave with the ability to add levity to their lives and stress-relieving and coping strategies too.

“It’s just an introduction to comedy and to humor,” Colby says. “But hopefully it gives people a tool that they can use observationally in their regular lives to help recognize situations where they can inject humor and be a little more lighthearted without being unprofessional or out of place.”

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