“It’s goofy hour,” proclaimed Fran Hament, one of the cut-ups at the Jewish Home, ready for another session of the Esther Weintraub Comedy Clinic.
As the 10 budding comics — average age: 80-something — wheeled, rolled and ambled into the S.F. Jewish Home’s cultural center, improv comedy instructor Mick Laugs greeted all with a smile. It wasn’t the last smile of the evening.
The Jewish Home has offered the Tuesday night improv class since January, and most of the regulars have never missed it. There may have been no brick wall façade, no two-drink minimum and no tipsy hecklers. But the laughs kept coming anyway.
“You don’t have to be funny,” Laugs explained to his students. “You just have to be present. And nothing is a mistake. Mistakes are gifts.”
The brainchild of local standup comic and Kung Pao Kosher Comedy maven Lisa Geduldig, the Esther Weintraub Comedy Clinic was named for the late Jewish Home resident who actually launched a late-in-life standup comedy career. Geduldig put together a pilot program three years ago, and with funding secured, she re-launched the clinic this year.
Class began with warm-ups. Laugs had everyone try a few simple headrolls. “Creak, creak, creak,” cracked Rudy Hooremans, one of the clinic regulars and a natural comedian, as he swiveled his head around.
Laugs then asked all to breathe deeply. “Breathe in love,” he said. “I’d love to find my handbag,” quipped Lila Weinberg from her wheelchair.
When asked how he was feeling after the breathing exercise, Hooremans replied, “Aerated.”
An experienced comedy professional, Laugs sees improv as akin to yoga. “You put yourself in an uncomfortable position, and you get mastery. It’s embracing the unknown. But this is the toughest improv class I ever taught.”
That’s because most of his students at the Home face physical limitations. “They’re immobile,” said Laugs. “Normally I would get a class physically engaged. That’s not possible here. But this is such a heartfelt group. And there is some very funny stuff.”
The funny stuff took off with the first assignment. Laugs asked each participant to have a conversation with his or her neighbor in gibberish. “I’m not fluent in gibberish,” quipped one.
After a few minutes of comic cacophony, Laugs moved on to the next exercise. He asked the group to come up with pairs of oddball names and have volunteers engage in a nutty conversation.
The first two suggested names were Uncle Harvey and Coochie Coo. Hament played Uncle Harvey while her friend Hooremans landed the role of Coochie Coo.
Next offering: Trapper John and The Codfish.
The laughs went on, well past the scheduled stopping point. But no one wanted to leave. “We don’t have to be back in our prison until 11 o’clock,” laughed Hooremans.
Wrapping up class, Laugs had everyone express the one word that summed up their feelings about the evening. Most were genial, but resident Mark Steiner had more devilish things in mind. His one word: “Codfish.”
And with that, class adjourned until next time.
Why does Molly Spirn, 84, come to the comedy clinic? “It makes me use my head,” said the native New Yorker, who is confined to a wheelchair. “I always smile a lot.”
Added Hament, “People who never thought they could be loose, get loose.”
Geduldig said she has funding for the Comedy Clinic through most of the summer, but after that all bets are off. She’s hoping someone in the Jewish community will see the benefits of the program and swoop in with a generous check.
Meanwhile, after saying goodnight to all, Laugs readied to leave.
“I have a soft spot for older people,” he said, when asked why he takes time to teach the lass. “There is a sweet cohesion in this group. And they tell me the things we work on stay with them.
“One woman told me, ‘We talked gibberish all week!'”