Illustration: Marta Sevilla

As midterms approached in the fall, Jeremy Bernius ’22 had his hands full with class assignments, including one for the most unusual course in his schedule, “The Art of Stand-Up.” The assignment was to create a five-minute set to perform on the theme of the week: controversy. Bernius wrote a routine on suicide.

He chose dark humor based on positive feedback he’d received about his ability to make light of difficult topics; he drew inspiration from comedian Joan Rivers, who noted comedy helps people through hard times. Bernius focused on his struggles with mental health. 

At the November performance, Bernius began with a trigger warning, before letting loose with graphic descriptions of extraneous discomforts that occur during suicide attempts. Laughs erupted from the cluster of a few dozen students packed into the small coffee-shop space. “Getting those jokes that landed, getting those laughs — that was an amazing, amazing experience,” he said.

Bernius and eight other Princeton students honed their comedy crafts during the fall course taught by Maysoon Zayid, a comedian, actress, and disability advocate. Zayid joined the University as a Princeton Arts Fellow, a two-year residency with the opportunity to teach. “I wanted the first class I taught at Princeton to be stand-up comedy because, of all my gigs, being a stand-up comedian is still by far my favorite,” she said. 

Zayid believes performing is the best way to learn, so from day one students were challenged to get on stage and tell jokes. Each week students came prepared with short sets exploring themes including politics, clean comedy, one-liners, and family. Zayid also assigned the study of comedians who are masters of the weekly themes, from Carol Burnett to Chris Rock. 

The students performed their sets during the weekly three-hour class and provided critiques and feedback for their classmates. 

Zayid said she hoped the students would leave the class with the potential to perform as comedians, even though she’s “pretty sure they’re going to become mathematicians, engineers, and doctors instead.” For the final exam, students performed in a sold-out show at the Wallace Theater. The show was open to the public. Bernius closed with a revamped version of his suicide set. 

Watching the students grow as they create has been one of Zayid’s favorite parts of the experience. “The most important part of stand-up comedy is telling your story,” she said.