Jeff Justice has created his own sort of educational-comedy Empire, complete with instructional DVDs, corporate seminars and authoring a book on the benefits of humor in everyday life.
In his spare time he’s created a series of continuing education online videos for court reporters on managing stress with laughter.
If his name sounds familiar, it’s most likely because of six-week comedy course that Justice has been running since 1990: “Jeff Justice’s Comedy Workshoppe”. What started as a few pointers for fellow comedians has morphed into a lesson in self-confidence and presentation for everyone from timid school teachers to Spanx founder Sara Blakely.
Even if he hasn’t made you laugh, someone he taught probably has. It’s quite the impressive resume for any comedian, especially considering Justice didn’t even start pursuing comedy until he was 30 years old.
“Everyone I knew said, ‘You’re gonna become a comedian? What’re you nuts?’” Justice laughs.
His first ever appearance on a comedy stage was in Atlanta at the former Excelsior Mill. With $10, a slice of pizza and free beer as way of payment and the crowd’s laughter buzzing in his ears, Justice was on cloud nine. He promptly moved back to New York where he auditioned at the Comic Strip and spent the next six years working as a comedian.
Then he fell in love with a woman down south. After years of nurturing a long-distance relationship, he finally moved back. Justice kept working as a standup headliner, during what he calls the beginning of live comedy’s resurgence from a slump in the 1970s.
“There were no one-night comedy clubs around and we were going into places where they’d never seen standup comedy before,” says Justice. “We were the comedy gods!”
By the time the ’90s rolled around, things were getting ready to change for Justice’s comedy career. Working a headliner standup act, traveling and performing around the country, Justice often frequented Jerry Farber’s comedy club. Justice couldn’t help noticing that some of the younger comedians were making obvious mistakes with their construction and delivery.
Once he offered some pointers, Justice saw that the performers were instantly getting bigger laughs. The young comedians took notice as well.
“And about eight of them got together back in 1990 and said, ‘Would you do us a favor and put together a class for us?’”
It was supposed to be a one-time favor. The students read Justice’s lessons off of four, Xeroxed sheets stapled together. As their training came to an end, Justice was struck with the idea to hold a “graduation” for his group of eight; a night for them to show off their newly acquired skills in front of friends and family. The show went off without a hitch, but then something unexpected happened.
“Their friends came up to me,” recalls Justice. “Their friends that were lawyers and business people and house husbands and normal everyday folks, and said, ‘Do you ever do this type of thing for normal people?’ Two-thousand and four hundred students later, I’m still doin’ it.”
Today, Justice holds five, typically sold-out classes a year at the Basement Theater on West Wieuca in Atlanta. Now there are 20 students per class, up from the original eight. It’s clearly no longer just aspiring comedians who seek Justice out.
“It’s business people who want to get better at presentations. It’s people crossing it off their bucket lists,” says Justice, “It’s people who, the idea of standing onstage in front of 280 people scares the hell out of ‘em. So that’s why they want to do it, to get over their fear.”
One student took the Workshoppe three times, due to his truly debilitating stage fright. After the student confessed that the first class hadn’t conquered his fear, Justice made it his mission to get him onstage.
He offered to let the man take as many classes as he needed until he got results. When he finally made it up in front of an audience, neither he nor his therapist could believe it.
“It was wonderful to be able to get him up there,” says Justice. “Most people think stage fright is being nervous about getting onstage – everybody’s nervous, I’m nervous! I go, ‘What the heck am I doing onstage!’ And then people laugh and I go, ‘Ahh, that’s what I’m doing out here.’”
Justice differentiates his workshop from other comedy courses by highlighting that he, unlike some teachers, personally works with students to rewrite their jokes. He pledges that he won’t let anyone onstage and not be funny.
This means he’s forced to spend hours of time outside of class.
Just recently, a student called, panicked about the quality of her routine. Justice spent 20 minutes with her, talking her down and sorting through the material she had. He estimates that, over the course of the class, he dedicates about 50 to 60 hours working on material.
“The number one comment I get from students is, ‘This is cheaper than therapy,’” explains Justice, “because I make them laugh at themselves and that’s a big part of what the class is. You just see them change. I’ve seen people take the class and next time I see ‘em they’ve lost 30-40 pounds. It’s a huge confidence builder.”
In addition, Justice travels around the world for corporate events – part-motivational speaker, part entertainer and part educator. He makes employees laugh while teaching them how to use humor to better communicate in business. Yet, he still counts the “Comedy Workshoppe” as the most meaningful of all his endeavors.
“To me, there’s nothing better than watching someone walk through that door the first day, kinda nervous and unsure, then six weeks later they’re onstage having the night of their lives. It really is a life changing experience for a lot of people,” says Justice.
One particular encounter stands out in his mind.
After a number of years, Justice began to doubt if the class was helping anyone in a tangible, long-term way. One night, he was in a video store with his two young daughters who were noisily playing in the aisles. As he scanned the tapes, he silently prayed for a sign that all his effort and energy wasn’t being spent in vain.
“I’m just really trying to decide what do and across the room, this guy walks over and says, ‘I know you don’t remember me (I actually did) … of course I took your comedy class about eight years ago, and I just wanted you to know that every good thing in my life is a direct result of me taking your class,” Justice recalls the man saying. “My life’s been wonderful and I just wanted to thank you.’ He shakes my hand, turns around and walks out. I got chills.”