Admission Counselor Takes Stage as Stand-up Comedian
By day, Lori Giarnella produces recruitment materials the university sends to college-bound high school students and travels across the country interviewing potential Carnegie Mellon freshmen for the Office of Admission. But when quitting time rolls around, she trades in her business suit and admissions packet for a spotlight andwith any lucksome laughs as she braves the world of stand-up comedy.
According to Giarnella, the idea of being a comedian wasn't something that struck her from out of the blue one day. "I think it has been building up my whole life," she said. "When I was little, I was always kind of silly, always joking around with my family and friends."
As she grew up, Giarnella's sense of humor stayed with her. "In high school, it was such a great compliment when people would tell me I was funny," she said. "One time, I did a presentation in a class with one of my friends and one of the popular girls came up to me and said 'I never would have known it because you're so quiet, but you're so funny!' I just walked on air the rest of the day."
Giarnella graduated from high school, and later Carnegie Mellon, but never pursued her love of getting laughs. Last January, though, she saw a listing for a comedy class at the Community College of Allegheny College and decided to take a chance.
"I said, 'What the heck? I'll take the class. My dreams might be crushed but my bankbook will be intact because it's only $50,'" she recalls.
The class turned out to be a turning point for Giarnella. While comedy can't really be taught, the class covered basics like developing ideas for jokes and fleshing out material, understanding the set-up and the punch, and handling a microphone on stage. The most important thing the class did, though, was get Giarnella on a stage. As a "final exam," everyone in the class performed at a local comedy club before an open mic night. Parents and friends of the students were invited to watch the new comedians in action. Even though she knew the people in the audience, Giarnella said being on stage wasn't easy.
"It was terrifying to have to stand up there and tell your jokes to people," she said. "I was terrified from the moment I woke up."
Her terror and worry proved to be unfoundedher set went off without a hitch. When she left the stage to meet her family and friends, a local amateur comic who arrived early for the club's open mic night approached her and said that he was impressed with her act. He invited her to an open mic night later that week. One thing led to another, and eventually Giarnella was performing once or twice a month at local open mic nights.
Some comedians make up the experiences they talk about, but Giarnella says most of her material comes from real life. She does mostly clean, PG-rated comedy, covering everything from commercials that don't make sense ("Like when kids make messes and the moms don't get mad," she said, "they just whip out the paper towels") to self-deprecating humor about her life in Pittsburgh. "Sometimes I just see thingscommercials that don't make sense or a weird story on the news that makes me think, 'What are they talking about?'and I try to write a new joke," she said.
And while she might perform from time to time at the Improv at the Waterfront, she's definitely not one to get up on stage and wing it. "I'm extremely anal, so I write [the set] out word-for-word and reorganize things. Then I stand in front of the mirror and practice," said Giarnella.
Comedy is something Giarnella does just for fun right now, but since high school her dream has been to be on the hit comedy show "Saturday Night Live." "That's the ultimate dream," she said. "But I don't know how close I'll get to that."
Giarnella, who admits to being quiet and shy around people she hasn't spent much time with, says that coworkers or people who don't know her well are usually surprised that she does stand-up. "Even some of my relatives say 'Lori does comedy? But she's so quiet!'" she said. "I guess it's one of those 'still waters run deep' things."
Although she's quiet on the outside, Giarnella is coming into her own as a comedian. Her best experience on stage came at a recent contest at the Funnybone Comedy Club in Station Square when she advanced to the final round of competition. "When they announced my name, I got a standing ovation. Random people were coming up to me and making references to my jokes. It was a rock star moment," she said.
While she didn't win the competition between 50-60 comedians, she did place in the top 10. The Funnybone contest isn't the only success she's had, though. She placed first in the preliminary round of a contest at The Improv and went on to the finals there. Six of her jokes will be published this April in a book of jokes from female comedians called "She's So Funny." But perhaps nothing beats the first time she was recognized in public.
"It was at Doc's (in Shadyside). We went to happy hour and I was leaving and some guy said, 'Hey, I think I know you. What's your name?'" she recounts. "I thought it was a bad pickup line. But he said 'I saw you at The Improv this week. You were really good.' I said 'Oh my God, thank you!'
"Then I skipped the whole way to my car."