Laughter and Education: Dalton State Professor Uses Humor to Teach
January 22, 2015
“It was one of those ‘epiphanal,’ ethical, life-transforming, eureka, ‘ah-ha,’ light-bulb-over-the- head moments.”
At age 8, Jerry Drye visited a barber shop in Paris, Tenn. with his father for a routine haircut. There were dozens of men sitting around in folding chairs, spinning yarns and talking about women and football.
A gentleman got in the barber’s chair, but everyone in the room could see that he was bald.
Without hesitating, young Drye asked him, “Are you going to get a little taken off the top?”
“Everybody laughed except my dad,” Drye said. “It was a powerful moment because it was the first time, in my recollection, that I said something to be funny on purpose and people laughed.”
Thus began his foray into comedy.
“From that moment, I started a life of research, investigation and practice,” he continued. “I read everything I could that was funny or that was about funny. I watched comedians, movies, bought records of Bob Newhart.”
Drye, an Associate Professor of Communication at Dalton State College, has had an extensive career as an orator and humorist.
While he participated in theatrical productions and public speaking throughout high school, even being voted “wittiest” of his senior class, it wasn’t until 1979 that he did his first stand-up event. He got a call from a man at a local church who was looking for someone to entertain at a banquet.
“I was around 20 years old,” Drye said. “I just told stories and talked about my life, and they seemed to find that funny.”
He continued to speak at other churches, schools and organizations. All the while, he honed his comedic skills to create his own brand of humor, or his “cornucopia of comedic styles.”
Drye has always leaned toward observational humor, storytelling, one-liners, wordplay and puns. The crux of his work, however, is made up of material that makes you think.
“I think the term ‘humorist’ is probably more of an accurate term than comedian. When you think of a stand-up comic, you think, oh, well, they’re going to get up and tell some jokes,” he says. “A humorist is a person who uses humor to make you think, to motivate and inspire.”
But he doesn’t get bogged down with labels, and he’s fine with being called “humorist, comedian, comic, ‘jokemeister,’ ‘yukkster,’ laugh broker, whatever you want to call me,” he says.
However he’s identified, he maintains that humor is a valuable tool.
“Humor can be used to elevate, to inspire, to transform, to motivate. When it is, it’s marvelous. That’s my superpower, because I can’t fly. That, and power-eating,” Drye laughs.
And he’s used his “superpower” for many things, from leading workshops on humor and stress relief for organizations, to television and radio. Drye has served as a station manager, creative director, news director, program director and sales person for multiple radio and TV stations in Tennessee.
He realized early on that he had not just one, but two passions in life: laughter and education.
“I’ve always felt, even from a very early age, that there’s something particularly satisfying and meaningful and enjoyable about being in a college classroom and trying to inspire, motivate, transform, teach,” he says. “I think that was always a part of the overall dream that was being nurtured through comedy.”
Drye took his first class at Murray State University in Kentucky in 1978…and graduated in 2004.
“I used to tell people I was in the 26th year of a four-year program,” he says.
Drye married his wife, Jennifer, in 1979, and decided to take a break from academia to start a family. It wasn’t until his daughter and son, Meagan and Zachary, were college-age that he went back to school.
“I thought, ‘you know, I can’t let the youngsters pass me by,’” Drye says. “I also wanted to be an example about the importance of education. I’m a first-generation college graduate.”
Drye earned his bachelor’s degree in organizational communication and completed his master’s degree 18 months later.
His first teaching position was at Murray State, where he began as a graduate teaching assistant.
“I was just absolutely in love with that process. It confirmed for me my earlier thoughts that it would really be cool to take my communication background, my experience as a speaker and as an entertainer, and meld that into this education experience. To be an ‘edu-tainer,’ if you will.”
He later applied for a lecturer position at South Carolina’s Clemson University, where he taught for three years. Then the opportunity at Dalton State presented itself.
He’s been at the College six years and has taught Fundamentals of Speech, Humor Communication, and most recently Organizational Communication.
“To get people to laugh and learn at the same time is really a cool gig,” he says. “It’s the best of all possible worlds.”
Dr. Mary Nielsen, Dean of the School of Liberal Arts, lauds Drye for his ability to connect with students.
“Jerry Drye is a student-centered instructor who has the ability to make his classes feel—in the words of one student—like ‘a mini-family and not just another class so we were more apt to talk and ask questions not just of him but of each other as well,’” she said.
“I am in awe of his commitment and support of his colleagues and our students, a commitment demonstrated in action, through his participation in student activities such as Food for Finals and Faculty Hot Seats and through his attendance at presentations, theatrical productions, and music events organized by colleagues throughout the campus,” she continued.
“He is simply one of the most motivational, inspiring, and entertaining colleagues with whom I have ever had the privilege to work.”
Brooklyn Cole Herrera, one of Drye’s former students, appreciates the relaxed atmosphere he creates for his classes.
“His teaching style makes it easy for me to learn because he has a way of relating class concepts to memorable and entertaining stories,” she said. “I always looked forward to his class because it didn't feel like class, yet I was learning so much related to my major.”
Drye is also working on completing his doctorate, which he hopes to complete in the next year or so. His dissertation is titled “Humor as an Engagement Device for the Adult Learner.”
It’s clear that Drye never tires of learning about the mechanics, applications and theories of humor. He has multiple bookshelves in his office jam-packed with books written by comedians and scholars alike.
“It’s been my life’s work to be a practitioner and a student of the art and craft of humor,” he said.
“I have stood many times in front of people, both formally and informally, and tried to make people laugh, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t,” he says. “But I still feel the same way as I did when I was eight years old in the barber shop.
“It’s like a drug, in a way. But it’s more than that. There’s the self-gratification I get, but there’s also the gratification of lifting somebody’s spirits or making them feel better for a moment.”
Drye lives by his tried-and-true mantra, a phrase he created that perfectly sums up his outlook on life: “Laughter is not a luxury— it is a necessity.”
“We all get to the point where we don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Drye says. “Well, if I’ve got the choice, I’m going to laugh. I’m going to laugh so hard I cry.”