Lawyer jokes: Law professor discovers stand up career

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By John Foren

Legal News

Heard the one about the law professor who's a comic?

Hey, it's no joke, and Don Petersen -- high school underachiever/Harvard Law School graduate and professor/trial lawyer/sports attorney -- isn't a punch line.

Petersen, 46, spends his days as an associate professor at Cooley Law School's Grand Rapids campus, teaching about secure transactions and property law. Dry stuff, right?

On some nights and weekends, though, it's Don Petersen: Attorney of Laughs (as a promo for him says). You'll find Petersen doing standup comedy in a west Michigan bar or club or anyplace where a few dozen people (or less) need to be entertained.

Petersen is sitting in his Cooley office, surrounded by photos of the old Tiger Stadium -- he's contributed to books on former Tiger players and is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, which crunches stats and looks into the sport's history.

He's still buzzing from his Valentine's weekend gigs at a bowling alley in Ionia and a church in Centreville.

"I had a great weekend," he says.

Those don't sound like headlining-in-Vegas type gigs. But to Petersen, like any comic, that's not the point and neither is the fact he may make only $100 a performance.

The shows were gold because the audiences loved him and his routine (anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour) went over well.

"You don't do it for the money. You do it because when it works it's a huge, huge ego boost," says Petersen, who's played all over the Midwest and as far as the Flamingo Hotel in Nevada and was trained at Second City in Detroit.

"It's a way to get away from law school, it's a way to get out and relax," he says. "I think it's good for me. It can be very humbling, the silence (when a joke bombs). But like this past weekend, it was great."

Also, like any comedian, he loves to recount his jokes -- what worked and what didn't, along with some of his favorites and how he came up with them.

There's the one about being asked to label his urine specimen at his doctor's office. "So I wrote lemonade."

Or meeting his wife's religious family at a cookout: "How was I to know BYOB meant Bring Your Own Bible."

And how he shaped his material for the church show by throwing in some references to the Bible.

His humor is clean, which helps him get a lot of gigs, though he'll voice the occasional double entendre. Petersen averages at least a couple shows a month, though he could do more if his family and schedule permitted.

Students and colleagues say they only see glimpses of his comedy background in their day-to-day dealings with him but that it's an asset in the classroom.

"We know him as this hardworking, serious guy. You have to buckle down to go to Harvard," says student Kate Johnson, who's seen Petersen perform. "To know him from this completely different personality, it's refreshing."

Petersen is no pushover as a professor. Student comments about him on RateMyProfessors.com reflect how tough he can be.

Johnson said while Petersen is demanding, he slips in enough of his natural humor to make things interesting. The course subjects can be pretty dry, she says, "but there are moments when he gets going on the jokes, you give your brain a break."

What's the difference between Petersen in a lecture hall and a comedy stage?

"In class, he's serious, then tells a joke," Johnson says. "When he was up in front of an audience he just kept going with the jokes. It was really different to see him not go back to talking about financing statements."

Nelson Miller, an associate dean at Cooley who heads the Grand Rapids campus, says Petersen brings his stage skills, such as timing and concentration, to his teaching.

"He can read an audience," Miller says.

He recalls being struck by Petersen's stage demeanor after he introduced him for a routine at a local benefit. Petersen immediately grabbed the microphone and connected with the audience, Miller says.

"I thought, 'He is a pro.'"

Like everything else he's accomplished, Petersen acquired his comedy skills through sheer drive and determination. A former comedian friend, Gerry McAvoy, calls him the epitome of a self-made man.

"He's a tireless worker," says McAvoy, who remembered Petersen working all day at his law practice in Detroit then hopping in the car with him to drive to comedy open mic nights all over the state.

Petersen largely grew up in Detroit and Lansing in surroundings that hardly seemed conducive to humor. His father was absent and in jail, his mother forced to use food stamps.

He displays his 10th grade report card in his Cooley office: All D's except for a B in orchestra.

Things clicked at Lansing Community College, though, and his drive and ambition became clear. He set his sights on attending the University of Chicago, was rejected and then camped out in the admission dean's office until he was encouraged to keep trying.

He received his undergraduate degree in economics from there and moved on to Harvard, where he eventually taught, besides getting his law degree.

Petersen started his own Detroit law practice and was doing well when he saw a newspaper ad in the mid-1990's for the Second City Conservatory, a kind of comedy school. He had never done stand-up before but says he was always the class cut-up and, divorced after a brief first marriage, was at a point to give it a try.

"I view it as almost going through a midlife crisis," he says.

Petersen calls the comedy boot camp "the most difficult thing I ever did, by far." He maintained his business law firm during the day, then worked on comedy at night with his fellow students.

The lessons involved offbeat exercises (such as learning the expressions of a zoo animal and acting them out), doing improvisation, and finally helping to write an entire show.

Out of the original class of more than 120, only 5 or 6 people made it all the way to graduation in 1999, he says.

Once he finished, Petersen had the performing bug and took on stand-up, while always maintaining his legal career. He did well at both, too.

He became an attorney for several famous Michigan athletes, including Charles Woodson, the University of Michigan Heisman Trophy winner and star NFL player.

And he did comedy gigs as many as 48 weeks a year, often keeping up on legal work on his laptop while on the road.

Petersen -- with some regret in his voice -- says he's had to cut back on all of that since he has a young family (he and wife Jennifer have a 3-year-old daughter, with another baby on the way). He just turned down a gig in Tennessee, he says.

He's also had to deal with health issues. Petersen had two surgeries in late 2008 to relieve fluid from his brain.

Law may always be his career and expertise, but comedy is never far from his mind. He likens communicating with a bored class of students to trying to connect with a jury.

Mostly, though, he's just thinking of ways to make people laugh. Like the joke he told the church group about his honeymoon. That one, he says with a chuckle, didn't go over well.

Published: Mon, Mar 8, 2010

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