Recently, after misjudging a yellow’s timing, I unintentionally but flagrantly ran a red light right in front of a cop. Before he could even flash his lights, I’d pulled over on the other side of the intersection, license and registration in hand. A few minutes later, I was back on my way with a $500 ticket and a point dangling over my license like a sword of Damocles. To keep the infraction off my record and hidden from my insurance, I’d have to complete something I’d only ever encountered in sitcom B stories or the atrocious 1985 comedy Moving Violations: traffic school.
After prematurely mourning a Saturday sacrificed to hours of dry lecturing from a listless civil servant, I was relieved to discover that modern traffic schools can also be done entirely online. But as I scrolled through the list of DMV-approved schools, a new problem emerged. While other large states like Texas or Florida offer 57 and 33 school options, respectively, my state, California, has 2,977.
This glut comes courtesy of California’s uniquely permissive and loosely regulated traffic violation school (TVS) laws. In making it so easy and affordable for anyone to establish a DMV-compliant course — one that might perhaps cater to a minority community or one of the 220 languages spoken in the state — lawmakers also opened California up to profiteers looking to siphon easy money from the over 670,000 drivers who take a TVS class annually.
An Assembly Transportation Committee report featured in an April Sacramento Bee story shows that most of these 2,977 schools come from five companies saturating the list with cloned courses. One company alone, the Maynard Group, is responsible for almost 1,300. These duplicates game the DMV list’s daily randomization and increase the likelihood of a company’s class appearing at the top, vastly improving the odds of a sale. Imagine how easy it would be to win the lottery if half the balls had your number.
List placement is just a foot in the door. To close the deal, you need an angle. Unsurprisingly, most schools touted low cost (“3 DOLLARS CHEAP COURSE”) or simplicity (“2 FAST 2 EASY”) in their names. But as I scrolled through my options, a surprisingly prevalent third theme emerged: comedy.
As a stand-up fan who loves to laugh, this revelation thrilled me, but my hopes of catching an alt-comedy fave doing tight fives on right-of-way were quickly dashed. Generically named courses like “FUNNY FOR LESS MONEY” and “COMEDYEXPRESSTRAFFICSCHOOL” linked to equally bland placeholder sites, devoid of anything but recurring stock photos and copy that offhandedly mentioned comedy without ever attempting to employ it.
Ditching the DMV list for an old-fashioned Google query slightly improved my prospects of a good class, but the larger mystery about this weird corner of the comedy world only deepened. My research revealed that traffic schools have been sugar-coating their curriculum with jokes since their inception. The Hollywood Improv, a stand-up institution, has been in the traffic edutainment business since 1980, when lessons were still held in person at their Melrose Avenue club, and other noteworthy SoCal clubs like Flappers and the Ice House had periods where they hosted classes. Had I been around during L.A.’s mid-’90s traffic-school heyday, I might’ve been able to attend a Lettuce Amuse U course led by Adam Carolla, but with that school long since closed and Adam off making feature-length boomer tantrums, I’d have to settle for a pale imitation.
I ultimately decided to matriculate at World Famous Comedy Traffic School since it was “powered by” Funny or Die, Comedy Central, and the Laugh Factory, institutions that had all successfully earned laughs from me in the past. The school’s home page promised “hilarious comedy breaks” with videos of David Spade stand-up, “Toy Vehicles GONE Bad,” and “Baseball Follies!” But what sealed the deal was the photo of comedian Regan Burns stamped with a word-bubble guarantee that I’d “laugh [my] mouse off.”
I fired up the course, opting to splurge on the video instruction upgrade. This $5 add-on would bring the total cost my class to around $30, but that was a small price to pay to get CHiPs’ very own Erik Estrada steering me through the material. Erik opened with a self-deprecating joke about me possibly being too young to recognize him before juggernauting headfirst into the curriculum. Had I known this comedy crumb would be the only levity before 15 minutes of clinical driver’s manual recitation, I’d have savored it.
Erik and his “funny friends” co-hosts began to drag, so I scrolled down to the text version of the material to see if more fun could be found there. A comedy break in the middle of the wall of text suggested I check out the linked Obama episode of Between Two Ferns where “Zack [sic] interviews the president!”
With 19 more sections and a final ahead of me, I decided to jump ahead to the next section. There, Erik skipped the comedy foreplay and dove right into the second lesson. Things were even more grim in the text below. Captain Traffic, the Clippy-esque cartoon-superhero school mascot who’d been tagging along through the course, announcing breaks and quizzes, started delivering jokes of his own. While there were a few vehicular arrows in his joke quiver, a lot of the material was just about how much he hates his wife.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, but was nonetheless disappointed when the first signs of joke thievery began to appear. During one of our comedy breaks, Captain Traffic flagrantly plagiarized a beloved witticism from a world-renowned comic named Joker: “People used to laugh at me when I say ‘I want to be a comedian,’” proclaimed Cap. “Well nobody’s laughing now.”
Before the captain’s shameless appropriation and misogyny could ruin my day, I recalled another bit of Joker material about comedy being subjective and let the negativity wash past me. Just because I wasn’t this school’s target audience doesn’t mean there weren’t folks out there enjoying the “Best Gymnastics Fails EVER!” video break.
The section quizzes were laughably easy, so I stopped reading the coursework and just blazed through the chapters, stopping only to gawk in disbelief at each comedy break. Forty joyless minutes after enrolling, I passed the final and graduated World Famous Comedy Traffic School immensely unsatisfied. I had fulfilled my obligation to the state, but things felt far from finished. I still had so many questions about the Lynchian world of comedy traffic school. More important, Regan Burns had lied to me!
Over the coming days, I reached out to the comedy traffic school–affiliated comics I’d encountered, hoping to find clarity. It quickly became clear that this was not work their reps were keen to have associated with their clients.
“That’s quite a bit of trivia you dug up,” wrote Regan Burns’s PR contact. “I can’t reach him,” lamented Adam Carolla’s publicist. I thought I’d finally caught a lucky break when Erik Estrada’s rep saw my 717 area code during our phone conversation and noted that he too hailed from central Pennsylvania. But the hometown camaraderie was short-lived before he made it abundantly clear that there was no way I’d be getting an Estrada exclusive for this story.
Desperate for any sort of insight, I gave Google a final deep dive and chanced upon an in-person Culver City Saturday class led by a comedian listed only as “J.P.” I rang the venue, left my number and a message with the receptionist, and crossed my fingers that J.P. would return my call.
My Hail Mary paid off, and a week later, at his insistence, Jonathan “J.P.” Peasenelli and I were talking comedy traffic school face-to-face at a diner. J.P. began the conversation by telling me he’s in a “love-hate relationship” with comedy. A seasoned “on and off” stand-up vet who cut his teeth in the ’90s and works in solar energy by day, he picked up his first comedy traffic school gig over 15 years ago after a fellow open mic-er tipped him off that teaching courses was an easy, paid shortcut to earning stage time at the hosting club.
The work so agreed with J.P. that he’s been teaching comedy traffic classes almost every weekend since that first job. The venues have changed more than the material over the years, and when J.P. claimed he’s got his eight-hour lessons essentially memorized down to the minute, I believed him.
When I asked how his school’s $49 classes can compete with online courses a fraction of their time and cost, J.P. acknowledged the disparity with a shrug, before remarking that “you don’t get online what I give in the classroom.” The numbers seem to back that up. His rooms average “15 to 20 people each week,” with some students coming from as far as Long Beach and Santa Clarita.
When I asked about the comedy portion of his lessons, J.P. explained that he prefers to let the jokes “come off the top of [his] head” rather than go in with planned material. “You go in like ‘I’m a comedian,’ and then people are like ‘Tell me a joke. Are you funny?’” he explained. “I don’t do that. I’m a comedian who happens to be teaching a traffic school class. If I happen to be funny, wow!” As for his teaching philosophy and classroom protocol, he said, “You have to take control of the class right away. You can do it by being big and boisterous or being friendly. I find it easier to be friendly. I’ll walk in and start laughing and joking around with people.”
The longer we chatted, the more his choice in this binary decision made sense. There are plenty of comics J.P.’s age with chips on their shoulder about the way their careers panned out, but he was an effortlessly affable and positive guy who’d found a way to incorporate his passion into his work. Moreover, his dedication to the serious side of the job was apparent, and he expressed hope that he’s helped save some lives. Bolstering that case were the unprompted but effusive letters he showed me from former students who claim to have changed their reckless ways thanks to his teachings.
J.P.’s big heart made it all the harder to hear that the schools only pay him about $120 to teach an eight-hour class, barely above California’s minimum wage and a pittance for L.A.’s cost of living. The traffic-school industry, like every other once-public service gone private, has seemingly been rendered an unwieldy clusterfuck by runaway capitalism and lack of funding.
“That’s what business is. Why does everybody have to cry?” complain TVS operators like Derick Maynard, the guy who flooded the DMV list with 1,300 bogus companies, when their shady practices are called into question. While they grouse, a steady stream of income continues traveling to them, while the backbone of their organizations, criminally underpaid workers like J.P., return each week ready to put in the day’s labor with smiles on their faces.
“You millennials never want to do stuff in person,” J.P. had ribbed after I’d proposed a quick phone interview during the call that preceded our meetup. He wasn’t wrong. But if anything positive has come from this whole traffic-school ordeal, it’s that our lovely diner chat will have me questioning that impulse going forward. J.P. correctly called comedy traffic school instructors like himself a “dying breed,” and it seems best to catch them while they’re still around. So should you ever find yourself looking to skirt a license point, don’t make the same mistake I did and immediately veer toward the path of least resistance. You probably won’t find yourself dying of laughter in J.P.’s class, but it’ll undoubtedly be a funnier and more memorable experience than scrolling past ancient fail videos peppered throughout a digital textbook.