Yale alumni move up in the world of comedy

John Hodgman ’94, the newest regular contributor to “The Daily Show,” credits his Yale education with teaching him the art of timing a joke — even though he spent his hours studying Shakespeare instead of performing comedy.

“I was profoundly influenced by the incredibly withering and perfect comic timing of Harold Bloom,” he said. “And I say that with the utmost respect for his intellect.”

Comedian Lewis Black performed in Woolsey Hall on Friday as a part of the Winter Arts Festival. YSAC sold about 2,000 tickets for the event.
Matt Lucas
Comedian Lewis Black performed in Woolsey Hall on Friday as a part of the Winter Arts Festival. YSAC sold about 2,000 tickets for the event.

Yale is better known for producing politicians than comedians, but Lewis Black DRA ’77 — who performed at the University on Friday as a part of the Winter Arts Festival — is only one of several Yalies who are currently involved in “The Daily Show,” both as performers and behind the scenes contributors. His fellow contributors, Hodgman and Demetri Martin ’95, are also alumni, as is the show’s head comedy writer, Steve Bodow ’89. Another Yale graduate, Allison Silverman ’94, is a former staff writer for “The Daily Show” who now works as the supervising producer and co-head writer for its spin-off, “The Colbert Report.” All of the Yalies involved in the popular “fake news” programs stressed that the concentration of Yale alumni in prominent positions at “The Daily Show” is pure coincidence — but some also said it reflects the strength of the comedy scene at the University and should offer hope to Yale students hoping to break into the field.

Harvard has long been dominant in the world of television comedy, and the writing staffs of shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons” are filled with Crimson alumni — many of whom wrote for Harvard’s famous “Lampoon” magazine as undergraduates. Bodow said the number of Yalies at “The Daily Show,” while striking, does not represent a similar “mafia” of Yale comedians, but rather indicates that the particular brand of political humor on the show may be especially attractive to the type of well-informed, confident person Yale produces.

“It’s not that Yale comedy feeds here, it’s just that there are a lot of people from Yale in comedy,” Bodow said. “That said, I think this place — like lots of places — is open to smart, funny people, and there’s a certain well-roundedness that I have found to be relatively common among Yale students that also plays into what it takes to be successful in the Daily Show because you really need to know what’s going on in the world.”

“The Daily Show” is known for host Jon Stewart’s irreverent take on real current events, combining comedy and political commentary in a trademark “fake news” format that mocks traditional cable news shows. Hodgman said one of the unique characteristics of the show is its combination of broad humor — “fart jokes” — and more cerebral comedy, like a joke he recalled filming last week about the assassination of James Garfield. In rehearsals, he and Stewart thought the joke was hilarious, Hodgman said, but it ultimately fell flat because it was too esoteric for the audience.

The nerdy element of the humor on both “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” may be part what has brought so many Yalies to the programs, Silverman said.

“There does tend to be a certain amount of reading required,” she said. “You’re dealing with news and stuff, and a lot of times there’s a research aspect. It doesn’t surprise me that these shows attract people who were serious about college.”

The career trajectories of the Yale graduates who ended up at “The Daily Show” are generally circuitous and wildly different, which Silverman said reflects the “anti-authoritarian” streak that runs through comedy. She said she said she does not regret that there is no “cabal” of Yalies in comedy to parallel Harvard’s, because it would eliminate the element of disorganization and chance that brought her and her fellow Elis, separately, to the show.

While Silverman and Bodow were both involved in Yale’s improvisational comedy groups as undergraduates — Silverman was a member of “The Ex!t Players,” and Bodow co-founded “Just Add Water” — Hodgman, Black and Martin were all on more conventional career paths before they ended up in performance comedy. Black attended the Yale School of Drama with the intention of becoming a playwright, and Martin attended a year of NYU Law School before dropping out to pursue comedy full time. Hodgman worked in book publishing for seven years before being “hijacked,” he said, into performance comedy following the publication of his book, “The Areas of My Expertise,” a satirical almanac that includes entries on “Hobo Matters,” “Food, Drink & Cheese (a Kind of Food)” and “Secrets of Yale University.” Bodow said he was a magazine journalist until he decided it was time for a change of scenery and joined the staff of “The Daily Show.”

None of the Elis who work on “The Daily Show” knew each other at the University, even though Silverman, Martin and Hodgman graduated within a year of each other. But in reminiscing on set about their time at Yale, the alumni have discovered that their paths did cross occasionally — Hodgman said he and Martin were in the same “mind-blowing” “Introduction to Fractals” class, known as “the screen saver gut,” and Silverman said she and Hodgman have found that they ran in similar circles, attending the same plays and spending time with the same people.

Current Yale students who hope to become involved in the comedy business said while the number of Yalies at “The Daily Show” is encouraging, the show’s ties to the University mean little in the competitive world of television comedy.

David Chernicoff ’07, who interned at “The Daily Show” over the summer, said he did not feel that being from Yale gave him any particular advantage over his fellow interns, who attended colleges ranging from Columbia to Indiana University. At the same time, he said, the number of Yalies in prominent positions at the program may reflect a shift in the dynamics of television comedy away from Harvard’s traditional dominance.

“Most of the time, when you think of humor in the professional world, that’s something that Harvard has sort of had an edge in,” he said. “But there’s a generation of people in the comedy world that are starting to hit the prime of their careers, and for that generation, Yale is doing just as well as Harvard is.”

Chernicoff is a scene columnist for the News.

Andy Levine ’08, one of the two winners of the YCC’s recent Last Comic Standing competition, said while “The Daily Show” is not one of his personal favorite programs, he is heartened to know there are “really intelligent, really educated people” who have become successful comedians. As a part of the prize for winning Last Comic Standing, Levine and fellow champion, Roberto Velez ’08, met with Black for a few minutes after his show Friday, where the comic told the two winners that the best way to succeed as a comedian is to practice and not give up.

Although for now there are no shortcuts for Yalies who are looking for a career in comedy, Hodgman said, the “surprising twists and turns” that have led to the concentration of Elis at “The Daily Show” could represent the beginnings of a Yale comedy empire that may someday rival Harvard’s.

“By accident, maybe there is the beginning of a similar — extremely feeble — Yale network of professionals that may give the aspiring comedy writer on Cross Campus a glimmer of hope,” he said.

Comments