How to Succeed in Comedy (without The Lampoon)

madeleine_witt_3_1
Photo by Madeleine Witt.

My first reaction was that it looked much bigger on TV. Through slightly dimmed house lights, 200 audience members were filing into tightly-packed blue and yellow plastic bleachers that were better suited to a baseball stadium than a studio. I found my seat in the balcony, about four rows back, and watched as swarms of crew members clad

in black raced around with cameras and cue cards before the clock struck 11:29. The band was already set up and entertaining the buzzing crowd with smooth jazz to pass the pre-show minutes. And then, after one final roll of a drum, the stage went black, the crew backed away from the eyes of the cameras, and the audience fell silent.

“The following is an address by the President of the United States,” the announcer’s voice boomed. Applause signs flickered above my head and the audience responded automatically, clapping and howling. Our episode of “Saturday Night Live” had begun. Fred Armisen (or rather, Barack Obama) — sporting a short, graying crop of hair meant to highlight how far his ears stuck out from his head — updated the audience on his accomplishments in office thus far, the running joke being that there were none. At last, he said the seven words we had all been hanging on for: “Live from New York … it’s Saturday night!”

Being chosen from NBC’s annual ticket lottery to see “Saturday Night Live” my senior year of high school was one of those once-in-a-lifetime strokes of luck, and I have nurtured an intense curiosity about the lives of comedy writers and their paths into the business ever since. And so, naturally, I was intrigued to discover that so many of those paths begin in one place: the iconic castle of The Harvard Lampoon. Some of comedy’s greatest names got their start beneath its copper ibis-crested dome — Conan O’Brien, George Meyer, and B.J. Novak, to name a few. Tina Fey identified the connection between Harvard-educated comedians and nationally-syndicated humor in her recent autobiography “Bossypants:” “The staff of ‘Saturday Night Live’ has always been a blend of hyper-intelligent Harvard boys and gifted, visceral, fun performers. Lorne [Michels] somehow knew that too many of one or the other would knock the show out of balance.”

The connection between Harvard and humor solidified in 1970 when three Harvard graduates published the first issue of The National Lampoon as a spinoff of The Harvard Lampoon. During its almost 30 years of existence, The National Lampoon became one of America’s best-known brands of humor and endowed the Harvard name with even more prestige. In the mid- 1970s, “SNL” was created with Harvard Lampoon alumni Al Franken and James Downey in the writers’ room. Soon, Harvard graduates could be found writing for almost every funny show on air, from “The Simpsons” to “Late Night with David Letterman” to “The Office.” In the 1992 Harvard Magazine article “Comic Sutra,” Downey says that about ten percent of the 400 people who were making a living as television comedy writers that year were Harvard graduates.

In that same article, Rob Hoffman, one of the three National Lampoon founders, said, “Harvard and The Lampoon have directly transformed American humor over the last 25 years. The Harvard impact on television, movies, and magazines is unbelievable. There’s practically a Harvard mafia out there.” Being a Yalie, I can’t help but wonder why the same is not true for Yale. How has The Harvard Lampoon created a “mafia” in the comedy world where Yale hasn’t?

Jonathan Adler, a senior at Harvard and the current head writer of The Harvard Lampoon, does not see the magazine as a direct funnel into comedy jobs after graduation. Rather, he says, it’s a conduit through which funny people who enjoy writing can come together and practice a skill that may one day turn into a career. “It’s definitely not a pre-professional thing,” Adler says. “When we’re there, it’s just us trying to make each other laugh and put out a magazine.” But almost every year around three to five Lampoon seniors interested in pursuing professional comedy writing move to Los Angeles together after graduation. Adler jokes that “they will be unemployed for several years before calling it quits and going to law school” — but some of them certainly make it beyond that.

For Rob Ulin, a 1984 graduate of Harvard College and a Harvard Lampoon alumnus, meeting former Lampoon writers who had gone into comedy was a powerful experience; he got to know people who were once in his shoes and had ultimately found success in the industry. Since his Harvard days, Ulin has worked on several highly acclaimed sitcoms, including The Middle, Roseanne, and Whitney, but he has never gotten a job through a Harvard connection. “To be honest, I don’t think an Ivy League diploma gets you all that far in the field of comedy writing,” he says. “Comedy writing is a relatively meritocratic field.”

Bob Stevens ’76, who has taught the Yale residential college seminar “Writing Half-Hour Television Comedy” and is best known as a former writer for “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Wonder Years,” believes that the creation of The National Lampoon brand by Harvard graduates is the best explanation for Harvard’s visibility in the comedy world. “Somehow, because The Harvard Lampoon turned into The National Lampoon and that whole franchise, the Harvard network has evolved,” he says. Yale alumni in comedy are “out there and are talented and very open to something like [a formalized network], but it just happened more naturally with The Harvard Lampoon brand.”

Yale’s own humor magazine, The Yale Record, has made efforts to establish such a network. It has a certain innate prestige in that it is America’s oldest college humor magazine, founded in 1872. According to current editor-in-chief Dana Zhu ’12, it reached its peak in the 1940s and 50s, when it was common for Record graduates to go straight into jobs as New Yorker cartoonists. At one point, The Record had such a good relationship with The New Yorker that New Yorker designers were consultants on The Record’s layout. That trend fizzled out after difficult economic times in the 1970s and 80s. Recently, however, “there has been a push to set up the alumni network so that people can use it to get jobs after college,” Zhu says. Now, The Record’s alumni board writes regularly for the online version of The Record, which contains somewhat different content than the print magazine and which has served as a way to keep alumni in contact with the publication. Alumni also write their own December Alumni Issue.

The biggest roadblock to a strong alumni network is that most Record graduates these days do not pursue comedy after Yale. “I’d be really sad to give up humor writing entirely, but I don’t see myself doing it professionally after I graduate,” Zhu says. She appreciates that Yale has given her the opportunity to explore humor writing, something she had never even tried before her sophomore year of college. “I didn’t have any experience in high school, but I like writing and wanted to write for a publication,” she says. “I like that The Record doesn’t take itself too seriously.”

When it comes to The Record, then, River Clegg ’11 is the outlier. At almost six feet tall, Clegg initially looks a little intimidating, but it’s soon clear that he’s more teddy bear than grizzly. He constantly finds ways to poke fun at himself, especially when he talks about his comedy career since graduation. This past summer, he interned in the graphics department of the satirical newspaper The Onion in New York City, and now, he works as a freelance writer at Comedy Central, showing up everyday at 12:30 p.m. to write jokes. He spends a lot of his time writing daily “liberal agenda” and “conservative marching order” text messages to subscribers.

Clegg wrote for The Record all throughout college, becoming a managing editor his junior year, and he was actively involved in The Cucumber, The Record-sponsored forum for stand-up comedy. The summer after his junior year, he became serious about his passion for comedy and obtained an internship at a small production company through the Yale in Hollywood alumni club, which organized more than 50 panel discussions, mixers, and other opportunities for Yalies interested in the entertainment industry last year and probably bears the closest resemblance to the alumni network of The Harvard Lampoon.

Clegg admits that comedy is not the easiest business to break into alone (and in his typical self-deprecating fashion, he fiercely denies that he has broken into it at all). “Sometimes I’m kind of jealous of The Lampoon,” he says. “Since so much of comedy writing has to do with getting to know and befriend people, along with working on your craft, the Lampoon network [has] a lot to offer.” At the same time, he says that it is possible to break into comedy by forging your own connections and by “being nice and reaching out to people and doing what you can for yourself in that way.”

But perhaps The Record is the wrong place to look for Yale’s Lampoon. Nell Klugman ’12 believes that the network of comedy writers from Yale comes out of improv and sketch groups. Klugman performs improv with The Viola Question and sketch comedy with The Fifth Humour and sees a small network of Yale improv and sketch graduates assembling in major cities across the country. Although she tried out for improv groups on a whim her freshman year and was persuaded by friends to try out for sketch comedy her sophomore year, Klugman says, “Yale made me think about doing this stuff professionally. I didn’t realize that improv was all the stuff I loved about acting in high school and none of what I didn’t like — the rehearsals. I would have been surprised knowing back then that this would become my niche in college.”

That network of improv performers may be growing year by year, but since improv at Yale is only a little over 20 years old, its influence is not yet as far-reaching as that of an organization like The HarvardLampoon.TheEx!tPlayers improv troupe brought improv to Yale for the first time in 1985. It was founded by Steve Florsheim ’87 after he took classes at the famed improv training ground The Second City, a Chicago comedy institution where comedy writers like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Steve Carrell got their starts. Soon after the creation of The Ex!t Players, The Purple Crayon and The Viola Question were born, and, in the spring of 1987, those who had not been tapped for The Purple Crayon that year formed an improv troupe of their own, Just Add Water. While most colleges now have improv, the sheer number of groups on campus makes Yale unique.

On Parents’ Weekend this year, every campus bulletin board was jam-packed with fliers for comedy shows. That Saturday, Just Add Water was performing in the Saybrook dining hall, and when I arrived five minutes before the show was to start, every seat was occupied, so I had to toast my bottom on the radiator in the back. I almost fell off of it several times from laughing, especially when three male JAW-ers played an improv game in which they had to woo a girl from the audience while assuming three different personalities and singing in three different genres of music (gospel, country, and heavy metal, to be exact). Nelson Madubuonwu ’13 belted out gospel while sliding down the aisle in the audience on his knees, doing everything in his power to win the game and “get the girl.” Alas, she chose the country singer.

Justin Noble ’07 is a member of the evolving improv alumni network of which Klugman spoke. He now lives in Los Angeles now and, when he is not writing comedy, works part time as an assistant for a Beverly Hills jeweler. He talked to me over the phone one Wednesday afternoon beforedashing out the door to take a tour of the set of the ABC comedy “Modern Family.” While at Yale, he was involved in just about every outlet for comedy available, from his tenure with both The Viola Question and The Fifth Humour, to his efforts to create the first Yale Show, a now-annual musical comedy about Yale produced by seniors, to his participation in many of Yale’s TV-writing seminars. “I was doing comedy as much as I was doing classwork,” Noble says. As a second-year senior — he toured with The Whiffenpoofs — Noble traveled to New York City two nights a week to take improv and sketch comedy-writing classes with thefamedUprightCitizensBrigade, an improv and sketch training ground similar to Second City; he continued to move through their ranks and eventually performed with them after college. He has since made the move to Los Angeles to set himself up for a TV writing job, which means he must write a speculative script of an already existing show (Noble has chosen “Modern Family,” hence the set tour), as well as the pilot of his own show. These, surprisingly enough, are the only two requirements for getting work on any TV show — the scripts, though, have to be close to perfect.

Although Noble attributes his love of comedy to his family growing up, Yale helped him realize that he could be funny professionally. “I come from one of those families where there are a lot of crazy people, where your parents have a dinner party and there’s that woman over who does an invisible baton routine,” Noble says. For him, coming to Yale meant developing lasting friendships with fellow comedy- lovers and comedians alike through his extracurriculars, and it was those kinds of connections that spurred him to pursue comedy as a living. “In the comedy world, there is nothing more important than finding someone who understands you and you understand them.That’swhereYalegivesalegup,” he says. “No writer is ever going to get hired based solely off a connection.”

In this sense, Ulin was right when he said that comedy is just about the most meritocratic field out there. If you are good at it, you are likely to get a job, but it takes a lot of personal initiative and motivation — in Noble’s case, many hours of watching Modern Family DVDs and writing and rewriting scripts. If this is true, shouldn’t Yalies, some of the most motivated students in the country, be primed to succeed in comedy?

“Yale has a very diffuse comedy scene,” Clegg says. “There’s no historically established epicenter to it, the way The Lampoon seems to be at Harvard.” The closest Yale comes to having an epicenter of comedy is its young improv culture. But improv is a skill that does not directly translate into a financially profitable living. Ned Fulmer ’09, a Purple Crayon alum, is using the intensive improv experience of Second City as a stepping stone to a job writing for TV in Los Angeles. He has been working at a renewable fuels company and moonlighting as an improv performer four to five nights a week since graduating. “I’ve been here for two years, and I’ve absolutely fallen in love with this place,” he says. Doing improv helps immensely with writing comedy and understanding how sketches and characters are created, but Fulmer says that no one is an improv performer forever.

For actual comedy writing experience, Yalies have to look beyond improv, and many use classes to do it. Clegg, Noble, and Fulmer took multiple TV-writing seminars as undergraduates, including Bob Stevens’ “Writing Half- Hour TV Comedy” and author and screenwriter Suzanne O’Malley’s comedy and drama-writing seminars. According to O’Malley, “Yale creates opportunities for students interested in writing comedy by seeking out and hiring professional faculty who help students fine-tune their personal comedic or dramatic passions.” The combination of faculty with experience in entertainment and the opportunity to practice for a career in that industry through improv can give Yale comedy writers an edge.

TV-writing seminars and improv groups didn’t exist when Bob Stevens was a Yale undergraduate interested in the entertainment industry. Stevens is a perfect example of the kind of willful perseverance that is the final and most important ingredient to success in comedy. When Stevens was an undergraduate, he pursued an independent major in which he took acting classes, made his own films, and took advantage of the Yale School of Drama and the community of budding actors performing at the Yale Repertory Theater (which included Meryl Streep). “Those resources are available to anyone who wants to partake of them,” Stevens says. After tailoring his education at Yale to his career interests, he felt well-prepared to take on Hollywood. “I got in my car and drove out to Hollywood after graduating and I felt like, by virtue of having the opportunity to be so self- directed at Yale, I was ready,” he says.

After a period of working as a reader on a TV show, an associate producer, and a freelance writer, he was able to get an agent and become a staff writer for “Night Court,” an NBC comedy from the 1980s, where he worked for three years. The connections he made at “Night Court” served him for much longer than the show’s run. One of his writer friends from that show had a horde of funny stories from his childhood, and Stevens encouraged him to write them down. That ultimately became the show “Malcolm in the Middle,” and Stevens was hired to run its writers’ room.

Working on the sitcom was grueling work because it was an instant hit and there was immediate pressure to produce new episodes. “I had to oversee the development of 27 episodes that season instead of the regular 22,” Stevens says. Each episode took about six to eight weeks to complete from the original conception of the idea to its airing on TV, and Stevens juggled about six episodes at a time. Despite the stress of the writers’ room, though, Stevens admits that working on a TV show could be a lot of fun. “People let their guard down and don’t censor themselves,” he says. “These are people who are funny, so they are constantly playing practical jokes on each other.” Looking back, he sees success in the comedy world as a kind of paradox. “You need a thick skin and a thin skin,” he says. “You have to be able to push through all of the roadblocks and the criticism and yet still stay attuned creatively.”

Yale’s most famous professional comedian knows exactly what pushing through roadblocks means. When Demetri Martin ’95, who is best known for his stand-up comedy and his Comedy Central show “Important Things with Demetri Martin,” told his family that he was dropping out of New York University Law School after two years to pursue comedy, everyone tried to tell him he was making a mistake. But Martin knew that stand- up was what he wanted to do with his life, and that there was no point in wasting any more time.

The Yale community was everything to Martin while he was an undergraduate here; the packed Calhoun dining hall last spring, his Record-sponsored Master’s Tea, shows just how much he means to the Yale community today. Although he did not write or perform comedy in college and he spent his summers back home working at his family’s diner, he exercised his comedic muscles

constantly during his time as a Yale student. “I spent a lot of time in the dining hall talking to my friends,” he says. “I think when I made people laugh during dinner, I felt more valuable.” He is now famous for his deadpan one- liners (“the worst time to have a heart attack is during a game of charades”) and his use of visual aids to make points during his stand-up routines. He has found success in comedy not because of any background, experience, or formal training, but because he knew what he wanted to do and was not afraid to pursue it.

Ultimately, comedy is all about that independent perseverance, whether you are a Lampoon graduate fresh out of college or an unknown talent who just has an innate ability to make people laugh. The path to success in comedy is more about passion than connections. It looks different for everyone because most comedians do not pursue humor for the fame or the TV ratings or the number of hits on their YouTube channel. They do it because they love to do it — because they love the sound of laughter, because they love the moment when a witty idea dances through their minds, because they love working with other funny people.

“I think if you write something you think is good or get the validation of making people laugh, it’s great,” Clegg says. “It’s fun work. It’s nice to think you’re making people happy.”

After seeing “SNL” that night two years ago, I waited in a massive throng of eager fans outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza to see the performers leave the studio. The cast trickled out one by one, signing autographs and politely taking pictures with people before getting into limos parked by the curb and heading home. When Fred Armisen walked out of those golden- edged doors, the crowd went wild. My dad took my hand and pulled me to the front, shouting “Barack Obama!” He turned and saw us, and I thrust out my ticket for him to sign.

“She wants to write for ‘SNL’ now,” my dad said. “How did you do it?”

I smiled sheepishly as Fred Armisen searched in his pocket for a pen. His eyes crinkled into a grin behind his thick-rimmed black Ray Bans.

“My job is easy,” he said. “You’ll get here someday.”

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