Laugh factory

Learn funniness! (But don't actually become a clown, because they're fuckin' horifying.)
Learn funniness! (But don't actually become a clown, because they're fuckin' horifying.) // Sara Lee

Ari Berkowitz ’12 may live in Los Angeles like Zooey Deschanel, have the same glasses-bangs combination as Zooey Deschanel and spend her time inventing ways to meet Zooey Deschanel, but Berkowitz wants you to know she is not a “Zooey stalker.”

She only plays one in her new, six-episode webseries called “Me & Zooey D.”

Unlike Berkowitz, many recent alumni pursue jobs for the money, and students pursue courses for grades, but for members of Yale’s comedy scene, all are after one thing — the laughs.

The first three-minute installment features Berkowitz’s character Alex in a “New Girl”-esque red dress, staking out an LA Sprinkles cupcake shop and waiting for Deschanel to pick up some gluten-free red velvet treats. In the next episode, Alex and her best friend get in a serious fight over Zooey’s acting talent, but make up over a friendship frittata. The third episode sees Alex try her hand at scriptwriting.

For Berkowitz, who writes, co-produces and edits the series, the subject matter isn’t very far removed from her own life. While she may not have moved to L.A. to become best friends with a famous actress, Berkowitz’s own L.A. relocation after college parallels the show’s storyline.

The recent alumna said she knew she wanted to pursue comedy writing her senior year so she shaped her American Studies major around television. She was also a member of The Purple Crayon improv group for four years and joined the sketch comedy group Red Hot Poker to hone her writing abilities as a senior. Berkowitz said Yale’s vibrant comedy culture and alumni network prepared her for her current role as an assistant to the executive producers of the ABC show, “Trophy Wife.”

With Yale’s sketch-comedy form, Berkowitz said she began to think about jokes more precisely.

“Those are great muscles to develop,” she added. “Writing a scene in a sitcom is like writing a mini-sketch.”

With numerous comedy outlets, Yale students don’t have to look far for some comedic distraction. Students interested in drawing laughs from others can devote their time to comedic groups or even some classes, with the possibility of pursuing humor after shedding their caps and gowns.

 

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The average American college or University has an improv troupe on campus. Yale has five. And two sketch comedy groups. And a stand-up collective.

“There’s such a large comedy scene at Yale,” said Caleb Madison ’15, the director of the Viola Question and a member of the Just the Tip stand-up comedy collective. “If you’re in it, you know everyone in it. That’s kind of nice.”

Madison added that while he doesn’t want to jinx his chances, he would be happy to pursue a career in comedy after graduation.

Gabe Greenspan ’14, former director of Red Hot Poker and a member of Just Add Water, said he hopes to move to one of three meccas of humor: L.A., Chicago or New York City.

Zeke Blackwell ’13, former director of The Purple Crayon, is currently working on a farm, but said he hopes to continue a career in improv in the future. He would want to go to Chicago, which he called “the birthplace of modern improv.” Chicago houses The Second City Comedy Troupe, and Blackwell said the city has more opportunities for beginners in the business.

In addition to learning long-form improv comedy with The Purple Crayon — a popular form professionally — Blackwell said the group, like most comedy groups at Yale, gave him an alumni network to fall back on.

“[It’s] really cool that if in six months I decided I wanted to move to Chicago, it’s much easier to enter that world knowing people than trying to go in with nothing,” Blackwell said. “The Purple Crayon gave me a really great network, if I want to use it.”

Plenty of Yale alumni have moved on to careers in improv and stand-up comedy — including comedian Demetri Martin ’95 and “Girls” cast member Allison Williams ’10. Pictures of Williams from her Just Add Water days surfaced on the Internet last month in a Huffington Post story, titled “Allison Williams’ College Improv Team Photos Make Her Seem Way More Fun Than Her ‘Girls’ Character.”

In fact, Williams told the News in 2011 that she would not have landed the role on “Girls” if she had not prepared with JAW, because she had to improvise with Lena Dunham in her audition.

“The best decision I made at Yale was to audition for [the improv comedy troupe] Just Add Water. Again and again, improv proves to be the most profitable skill that I have,” she said.

 

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On an average Wednesday in professor Ryan Wepler’s English 121 humor writing class, Wepler reads funny pieces — 75 percent of the time, belonging to the students themselves — aloud to the mix of sophomores, juniors and seniors. Hopefully there’s laughter.

“My goal is to teach students to try to be funny,” Wepler said.

Wepler has taught an English 114 seminar on laughter and an English 115 course on humorous literature, but this is his first time focusing the class on writing itself.

So far this semester, he has assigned one two-page essay per week, with a prompt somewhat lacking in direction.

“The prompt of the two-page essay is ‘Be as funny as you can in 500-700 words,” Wepler added. “It’s open intentionally. I want students to work with their own sense of humor, generate their own sense of humor.”

But students also read classic humorists like Mark Twain, along with more contemporary writers such as Jack Handy and Joel Stein.

Wepler’s classes are not the only ones that deal with humor within the curriculum; filmmaker Michael Roemer is teaching “American Film Comedy” this semester, and professor Albert Laguna is teaching the class “Race and Comedy.”

Madison is currently enrolled in Roemer’s class, and said the opportunity to study humor, instead of only perform it, gives him a new way to look at comedy.

“[Roemer] takes comedy very seriously, which I think is something all the people at Yale do. Which I love,” Madison said. “They apply that academic serious-minded discipline to comedy. Some may say it takes the joy out of it, but I would say it only adds to it.”

Joel Sircus ’14, a member of Viola Question, said Yale’s intellectual culture changes the sort of comedy the troupes focus on. He explained how the VQ plays a game during shows where they run a scene over and over, with audience members shouting out new genres or iterations.

“When we play on campus, it’s a lot of ‘The Western canon!’ ‘Kant!’ ‘Surrealist novel!’” Sircus said.  “I think Yalies appreciate this esoteric and a little more pedantic style of humor,” he said.

“When you’re at a show you can make a joke about the nuances of ‘Othello.’ Maybe not everyone gets it, but they laugh.”

 

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But the consensus on whether comedy is just an extracurricular is split.

Greenspan pointed to Yale’s extensive theater studies program and drama productions supported by University funding. He said that while the student body is hugely supportive of comedy shows on campus, he has rarely seen an administrator at a JAW show the way he has at theater performances.

“The thing about improv is, it really is a couple of people standing around and lying. Just making [stuff] up on the spot,” Greenspan explained, laughing. “It’s harder to get funding to do that because technically, anyone has that ability.”

Yale’s humor publications, though circulated widely on campus, may face a similar brush-off in the professional world.

People say 80 percent of “The Simpson’s” writing staff is from the Harvard Lampoon. There is no such saying about any Yale humor publications.

As a senior who submitted a television script as her senior thesis, Berkowitz said she did not find enough support on and beyond campus for humor writing.

“[The Lampoon has] a really good network, and we don’t really,” Berkowitz said. “That was something that I think surprised me. As much as there’s a lot of support for any level of student writing on campus, I don’t think there’s enough for comedy writing, “

Compared with the Lampoon, the Harvard magazine with a long list of venerated alumni like Conan O’Brien and B.J. Novak, Yale’s comedic publications are viewed as less established in the comedy world.

Still, Yale prints a base of publications that produce generally funny content, like the Yale Herald, Rumpus and The Record. And since Rumpus established the Rump Chat blog two years ago, students have turned to other peoples’ written gossip tips as another source of humor.

“People really like taking pleasure in other people’s pains,” said Andrea Villena ’15, editor in chief of Rumpus. “I think [Rump Chat] keeps people honest and stops us from taking ourselves too seriously.”

And the new form of comedic writing certainly has an audience. Villena said when the site printed a report of the laundry vandal scandal to hit campus last week — titled “Poopgate” by Rump Chat — the site received about 3000 hits in one day.

Villena added that humor writing is definitely gaining traction on campus, though she is not sure if students want humor to digest their news or use humor to gain readership. But Berkowitz said readership on campus does align with prestige in the entertainment industry.

“If you make it on the Lampoon, it gives you street cred,” she said. “The Record is great, but I don’t think its competitive, well-respected or known enough to give you that.”

Yet students in comedy groups interviewed pointed to the more well-known comedy writers who came from Yale as success stories, such as Elizabeth Meriwether ’04, the head writer for “New Girl,” and Steve Bodow ’89, former head writer and now producer of “The Daily Show.”

And even if their careers take different turns, students agreed that the take-away from their work with comedy on campus has formed their characters. Blackwell pointed to his developed ability to react well to different situations as helpful while he works on the farm. Greenspan said he appreciates the importance of working in sync with a partner or team.

“Improv is definitely a life-lesson thing. I know it sounds so cheesy but our whole lives are so improvised,” Madison said. “The rules that apply to good improv apply to having a good day.”

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