A Letter about Studying Comedy at Emerson College

Filed Under Sketch Comedy, Stand-Up Comedy

A while back, Max Goldberg wrote me about promoting a show of his. Noticing he was from Emerson, a college notorious for graduating a great many professional comics, I asked if he could tell me a bit of what its like to study comedy there. What he sent me, you’ll find below. Recent high school grads considering studying comedy, read and decide for yourself: If you want to see Max perform and you’re in Los Angeles, Max will be playing the Hollywood Improv, tomorrow, July 26 at 8PM.


They (those negative people in your life) say you can’t teach someone how to be funny. I don’t know if they’re right, but I feel like I just got out of school for it. I’m back home in California now after graduating from Emerson in Boston this past May (that’s why it took this long to get back to you). I’m not sure how to describe going there… I guess people who know of it know it’s a pretty good, smallish school mostly known for getting alumni starter jobs in the entertainment industry. Cool thing: they seem to really dig comedy.

Comedy isn’t usually associated with an institution; it’s not something you need to go to college for. Nonetheless, if you consider the size of the student body (barely over three thousand), a surprising amount of content comes out of Emerson. The school has had some part in the birth of a significant number of major comedy careers—in terms of comics, students have included Steven Wright, Denis Leary and Mario Cantone (who were roommates), Jay Leno, David Cross, Laura Kightlinger, and Jen Kirkman (full disclosure: not all listed graduated, but were accepted and attended for a time). A bunch of others write on The Tonight Show, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report. Comedy businessmen Doug Herzog (president of Comedy Central), and Eddie Brill (comedy booker for Letterman) attended the school.  Remember that Brokeback to the Future youtube video with fourish million hits? It was from one of Emerson’s sketch troupes, Chocolate Cake City, with other videos from school troupes regularly in the 300,000+ views range. These and other comedy people from the school, collectively, are referred to as the “Emerson Mafia.”

Can you actually *study* comedy at Emerson? Sort of—there are some classes in sketch, improv, stand-up, comedic acting, comedic screenwriting, and a slew of SGA-endowed troupes. The closest I could find was double-majoring in Theater Studies and Dramatic Writing, and minoring in Entrepreneurship. Combine that with getting on stage four or five nights per week, and four years later it’s a reasonably balanced comedy education. There’s no formal major for it (though it’s rumored to happen sometime in the next five years), but that’s certainly in the realm of possibilities.

Emerson might be more appropriately viewed as a talent draft than a college; that is, instead of building scholars, its purpose seems to be selecting a choice group of amateurs with the goal of allowing them to turn into professionals on their own terms—and helping them milk alumni dry.

A lot of people in LA ask about it. It’s not a big school, and it’s not in Los Angeles or New York. Why does comedy seem to flourish there? Three main reasons:

  • Emerson uses Boston’s preexisting comedy infrastructure. Boston has a great comedy scene. There are great scenes all over the country, to be sure, but Boston has consistently been a major player in comedy since the Eighties. Interestingly, it’s not a showbiz town. Nobody goes to Boston to “make it.” Frankly, “making it” in Boston often means “getting out of Boston”. Yet, there’s still an active, relevant, and well-populated comedy scene, creating a refreshingly fertile environment for artistic exchange. Absent of the kind of competition found in, say, Los Angeles, the artists are instead more encouraged to collaborate and workshop. There are a few excellent indie clubs like the Comedy Studio in Cambridge (where cherry-picking for Conan and national festivals is almost regular—this year, four of Aspen’s twenty “New Faces,” and seven of eight regional finalists in Comedy Central’s “Open Mic Fight” were Studio comic’s-in-residence) that reflect the larger issue: Boston has a relatively large population of comedians who *gasp* genuinely pursue comedy as an art form. Real-world stage experience is obviously valuable to a comedian, and Emerson’s small size (and lack of a central campus) forces students who want to perform out into that scene. For comparison sake, nearby Boston University student comedians (of which there are also a decent but I’d guess proportionately smaller number) have a built in audience of about five times Emerson’s population to perform for without ever having to leave the school.
  • The student comedy community isn’t just large, it’s well-rounded. Kind of like at UCB (which is openly revered as hallowed comedy ground by many Emerson kids), it’s a crucible. There’s heavy overlap in the kinds of comedy students pursue. Stand-up, sketch, improv, animation, and print comedy are all well-represented in the student body (alongside a neat loophole in school policy that lets everyone use the equipment the tv/video majors use), and the result is an effective environment for collaboration. The crossover means there’s usually someone around worth working with, from improvisers to video editors. The student body is a common resource, making most comedy projects doable without having to look off campus for talent or tech.
  • Student comedians get professional and artistic validation from the administration. There’s not a lot to say here. For me, what makes Emerson a good school is its treatment of capital-C comedy as a legitimate course of study—like with Journalism or Film. The school encourages students to pursue being funny. It’s never shunned in favor of a “real” art form or, god forbid, a “real” job. To give an idea of respect paid comedians, Denis Leary and presidential runner-up John Kerry were both commencement speakers within the same two years. Students see alumni succeeding, and suddenly success in comedy isn’t a pipe dream—it’s a matter of artistic labor and networking.

Is it the perfect place for comedy? Definitely not. Like any college, classes get over-enrolled, some professors are idiots, and a lot of students mostly talk out of their Converse-sheltered asses. The weather gets awful and stops you from being able to go out and perform. There aren’t enough on-campus venues to go around. You don’t get credit for stage time, no matter how many hours you spend in clubs—which rather obviously affected my GPA. Not to mention, it’s a private school; four years of tuition and housing for out-of-staters like me costs roughly $140,000.

Nonetheless, I do think it’s fair to call it a step in the right direction. Again, you don’t *need* to go to school to be a comedian ...I think I can safely say I’m a comedian at this point. I’ve been in a few festivals, played a decent amount of low-level college gigs (for inappropriately large amounts of money once or twice), I always have a pen on me, and I’m on stage most nights at assorted “venues” of varying seemliness (ranging from open mics with homeless people to opening for regional bands to playing some mainstream clubs). I would have done it with or without Emerson—but I probably would have dropped out to do comedy full time anywhere else.


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Posted by the crespo on 07/25  at  03:43 PM

Ah emerson…I miss the midnite fire drills and Bike Horn Charlie.

Posted by chris principe on 07/26  at  04:37 PM

Great piece, guys. The TROOP! folks are all former Emersonians as well, I believe. School’s definitely doing something right…

Posted by Rachael on 07/26  at  04:40 PM

Ah Emerson…I too miss Bike Horn Tricycle man, But I think more people miss Crespo’s porn collection.

Posted by ECN on 07/27  at  12:24 PM

Little confused by this comment:

For comparison (sic) sake, nearby Boston University student comedians (of which there are also a decent but I’d guess proportionately smaller number) have a built in audience of about five times Emerson’s population to perform for without ever having to leave the school.

To which I’d say two things:

a) When I was a student at BU, there were around two and a half comics there.  (Me, Myq Kaplan, and a girl whose name I am pretty sure was Alison, who performed very occasionally.) 

b) There were at that time—and, as far as I know, are now—no comedy shows on or near the BU campus.  I performed at the college once, nine months after I graduated, and that was a fluke. 

I mean, no offense, but this point doesn’t really make sense.

Posted by the crespo on 07/29  at  03:18 PM

Ha. First of all it wasn’t THAT impressive Rachel. Sizable ubt in control I felt.
And second, it was Furlong’s collection before it was mine.

Third, the year I received that collection was also the year of Suite 509.When I lived with Shukoff, now of TROOP!

actually, chris, the school’s a pain in the ass. Elisha Yaffe who’s out in LA now writing for some website—Warner Bros’ maybe—who started the Zebro show (returning to the PIT in the fall I think) put together one of the most amazing comedy spectacles last year at the Majestic Theater and all link to him and his group was basically taken away by the school. I’ve talked to a few people there about trying to turn Emerson’s stand up connections into a new sort of Harvard Lampoon of comedy…

But for such a tiny school, no one has been deft enough to get around the miraculously profound bureaucracy there. No artist leaves that place The long and short of it is, the school won’t let its alumni help it due to its lack of self awareness.  They’re shitting away a gold mine by not taking advantage of the stand ups that have graduated there—and I’m tlaking Leno and Leary—I’m talking about the last 10 years worth. When I was there, Bryan Olsen and I were the only comics we knew of for quite a while. But since then, it seems there’s been a veritable explosion in numbers. And even though she’s ont a comedian, my ex Melinda has contributed to the world of comedy by having dated me for 6 years and being immortalized in quilt form by my aunt.

As for BU, I know Baron Vaughn also went there, Eric Andres went to Berklee….I had never heard of shows at either of those schools eithre….but maybe it’s a very recent development.

Nevertheless the shear numbers are with Emerson, for good or for ill. Its history as a stand up school and its place in Boston are the reasons I went there and not a school that had a better reputation in the acting world. I think the same goes for a lot of others too.

Anyway, off to rehearsal. This has been lively. HAVE AT THEE.

Posted by keith h. on 07/31  at  03:30 PM

great post. very interesting

Posted by ECN on 07/31  at  06:53 PM

Baron Vaughn was before my time, I think.  (Not sure if he performed while he was a student, either.) 

I’m informed (elsewhere) by Max that the stand-up scene at BU has picked up a little since I left Boston, so maybe that’s the case.  But even when I was there, Emerson comics roamed the earth in packs, huddled up against each other for warmth, ceaselessly hunting the elusive Woolly Mammoth. 

Or something.  They were in Cambridge a lot.  That’s what I’m saying.

Posted by cahlann on 07/31  at  08:18 PM

That they were.

Posted by max on 08/02  at  10:26 AM

Here’s another thread on the article from a boston messageboard, specifically about the bu part:

Posted by Jenn on 08/29  at  03:34 PM

NYU wins it all.

Posted by Sara Benincasa on 03/16  at  06:38 PM

Going to Emerson, and dropping out after 2.5 years, were two of the best decisions I ever made.

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