Former Prankster Finds Success in Hollywood and in Comedy
Former Lampoon president blazes own path after leaving California
In 1983, Borowitz was back on campus and set to attend a black tie event, but realized when he got to his hotel that he had forgotten to bring his tuxedo pants with him. And due to his extended frame, he had difficulty remembering someone who would have a spare set of pants that would fit him.
“All I could think of was Conan O’Brien, because Conan was on the Lampoon, and they have black tie events on Thursday nights, and Conan is about my height,” Borowitz says.
And although O’Brien—who was also president of the semi-secret Sorrento Square organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine—could not be reached to confirm the story, Borowitz claims that he provided some less-than-ideal pants.
“In those days Conan was so skinny,” Borowitz says. “He was so skinny I could barely fit into Conan O’Brien’s pants...It was the tightest fit. It was like wearing a leotard basically.”
Despite O’Brien’s lanky frame, Borowitz credits the late night talk show host for encouraging him to take more risks in his life.
“I got to say that Conan, I think, really was influential in showing that you really do have to follow your own path regardless of whether others think it’s a good idea,” Borowitz says.
After establishing himself through his work as a writer for the hit TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Borowitz left the security of Hollywood in 1998.
Now he has his own website, has authored four books, and makes regular appearances on CNN’s American Morning and in stand-up—and Borowitz still attributes part of his comedic inspiration to his undergraduate years at Harvard.
While a student, Borowitz made a name for himself as a writer, a director, and an actor in several plays, in addition to his involvement with the Harvard Lampoon. And while many of his exploits helped to garner him notoriety around campus, some of the press he encountered was not quite so positive.
In the summer before his senior year, Borowitz and the Lampoon sent out a special prank issue of The Crimson to all of the incoming freshmen, in which they described college life as one filled with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The description was so vivid and disconcerting for many of the prefrosh and their parents that University Hall was flooded with angry phone calls and threats of transfers to Yale.
The Harvard administration did not take kindly to the prank and pressured Borowitz to reveal the name of the source who provided him with incoming students’ addresses.
“For about six months of my senior year, they were kind of playing ‘crime and punishment’ with me, trying to figure out how on Earth I got ahold of all of these addresses, which was just an incredibly top secret document, like the codes that NORAD has to launch nuclear weapons,” Borowitz says. “But they never cracked me. I was sort of like Deep Throat. I just stuck to my guns.”
As John F. Bowman ’80—also a former Poonster—recalls, such behavior was not unusual for Borowitz.
“Andy was always doing some kind of prank or trying to think of something,” Bowman says. “He didn’t really care [what happened to him]. He was kind of fearless that way.”
Borowitz also recalls that much of his time with The Lampoon was simply spent in front of the television.
“We spent most of our time watching TV and making fun of it,” Borowitz says. “We didn’t spend all that much time writing and producing a magazine…the irony of course is that spending all that time watching television is probably the best time we could have spent at Harvard because most of us wound up graduating and going out to Hollywood and writing for television.”
WHERE THERE’S A WILL THERE’S AN ANDY
While doing stand-up in the early 1980s, Borowitz was discovered and hired by a CBS talent scout. He began work for small time TV shows such as Square Pegs, Easy Street, and The Facts of Life, and helped produce his own show called Dreamers in 1984.
Finally, in 1990, he helped create The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which proved to be a huge success, despite the apparent risk at the time.
“You have to remember, that hip hop was really not mainstream at all at the time,” Borowitz says. “Of course, Fresh Prince ended up being one of the most mainstream shows on television, but we didn’t know that at the time.”
The program, which also helped launch the career of its star, Will Smith, centered around the difficult transition that Smith’s character experienced when he moved to the wealthy Los Angeles suburb of Bel Air.
Following the end of the show in 1996, Borowitz helped produce the movie Pleasantville, which came out in 1998.
But during that summer, Borowitz says he felt his creativity as a writer was being stifled in Hollywood, and he looked to start a new career in which he could communicate more directly with his reader, rather than “producing a blueprint for the actors” and, “working as a hired gun.”
In particular, Borowitz wanted to bring back a bit of the feeling he’d gotten from producing plays as an undergraduate, where he got to have a more personal connection with the audience.
“I think after being through all of these things I had in Hollywood, like special effects, unions, wardrobes, actors, directors, and huge budgets, there’s something kind of nice getting back to that improvised, Junior Common Room feeling where pretty much all that matters is the words that make everybody laugh,” Borowitz says.
After moving back east, he was hired by Newsweek to write a weekly column. This writing experience led him to create his own website, borowitzreport.com, which he soon expanded to feature a short, fake news story every day that people could use to poke fun at the absurdity of the news.
He also busies himself with appearances on a variety of cable television shows and with regular spots on National Public Radio.
And Borowitz is still able to find humor in his alma mater.
For each of his reunions—his 15th, 20th, and now his 25th—he and Bowman have written small skits in which they make fun of specific aspects of Harvard life.
This year the two pointed out the difficulty in filling out this year’s Class Notes, in which Borowitz claims that he has spent the last 10 years searching for the “real” killers of Nicole Brown Simpson, and that he will be watching all members of the Class of 1980.
Even in homicide, Borowitz has managed to find a source of humor—a talent that has served him in many situations, including a mad search for a pair of pants one night in 1983.
—Staff writer Evan R. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.