The Simpsons. Saturday Night Live. Letterman. Conan. Harvard is not only capable of consuming popular culture at a healthy clip, but the university also has a sneaky way of actually producing the "best" of the nighttime lineup. And thanks to Conan O'Brien, Harvard's connection to showbiz is now common knowledge, for better or for worse. Forget the alumni network in Washington or on Wall Street--Hollywood is the latest Crimson conquest.
But wait--Harvard offers few classes on scriptwriting, acting, or any other remotely creative subject matter. They told us to go to Yale if we wanted to do that crazy stuff. And while it may be apparent that Conan never had access to any sort of pre-professional training, it's obvious for Fox and NBC found a mentor before they hit the big time.
"Who is this mysterious mentor?" you may ask plaintively. "Where does the aspiring scriptwriter turn?" There is, in fact, a man on the faculty who bridges the gap between high and low culture. We call this master "David Gewanter." If the Lampoon is the bootcamp of showbiz, an independent study with Dr. David Gewanter is the final testing ground.
Traditionally, people who are interested in writing professionally have gravitated to this Expos teacher. Former Lampoon president and Crimson editor John Abound III '95 gushes, "He's a little secret treasure each generation of Lampoon people hears about. People discovered him as a funny and intelligent person to write a script with. He's a man of many faces and more mysteries."
Seniors approach Gewanter with projects which range from Frasier scripts to more abstract literary endeavors. One student wanted to write a script based on "The Three Stooges of the Apocalypse: Larry, Curly, and Death."
Gewanter helps students take their five-minute gags and coax them into sustainable plots. He refers frequently to Aristotle's Poetics and quotes obscure Latin profundities like a Zen master turned Classics scholar. Than in the same breath, he'll praise SNL's stalker sketches. As one of his students comments, "He's very well versed in literature, but he keeps his critically-trained eye to pop culture."
A native New Yorker, Gewanter studied writing and literature at Madison and Berkeley. His own college projects tended towards the esoteric, including a one-act drama starring a deconstructionist who is charged with writing a bomb threat. (The gist of the excessively postmodern plot is derived from Foucault's "What is Author?" essay. It will not be airing after Married With Children anytime soon.)
Gewanter currently teaches Expos and extention school classes. He won't take credit for actually starting anyone's career, though. "I don't make calls to Hollywood or LA," he insists. "I do a very limited thing. I give someone a little time as a senior to do what they can with a screenplay, after they've done everything for everyone else." Sh'yeah, right.
During the course of a conversation with Gewanter, it came out that in the past four years four of his former students have found their way to Saturday Night Live, and he's talked to "friends at TV Nation" about others. A number are studying now at top-notch film programs like USC and TISCH at NYU. And Gewanter's only been here since 1990.
FM could not get through the forest of secretaries and voice mail to speak with any of these former students. This, in itself, could very well be taken as a measure of their success.
Gewanter credits the opportunities available to artsy Harvard grads to "a bunch of Harvard MBAs who think of themselves as artistic, work as producers at Fox, and hire friends..." He also acknowledges the Lampoon as a critical breeding ground a certain flavor of "masturbatory teenage boy comedy" marked by gags which derive from "too much panelling, bad weather, ex-debate champs, and small rooms." (He said it!) For Gewanter, the Lampoon is a veritable hotbed of little Adam Sandlers, or Benny Hills. Or something.
Poonsters are more than happy to return Gewanter's 'praise' in kind. With typical eloquence, they describe their mentor as follows: "Gewanter is a force of nature--merciless as a desert wind, yet nurturing as a mountain stream."
You laugh now, but wait until you hear that line coming from Homer Simpson's lips.