Comedy on Harvard’s Terms

Not many twenty-year-olds have the chance—or the gall—to lei Karl Rove or to ask Steven Pinker about his favorite expletives.

Not many twenty-year-olds have the chance—or the gall—to lei Karl Rove or to ask Steven Pinker about his favorite expletives. Enter Derek M. Flanzraich ’10: a boisterious, irreverent, and, above all, determined Harvard student who has led a movement on campus by launching “On Harvard Time,” a fake news program that puts a Crimson spin on a genre popularized by Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

According to On Harvard Time’s Web site, the show is “designed to fit neatly into that seven-minute period at the beginning of class that your parents are still paying for even though you’re not actually being taught anything.” The Harvard-Radcliffe Television program has seen substantial growth in both campus popularity and group membership in just over a year and a half. Harvard’s answer to The Daily Show has exploded onto the Harvard comedy scene, attracting famous—and infamous—guests, and even garnering national media coverage.

But during the show’s formative days, dreams of such success seemed impossible. “By the end of my freshman year, we had put out one promo and one episode, which was pretty bad, looking back,” says Flanzraich, the show’s founder, executive producer, and lead anchor.

Despite the rocky premiere, Flanzraich devoted himself to making On Harvard Time a campus success. During the summer of 2007, he aggressively recruited incoming freshmen to work on the show, using the social networking capabilities of Facebook to access potential staff members.

“Derek tracked me down over Facebook before I even came here,” says Tyler G. Hall ’11, producer, episode director, writer, and assistant technical director of the show. “He’s very convincing,” Hall says.

Molly O. Fitzpatrick ’11, staff writer and correspondent for the show, saw an On Harvard Time posting on the Harvard Class of 2011 Facebook group. She sent Flanzraich a sample script and was on the staff as a writer before moving into her Weld dorm room.

Flanzraich’s persistent online campaign has paid off: nearly 40 students tried out at the on-screen talent auditions this year, compared to the five that showed up the year before. Flanzraich estimates that the show’s contributing writers number about 60, a substantial increase from the eight original writers.

The show’s members are proud of the inclusive nature of their organization. On Harvard Time has no comp requirements or any prerequisites to join, and its willingness to take on amateurs has allowed the team to grow into a veritable army. And although staff members may join without experience, they are taught writing and production skills needed to run the show. “In a sense they’re almost pre-professional,” says Brian T. Fithian ’10, a former On Harvard Time writer. “What they’re doing is a full-scale production; they’ve got people doing high-level camera work and high-level editing.” Although Fithian, who is now “Czar” of the improv comedy troupe Instant Gratification Players, says that On Harvard Time could improve in terms ofterms of consistently high comedic caliber, he adds, “I think if they continue to do as well as they have in terms of recruiting young talent at Harvard, it can only be a matter of time before they obtain that level.”

Nelson T. Greaves ’10, staff writer and correspondent, also feels that On Harvard Time’s willingness to take on new members without barriers is an asset. “Because there’s no comp, the people who are there are there because they want to be there,” he says. “And I think that creates a lot of positive energy.”

“I think that’s one of the coolest things about On Harvard Time—that you can really have an impact on the show as soon as you join.” says Courtney D. Skinner ’10, marketing director for the show, who is also a Crimson Sports editor. Flanzraich agrees. “A huge part of On Harvard Time’s mentality has been that you don’t need a lot of experience to do it, because I had zero,” he says. “If you have the commitment and enthusiasm, you can make a huge impact on what we do.”

The show’s proponents say that its inclusiveness and accessibility make it different from other organizations on campus, and creates a less intimidating environment for newcomers. “I think it’s a big shock when you’re a freshman—you have to apply to all these extracurriculars, and it’s very impenetrable to you,” says Fitzpatrick. “On Harvard Time has a lot of opportunities for freshmen who are talented and interested, and I think that’s part of the reason why we can grow so much.”

The huge progress of the organization has in turn led to other improvements. Probably one of the biggest changes the show has seen is its relocation from Straus common room to its very own studio in Pforzheimer House, complete with “tens of thousands of dollars of equipment.”

The show is arguably HRTV’s most successful program, a “kind of a flagship program for HRTV,” says Flanzraich. Both Greaves and Hall attribute the recent success of the show to the visible increase in the quality of its content. “I don’t want to sound really snobby, but I feel like we produce something of a good quality, but we also produce it quite frequently,” Hall says. “To have it be impressive in both a humor way, and in a ‘holy shit they’re putting this out every other week’ way.” Flanzraich also accredits the success of the show to both the consistency of its production—about 15 episodes per year—and the quality of the product, both factors that have helped create a broad, reliable viewing base.

But although On Harvard Time is still nominally a part of HRTV, the program now functions autonomously. Skinner notes that “HRTV is more like the umbrella that helps everybody get their sea legs.” After initially helping get On Harvard Time off the ground through financial support, HRTV’s role has diminished as the show has taken off.

Flanzraich feels that the program fills a unique niche at Harvard. “We talk about the stuff that’s important to me and you,” he says. “It’s talking about the stuff,  like Mather Lather, that nobody else is talking about but we’re invited to.”

“We provide a unique comedic service on campus certainly, but also for the college media world in general,” says Greaves, who has worked on other HRTV programs such as Ivory Tower and Respectably French.

The broad appeal of On Harvard Time extends beyond the Charles. Each episode of the program receives around 1,500 to 2,500 YouTube views, and interviews with guests such as the Undergraduate Council presidential candidates, as well as coverage of the True Love Revolution versus Lena Chen ’09 debate, generally garnered more than 3,000 viewers. Most notably, Flanzraich’s interview with Karl Rove has been viewed 32,822 times on YouTube to date, and received attention from national media sources including political blogs and Web sites.

For Flanzraich and the rest of the On Harvard Time crew, this recent celebrity is evidence of the program’s great promise. “It’s a testament to how On Harvard Time can grow and can appeal to places outside of the Harvard community,” says Flanzraich. He adds, “I would love it to last a hundred years and longer. I think it has the potential to.”