“Fifteen years ago I sat where you sit now, and I thought exactly what you are now thinking. What’s going to happen to me? Will I find my place in the world? Am I really graduating a virgin?” said Conan C. O’Brien ’85 in his Class Day speech to the Harvard College graduates of 2000.
O’Brien’s prolific career in television has fired up the dreams of undergraduates searching for the answers to these very questions. During his college years, O’Brien wrote for the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine, and was elected its president. After graduation, O’Brien found work as a writer for several top comedy shows, including “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons.”
It seems that any student looking to go into television after graduation would kill for the kind of success O’Brien has found. To gain experience at Harvard, however, students must navigate a decentralized web of resources and opportunities. Interested students turn to a wide variety of extracurricular outlets to hone their production skills and network with alumni in the industry. Despite the lack of focused media studies classes for undergraduates, many professors encourage students to develop their skills within related courses. Ultimately, they advise, what matters most for success in the TV industry is a certain faithfulness to one’s own personal experiences and artistic vision.
TURN ON, TUNE IN, DON’T DROP OUT
When first coming to Harvard, many students do not have much familiarity with the production side of television beyond filming a few YouTube videos in high school.
It was not until he found himself involved with video production that Tyler G. Hall ’11 began to discover his interest. The extracurricular scene at Harvard boasts plenty of related outlets, particularly through Harvard Undergraduate Television (HUTV), the undergraduate online television network. HUTV’s website publishes student-produced sitcoms, talk shows, and sketch comedy programs, including the comedy news program On Harvard Time (OHT). “I did a little bit before I came in, but I started with ‘On Harvard Time’ just as their technical guy. I would do tech, and cameras, and lights and stuff, and I did that for most of the first semester,” he says. “I only started writing after that, but it ended up being a lot more fun.” Hall is now a writer, director, and producer for OHT.
For other students, finding television at Harvard is the discovery of an innovative and exciting outlet to write. Molly O. Fitzpatrick ’11, head writer and correspondent for OHT and a Crimson arts writer, cites the comedy-charged news delivery of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” as inspiration. “When I found out about ‘On Harvard Time,’ the idea that I could be involved with something that was an approximation of the TV shows I loved was extraordinarily exciting. I sort of didn’t think twice about it once I found out about it,” she says. “It was not a premeditated decision.”
HUTV serves as a hub for showcasing videos, like those filmed for OHT and the student soap opera “Ivory Tower,” to students, their families, and members of the industry. For those students in need of equipment, publicity, financing, and training, it also serves as a critical resource. HUTV President Tiffany N. Fereydouni ’11 stresses the opportunities for hands-on production provided by the network. Before HUTV, she says, “there were groups on campus for students interested in business, in law, etc., but there was no comparable umbrella organization supporting Harvard students interested in media and entertainment. And so the inaugural board founded HUTV to fufill that need.”
Recently, HUTV has also begun to work with Harvardwood, a nonprofit networking organization created in 1999 by several Harvard affiliates—including Adam J. Fratto ’90, producer of the ABC Family series “Greek”—to help students break into the entertainment industry. Harvardwood allows students to find contacts and professional resources in television and film to enhance their chances of success. One of the most hands-on Harvardwood programs is the annual January Term Harvardwood 101 trip to Los Angeles, which offers students the opportunity to visit studios and speak with professionals in order to explore a possible career in television.
ALL THE WORLD’S A SOUNDSTAGE
Students who participate in television-related extracurriculars also expand this experience with other creative outlets. Fitzpatrick, for instance, is the president of the improvisational comedy troupe On Thin Ice (OTI), which she claims offers valuable perspective on her own work. “It’s so great to be able to be around really funny people and make a jackass of yourself, in terms of just keeping your brain fresh for writing,” says Fitzpatrick.
Benjamin W. K. Smith ’12 also sees his writing for the Lampoon as valuable career-related experience. The Lampoon has long been known for the success of their alumni in the entertainment industry, who have gone on to write for “Seinfeld,” “The Office,” and “30 Rock,” among other successful comedy programs. “I did improv in high school, so it was something I always considered a hobby,” Smith says. “But doing it here, and hearing about alumni from organizations, and how they’ve gone on to continue to write, especially those from the Lampoon—it planted the idea in my head that it could be more than a hobby. I saw the clear connection.”
However, for Smith, it became more than simply just the story of others’ success. His work outside of undergraduate television and screenwriting classes at Harvard offers inspiration that may not be available elsewhere. “I didn’t really do any writing in high school, I really only started writing when I started comping the Lampoon,” Smith says. “Doing improv gives tons of great ideas, and writing gives you the ability to develop them more fully.” For Smith, writing for the Lampoon is one step on the way to writing for television. “I hope to do a written sketch show by the time I graduate,” he says.
ON THE WRITER’S BLOCK
Daniel J. Rubin, an instructor of dramatic screenwriting and an English professor, displays a small and unassuming poster for the film he wrote on the wall opposite his office door—1993’s “Groundhog Day.” Behind his desk hangs a much larger Marx Brothers poster, and across the room there are bookshelves stacked to the ceiling with books about film, writing, and sports.