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“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.
Rubin underscores the importance of the need for practice to perfect the skill of screenwriting. Even without taking a class on screenwriting, learning how to write not only leads to creative thinking, but also simply to better storytelling. “To some extent I’m giving them tools and pointing out different ways people approach screenwriting, the process, the ideas, and how you articulate it… some of that’s useful. Some of it isn’t. I don’t care, I want them to be writing,” he says. “It’s really just writing experience. If they had the gumption to just sit down and just write, they’d get just as much out of it.”
For Rubin, the best screenwriting is accessible and meaningful to the writer and the audience. “You can leapfrog over a lot of student projects where there’s a lot of flash and maybe even a lot of great intellectual ideas, but ultimately the stories are terrible,” says Rubin. “They’re not anything we care about, and when I say we, I mean the writer himself doesn’t even care or know what it’s about.”
Similarly, Marcus Stern, Associate Director of the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) at Harvard and the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, has also taught screenwriting classes at Harvard in the past. He stresses the need for students to find a personal vision in the shadow of the monolithic image of the television industry. “Connecting life experiences to an artistic idea is a necessity to give it truth and relevance to both its creator and its audience,” Stern says. “In some way you have to have a personal connection to a story. If not, then you’re merely chasing the idea of the story. Without a personal connection to the material it’s nearly impossible to write or direct something that has true resonance for an audience.” To Stern, the journey of self-discovery in experience is what truly sets the best in the TV industry apart.
Yet, Rubin adds, students still have much to learn about the television industry and its collaborative structure. “If I recall how I thought about things when I was twenty, and hear the kind of questions I get from students when I’m speaking, I didn’t want people to mess with my vision and I saw anybody else’s creative input as being an imposition because I saw it the way I saw it and I wanted to make that happen,” says Rubin. “I’ve grown to appreciate the collaboration of very talented people, and it’s good for a person. It’s a little bit difficult for an artist to compromise, but it’s not really compromise. It’s bringing together different ideas to bring together the strongest script, the strongest characters, and the strongest scenes.”
DOWN TO “THE WIRE”
William J. Wilson, the a professor at the Kennedy School and the director of its Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program, does not usually have time for television. In fact, it was not until it had been running for several seasons and had been recommended to him that Wilson decided to sit down and watch “The Wire.” Today, he teaches the undergraduate course African and African American Studies 115: “HBO’s The Wire and its Contribution to Understanding Urban Inequality,” in which he uses the show as a context for dealing with social issues.
Like Rubin and Stern, Wilson emphasizes the need for personal experience when it comes to developing a vision for television. In particular, he notes how the knowledge of the show’s head writers, David Simon and Ed Burns, has shaped the production. “The reason that ‘The Wire’ does it so well is that David Simon and Burns worked well together. Burns used to be in the police department in Baltimore. David Simon was a former beat writer who focused on the Baltimore police for the Baltimore Sun.”
To Wilson, what sets the creators and those involved with such a critically acclaimed drama as “The Wire” apart from other shows are their constant efforts to stay informed about the relevant social issues. “I don’t think you can expect all producers and directors to be that sophisticated,” he says. “Not only did they draw on their own experiences, but I was thrilled to learn that my book, ‘When Work Disappears,’ published in 1996, was the inspiration for season two. Simon read social science literature and combined that with his own real-life experiences.”
“It’s really unlike anything else on TV,” says Elizabeth L. Greenspan, a current preceptor for Expository Writing who will teach the class this spring. She emphasizes that students hoping to go into a similar area of television should understand major societal issues, such as urban inequality, racism, and the drug economy. She encourages students “to take advantage of their time here to get as strong a foundation and understanding of these issues, even if it takes them a bit away from narrative, and the craft of writing.” This work may be tangential, but it is ultimately helpful, according to Greenspan. “Having that background can only make the story that you tell all the more provocative,” she says.
Wilson and Greenspan would urge students hoping to deal with real social issues in their television work to take a similar course of study. “I would think that for students who go into film writing and directing and who also took social science courses, I would hope they would put what they learn from social science courses into their storyline,” Wilson says.
Intimate knowledge of societal issues gives dramatic power to a script, and all aspects of the education Harvard students receive give them an edge in storytelling and thus in screenwriting. Undergraduates who are able to synthesize their own academic and artistic narratives will find themselves well prepared for the challenges of a television career.
—Staff writer Thomas J. Snyder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: November 16, 2010
An earlier version of the Nov. 16 arts article "Escaping the Static" incorrectly reported that Benjamin W. K. Smith ’12 is the president of On Thin Ice. In fact, the president is Molly O. Fitzpatrick '11.
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