UPDATED: April 13, 2016, at 3:51 p.m.
With a crowd of smiling faces surrounding him, Conan C. O’Brien ’85 brandished his Sharpie to sign the enlarged poster of his face that graces Mather’s Junior Common Room. While on campus this February for a public appearance with Drew Faust, O’Brien returned to his former House and met current students. He spoke teasingly about Mather’s relative ugliness and his roommate, who would celebrate a finished problem set by shouting the nonsense term, “Foom!” Though the few jokes he told were impromptu, the small crowd of people seemed highly entertained. This reaction is the kind of electricity professional comedians look for.
In a 2011 piece for The New Yorker, ostensibly dispensing advice for crafting late-night television, Tina Fey wrote, “When hiring, mix Harvard nerds with Chicago improvisers and stir.” But what would happen if you mixed Harvard nerds with Harvard improvisers? A quick glance at Harvard’s extensive humor-minded community reveals that Harvard is home to a bit more than academic wit. Students who pursue comedy with passion seem to bounce off one another, supplementing the universal appeal of a good joke by uniting economics and English concentrators. Though comedy entails a somewhat unconventional career path, Harvard graduates have entered the entertainment industry for years. What is new and original, however, is the current diversity of options for on-campus comedy. For a broader spectrum of comedians, Harvard abounds in opportunities to improve both written and stage humor. Aware as they are of the inherent status as Harvard students, comic artists here express true passion for their extracurricular interests. Comedians on campus are not inherently funnier than comedians elsewhere; they love comedy just as much as any other up-and-coming humorist. Harvard just happens to be the community through which they express that passion. They are organizing shows, dreaming up new joke concepts, and assembling fresh stand-up routines. Humor is entertaining, but entertainment is hard work.
Stand-up comics are generally considered solo artists, but like most art forms, comedy thrives in a communal atmosphere. Sierra L. Katow ’16, an active member of Harvard’s comedy scene, grew up outside L.A. Starting at age 16, she would often travel into the city to perform at shows, forming a personal attachment to the craft of comedy. “Comedians often like to think that their way of comedy is the way,” Katow says. “People think: ‘This is funny, and this is not. Some people are born with it, some are not.’ And I don’t believe in that. I think it’s really important to know that comedy is so contextualized by who you are and who other people are.”
For the first part of her freshman year, however, Katow found it difficult to understand her role as a comedian. After auditioning for several campus improv troupes, she failed to secure a spot in any group. But by joining other organizations like On Harvard Time and the Harvard College Stand Up Comic Society, she gradually determined how to work among Harvard comics. Now a member of the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine, she is highly visible as a campus comic, performing at events like the Lampoon’s roast of late-night TV mainstay Jimmy Fallon last semester.
'I think it's really important to know that comedy is so contextualized by who you are and who other people are,' said Sierra L. Katow '16
Other students, however, arrive on campus with no professional experience in performing comedy. Julia N. Becerra ’16 professes herself to be such a student, stumbling upon OHT at Visitas four years ago and spending her first couple of semesters marching up to the Quad to OHT’s now non-existent studio. While becoming a correspondent for OHT requires an audition, the comp processes for writing, editing, and directing are relatively effort-based: members are never cut. “People are so intimidated when I try to get them to come,” Becerra says. “They’re like, ‘Oh everyone’s gonna be so funny and judge me if I’m not funny.’ [OHT members] literally don’t care. They are so surprisingly supportive of everyone.”
Along with her work for OHT, Becerra practices stand-up routines with the Harvard College Stand Up Comic Society. Even though she admits struggling to balance problem sets with practice time, Becerra believes that the time she invests in her comedy skills is time well-spent. Katow echoes this need for consistency and determination. “There’s such a high standard here for people doing well right away,” she says. “The interesting thing about comedy is you have to work at it so long because you have to live your life. It takes so many years to find your voice and find your following. If you’re not able to get that when you’re 20, it’s okay.”
In addition to the exquisitely crafted stand-up routines, shows featuring intricately constructed improvisational humor occur most weekends on campus. The three most visible groups—the Immediate Gratification Players, On Thin Ice, and Three Letter Acronym—frequently hold performances that feature improv techniques practiced by a wide variety of students.
Karen L. Chee ’17, the Czar (in other words, president) of IGP, describes the troupe’s performances as a style of long-form improv called free-form montage. The audience volunteers a single word suggestion, and then IGP comedians use the word as inspiration for the entire show, creating a number of characters and relating them spontaneously. Chee says what makes a great show is its collaborative, relational aspect. “When you’re on stage, the whole point isn’t for you to stand out as a performer or for you to get the limelight,” she says. “It’s to support the other person and justify what they’re saying and make them look great.”
Chee did not expect to feel an immediate connection with her fellow improv actors, but she now considers them her family. A history and literature concentrator, Chee says that her dream job would be to eventually continue with comedy, preferably on a television show as a showrunner or writer, with a small acting part. But even as she contemplates her future, she recognizes the exclusivity of extracurricular improvisatory organizations. “There are very few spaces for you to just try something for fun, to learn something for the first time,” she says. “You have to already be at a certain level.”
Alexander N. Lee ’17, an English concentrator, certainly had already reached that level before arriving on campus. After taking classes with the famous Upright Citizens Brigade the summer before coming to Harvard, Lee joined TLA his freshman year, initially as an extracurricular interest. He now serves as the Pirate for TLA, or their business manager (their administrative titles are nautically themed). Originally founded for a specific type of structured performance known as The Harold, TLA now focuses on long-form improv. According to Lee, while they do hold semesterly shows for students, their genuine passion for comedy outweighs any need for public interest. “A lot of members of the group would tell you that we do improv for ourselves, not for our audiences,” he says. “We have shows because we are an improv group, but I think a lot of members would be totally fine not even performing, just doing improv among ourselves.”
All the world’s a stage, but not all humor is performative. That is to say, since 1998, Satire V has presented mostly written comedy. “In Satire V, there are no bylines. You’re writing in the voice of Satire V. You’re sort of removing yourself from the process,” says Daniel J. Kenny ’18, the publication’s editor-in-chief.
As a government concentrator, Kenny sought out Satire V as a publication that could combine politics and comedy. The writing process, which features open member pitch meetings, is very inclusive but is also different from stand-up or most video sketches. “The joke is written out for people to read for as many times as possible. So it has to be written according to a news formula,” Kenny says. “Not to say that we constrict our writers, but there’s a way that it has to go along so that if you’re writing an area man piece, it can be read potentially five years from now and people will find it funny.”
As a primarily online publication, graphics are often key to articles published in Satire V. Antonia Chan ’18, current president of Satire V, started out as a graphics editor. “If someone emailed me being like, you know, ‘Marijuana was just legalized in DC. We need a picture of Elizabeth Warren smoking a blunt, ‘[I would be] like, OK!” Despite the fact that Satire V has a unified voice and platform, Chan never felt like an outsider upon joining the organization—her first attempt at comedy. “I think there’s a very refreshing lack of ego,” Chan says. “Everyone is in it because they love to do what they do.”
After ushering in its largest comp class ever last fall, Satire V brought back its video component this semester with the notable parody of a Housing Day video for Dudley House. This year also marks the opening of Satire V’s second annual spring musical, “The Tragedy of Macbeth, King of Pop.” For Kenny, however, Satire V is always about improving the organization as Harvard’s version of The Onion. “My goal is not to antagonize the Lampoon but rather to democratize comedy,” he says.
In the wake of ongoing conversation about institutionalized language and censorship such as the recent takedown of Currier’s Trump-themed housing day video, a number of Harvard students have voiced their opinions on political correctness. According to Becerra, policing language is not the point. “I’m not against offensive jokes, right,” Becerra says. “But I think it matters to what end.”
Becerra links the idea of positivity with constructive humor, in which students can perhaps obtain a higher level of comedy than the bare basics of stereotype or weak satire. OHT, for example, impressed Becerra with its gender spread. “The head writer was a woman; one or two of the producers were women,” she says. “It was usually at least half women in the writers’ room, and I remember noting to myself, ‘I bet this isn’t that common.’ That makes me really happy.” Such a standard both makes comedy groups more inclusive and lends more complexity to joke structures. In meetings, Becerra says, women might challenge misogynistic humor, pushing for jokes that move beyond stereotypes.
'I'm not against offensive jokes, right. But I think it matters to what end,' said Julia N. Becerra '16
Groups are also doing their part to remain informed about the topics they approach in their shows. Even though improv is mostly an anything-goes affair, Lee says that TLA recognizes how language can shape someone’s experience of a performance. “We had a workshop recently with representatives from the Women’s Center,” he says. “So we can learn about gender issues and approach gender and sexuality in a more informed way in our comedy.”
Gus A. Mayopoulos ’15, who is pursuing comedy as a profession, is currently learning how to write humor now that he’s away from campus. Mayopoulos, who was infamous on campus for his gig as president of the Undergraduate Council, found that his humorous presidency appealed to many people. According to Mayopoulos, he hoped to transform the issues the UC discussed into politics that students were talking about—similar to the punditry of television personalities like Stephen Colbert and John Oliver. “Joking about [political] things helps make them more palatable to be consumed by these [people who are] really busy with their own lives,” he says.
But the journey from pursuing comedy as an undergraduate extracurricular to undertaking it as full-time employment can be daunting—much like any other career. Now taking improv classes, Mayopoulos is discovering how much more he has to learn. “It sort of comes back to Harvard,” he says. “Like, at Harvard, we all held ourselves to these very high standards. And now that I’m trying something else, I’m trying to hold myself to that standard. The problem is, how do you get yourself there?”
The network of Harvard graduates currently working on either comedic high-profile television shows or online writing gigs seems enormous. Alumni such as Megan L. Amram ’10 and Alexandra A. Petri ’10 write humorous content online—Amram on Twitter and Petri on her Washington Post blog, Compost (Petri is the pop-culture mastermind behind the Emo Kylo Ren Twitter account). The Theatre and Entertainment Meet-up, held on Feb. 6 this year, attracted more than 100 students to an event featuring a large panel of contemporary professionals and a networking brunch. Furthermore, in addition to on-campus events, OCS encourages comedy-minded students to use Harvardwood as a resource. Formed initially as a networking website for alumni, Harvardwood now exists as a vibrant community for both graduates already working in the industry and students looking to forge their own paths.
But the OCS knows that it cannot offer the final solution in an industry where a lot of connections are happenstance and spontaneous. “You have to road-test a lot of these things to really know,” says Deborah Carroll, associate director of the OCS. “When you’re in school, whether that’s your K-12 education or in college, there’s a lot of things… that are sort of prescribed. When you’re in the working world, it’s much more self-driven.”
It is important to note that most of the comics involved with organizations on campus already possess that kind of motivation. Though the Harvard network does exist, it is up to the students to get up on stage. “You have to do the work,” says Robin Mount, director of career, research, and international opportunities at OCS. “You have to do the research yourself and piece it together. And we can just help you.”
While comedy at its core is about having fun, those who identify as comedians on campus are far more serious about their craft. The goal is not to tell a good joke; it is to become a skilled performer who can turn any topic into a moment of laughter. These students thrive due to the variety of organizations that bring people together to exercise their sense of humor. It seems like a simple task—finding people to jest with—but finding the right fit requires substantially more effort.
And as these students follow this path and define their own ideas of comedy, they embark on their own journeys into professional life. Some may enter the entertainment business, as graduates like O’Brien or upcoming Class Day speaker Rashida L. Jones ’97 have done. Others may enter other careers and bring their comedic craft to other parts of their life. Becerra, for example, referenced the importance of comedy in community building, such as on First-Year Outdoor Program trips. “It’s so important... especially if you’re doing something that requires people to be challenged,” she says. “If you’re hiking 10 miles… and it’s all uphill, and you’re a freshman, and you’re really scared, and you don’t know if you’re [going to] make friends—it helps if someone can make a joke that makes you feel comfortable.”
Students comedians are bonded together by this need to ease away from term-time gravity. More than simply comfort, Kenny says, comedy at Harvard is about letting off steam in productive ways: “That’s what I’m interested in: when people look to comedy to give them an outlet for truth where they don’t have to be so serious.”
—Staff writer Bridget R. Irvine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.