Samantha “Sammy” Weiser ’20 has been immersed in comedy for the past decade. She started out doing improv at the ripe old age of 8, took a little break, and then got back into it through classes with The Groundlings and Upright Citizens Brigade.
When Weiser learned about Emerson College’s new BFA in Comedic Arts, she knew it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up, she said. So she left her home in the comedy hub of Los Angeles to study what makes people laugh in Boston.
“I definitely hope Emerson will teach me how to use my humor in the most effective way to reach an audience, so it’s not just me telling a joke to my group of friends,” said Weiser, who cited Seth Rogan and Will Ferrell as her comedy idols and admitted to watching Ferrell’s Step Brothers “an unhealthy amount of times.”
“[I hope Emerson will] teach me how to put my ideas into things people can see,” she said.
Weiser joined her fellow students in the inaugural class of the Comedic Arts BFA program at a welcome reception held in the Semel Theatre on Wednesday, August 31, where they heard from Program Director Martie Cook, President Lee Pelton, and School of the Arts Dean Rob Sabal; learned about campus comedy troupes; and networked with classmates and faculty.
The students were required to submit comedy material, in addition to regular academic credentials, for admission to the program.
Cook, the catalyst of Emerson’s Comedic Arts major and a professor of screenwriting, told the crowd that the words of baseball legend Babe Ruth also apply to comedy: “I hit big or I miss big…Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.”
Another piece of advice that transfers well is something faculty member Erin Schwall said about improv when she was quoted in a recent New York Times Magazine piece about the program: “Stay with each other.”
“I want to remind you that the overall success of this program rests not only with individual accomplishments, but also with the accomplishments of the group as a whole, so stay with each other, invest in each other…your work will be all the richer,” Cook said.
Pelton—who confessed to harboring standup comedy ambitions…in the sixth grade—told the Comedic Arts students that they were entering a growth industry. Citing an article, Pelton said in 2010, there were 10 cable and network scripted comedies on air. By 2014, there were 84, and there were 90 last year.
“You’ve chosen a field that’s steadily growing, one that is greatly needed in today’s environment,” Pelton said. “And if any of you have been watching the presidential election, it will provide you with all sorts of material.”
This may be the first year that students can major in comedy, but Emerson has been churning out comedy luminaries for decades. Notable alumni include Denis Leary ’79, Jay Leno ’73, Stephen Wright ’78, Iliza Shlesinger ’05, Mario Cantone ’82, Bill Burr ’93, and Eddie Brill ’80. Comedy writers/producers include Norman Lear ’44 (All in the Family, The Jeffersons), Eric Drysdale ’93 (The Colbert Report), John Frink ’82 (The Simpsons), Opus Moreschi ’00 (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert), and Harris Wittels ’06 (Parks & Recreation).
John Gilbert ’20 is hoping Emerson’s alumni can help him once he graduates.
Gilbert, a Virginia native who spent the last three years living in Italy, said he started doing standup at clubs in Rome and discovered he was pretty good at it. He decided he wanted to go into show business—some combination of acting, writing, and standup—and that Emerson was the logical next step.
“The modern world is about networking, and the Emerson network is far and wide, and for what I want to do, it’s perfect,” he said.
Brandon Ratcliff ’20, another LA resident, has been acting and directing for a while, and originally was looking for film or theater programs. Comedy wasn’t his specific ambition.
Until one day when Ratcliff noticed a change in the layout of majors on the Emerson website and saw a new entry.
“I clicked on it and I looked at the list of classes they were going to offer, and I thought, this is what I want to do,” Ratcliff said.
Ratcliff said this first semester, he’s most looking forward to Michael Bent’s Why Did the Chicken: Fundamentals of Comedic Storytelling class.
“I’m really interested in getting into the nuts and bolts of comedy and learning what makes something funny. What do we interpret as funny?” Ratcliff said.