Since 2005, Emerson College has housed the American Comedy Archives, including a collection of interviews with people responsible for making us laugh over the last 60-odd years.
Now the Comedy Archives interviews will be accessible to audiences around the world, thanks to a partnership with the Television Academy Foundation, the charitable arm of the organization behind the Emmy Awards.
“We wanted to be able to a) showcase the amazing Comedy Archive interviews on our award-winning site so that they could finally be accessible to the public,” said Jenni Matz, director of the Academy's Archive of American Television, which is digitizing and hosting the interviews, “and b) continue to capture oral history interviews with comedians and comedy writers by reigniting the co-produced interviews with Emerson and the Academy.”
The Archives contain in-depth interviews with comedy legends such as Phyllis Diller, Jonathan Winters, Carl Reiner, Emerson’s own Norman Lear, and alumnus Bill Dana ’50, who spearheaded the project 12 years ago and was the first comedian interviewed – by Matz, who worked with now-Iwasaki Library Director Bob Fleming to develop the Comedy Archives.
Matz and Dana hit the road between 2005 and 2007, trading on Dana’s connections in the business to get interviews with stars and writers alike, Matz said. The pair worked with Fleming to craft questions designed to get the comics talking and impart maximum insight: Were they funny as children? How did they break into the business? What were some big career mistakes? What is the value of comedy in American culture?
“When we sat down to conduct interviews for the archives, people were incredibly generous with their time,” Dana, head writer for (among others) The Steve Allen Show, said in a statement. “They weren’t there to promote a particular project; they were there to share more about themselves, what drew them to comedy, and their path to working in the industry.”
“Many were skeptical when we told them we were venturing to ‘study’ comedy back then,” said Matz. “And in almost every interview, we got a variation of this response: ‘You can’t teach someone to be funny, but you can hone someone’s funnybone.’”
Matz said since leaving Emerson for the Televison Academy in 2007, she and her predecessor Karen Herman, have been talking to Fleming and late Emerson Trustee Emeritus and arts philanthropist Ted Cutler ’51 about bringing the interviews to a wider audience.
In addition to being hosted on their own page, the Emerson interviews will be integrated with the more than 850 interviews in the Archive of American Television and cross-referenced so users can find them in a number of ways. As an example, Matz said someone could search for One Day at a Time and see the Academy’s interviews with costumer designer Rita Riggs, show creator Norman Lear, producer Mort Lachman, director Hal Cooper, and guest actress Nanette Fabray, as well as Emerson’s interviews with star Pat Harrington Jr. and a more comedy-centered conversation with Lear.
Harrington, the late actor who played Schneider on One Day at a Time, is one of three Emerson interviews now up on the the Archive of American Television, along with actress Betty White (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Golden Girls), and programming executive and Emerson alumnus and Trustee Doug Herzog ‘81 (MTV, Comedy Central, Viacom).
In addition, an interview with producer Kevin Bright ’76 (Friends, In Living Color), an Emerson alumnus and Trustee, and founding director of Emerson Los Angeles, was the first of what Emerson, through its Center for Comedic Arts, and the Academy hope will be many co-produced by the partners.
Professor Martie Cook, creator and director of Emerson’s first-in-the-nation BFA in Comedic Arts, said she hopes the partnership is able to keep generating new oral histories, because time is of the essence.
“So many of these comedians or people who have worked in the comedy business… we’re starting to see some of them pass away, and with that goes their stories and what they’ve learned,” Cook said. “So in a perfect world, we’d like to get as many of these done as possible to share with our students and to share with students globally.”
But in addition to the pioneers of TV comedy, Cook has a few contemporary comics to add to her interview wish list: alumnus Jay Leno ’73, Larry David (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm), and Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation, SNL).
“There’s so many people out there who’ve done such great work in comedy, I wish we could get them all, because they all have such wonderful stories, their journeys are all so different, and I think there’s so much we can learn,” Cook said.