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Lightning Laughs: Alum Performs Instant Stand-up on ‘Tonight Show’

Imagine performing a standup comedy routine in front of millions of television viewers with only an hour to write your set. That’s what happened recently to Nat Towsen ’07 while he was in the audience of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon .

The Film Production major answered our questions about performing instant stand-up comedy, his career, and his Emerson experience.

Q: What’s the funniest thing that ever happened while you attended Emerson?

Towsen: When I lived in the Little Building, one of my RAs wanted to be a police officer. I kept explaining to him that you don’t need a liberal arts degree to be a cop, but he was determined to treat everyone on our floor like potential criminals.

One day, he decided that we had broken too many rules and called everyone into the common room. He and the other RA made threats such as ‘We can write you up for, like, being disgusting in the bathroom.’ The following morning, we discovered that someone had torn the doors off of all of the bathroom stalls and thrown them into the stairwell. It was like a mob hit designed to remind the cops of who really runs the floor. We never found out who did it, but I hear that [the] RA is still searching for them.

Q: You were a member of the This Is Pathetic comedy troupe at Emerson. How do you reflect on your time in the group?

Towsen: It was one of the best parts of my college experience. I had been doing standup for almost two years when I joined This Is Pathetic. I had done improv in high school, but learning to get out of my head, be un-self-consciously weird, and trust my fellow performers to weave long and winding ideas together made me a better comedian overall. We performed in some absolute dumps — Emerson would not allow us to perform in any of the school’s many theaters — but we treated every show like it was Carnegie Hall.

I’m still close with my fellow Pathetics. Everyone is doing great work now. Tallie [Medel ”08] was in [Everything Everywhere All At Once], Elisha [Yaffe ’07] was on Better Call Saul, Jeremy [Hardwick ’07] is a script supervisor for Last Week Tonight. Pat [Boccuzzi ’07] has written several novels. Ani [Raya-Flores ’06] is a published author who does these great, multidisciplinary live shows. Sal [Ramos ’08], sadly, does not work in entertainment and is instead a loving father and inspiring educator, making a difference in the lives of countless children. It’s disgusting.

Jimmy Fallon and Nat Towsen speak on The Tonight Show while a woman listens
Nat Towsen ’07 had witty banter with Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon. (Photo by Todd Owyoung/NBC)

Q: How did your Emerson experience help you professionally and/or personally?

Towsen: You hear about how you’re going to make “connections” in college, as if attending a school is going to make some successful [alum] offer you a job. … The real connections are with your peers, the people at your level who you enjoy collaborating with, the people with whom you shape your creative identity. Those … are the people who will actually give you jobs (or you’ll give them jobs).

Q: You recently attended a taping of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and ended up performing standup comedy live on the show! How did that happen?

Towsen: Pretty crazy, huh? What a coincidence that after 18 years of standup, I would happen to be in the audience on the night that they were debuting that segment. And that I showed up early enough to have a spare hour to write that material!

Q: Did you need to prove to show producers that you are funny before they selected you?

Towsen: Yes, the producers asked if I could “audition” by writing two minutes of material about the 2023 Super Bowl, which I did. The writers liked my jokes, so they asked me to take part in the ‘Instant Standup’”’ segment. Then I was given my actual topic, St. Patrick’s Day, and was told to write about a minute of jokes.

Q: What was it like having to write a stand-up routine in only an hour that you then performed in front of a studio audience on a show that’s watched by millions?

Towsen: At the time, I was totally locked in. I wasn’t thinking about anything but the material, the precise wording needed to execute each joke. It wasn’t until after the taping that it occurred to me how absurd it was that my TV standup debut was to do completely untested material on The Tonight Show

Q: Please tell us about your background in writing comedy and hosting comedy shows.

Towsen: After college, I moved back to New York and started a narrative variety show called The Moon with a rotating cast of a dozen other Emerson grads. As that was ending, I started my NYC culture talk show, Nat Towsen’s Downtown Variety Hour at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. I also hosted a standup workshop, New Material Night, at the Peoples Improv Theatre, where professional comics would test new jokes underground on a Sunday night. Lately, I’ve been hosting a standup showcase called The Parlor at Caveat, though it’s on hiatus while I work on a secret project that I was hired to write…

As for writing, I got my first paid gigs writing articles for CollegeHumor. That led to a column in VICE (through an Emersonian the year above me, in fact) and some work with The Onion. That all eventually led to writing comedy pieces for Esquire. Along the way, I’ve written dozens of other comedy pieces for various outlets and punch-up for many clients who would prefer not to be mentioned by name. I got into speechwriting through punch-up, as people who were asking me to add jokes to their speeches eventually started asking me to write the whole piece.

Nate Towsen performs stand-up on The Tonight Show
Nate Towsen ’07 was asked to perform an instant stand-up routine about St. Patrick’s Day on The Tonight Show on March 3, 2023. (Photo by Todd Owyoung/NBC)

Q: You also have a background in political writing. Tell us about that.

Towsen: I’ve written speeches for political events such as the Democrats of Congress Dinner, the Kennedy Center AAPI Heritage Month Celebration, the Amnesty International Media Awards, the 9/11 Memorial Benefit, and the NYCLU’s Annual Broadway Stands Up for Freedom. Sometimes, I am asked to write full speeches. Other times, I’m asked to adds jokes to speeches that are otherwise completely serious, so I have to find jokes that will get a laugh without ruining the tone of the speech.

Last year, I worked as a speechwriter for a state Senate candidate in New York. I would talk through the topic with him and figure out what he wanted to say, then structure the speech in bullet points and have him talk through it, repeating until we had a script of solid outline.

Q: What’s it like writing comedy compared to political speeches? Is there an intersectionality of the two topics?

Towsen: There’s a lot of overlap, especially with my style of standup, where I’m usually trying to convince the audience that I’m right about something. You start small and personal. You break a larger idea down and examine it element by element. You put the crucial information — the part intended to evoke an emotional response — at the end of the sentence.

I’m a bit more rigid about structure when I’m writing speeches for a politician, fitting their ideas into a clear framework that starts small, becomes universal, and ends in a call to action. With standup, especially my own, I tend to let the structure emerge organically to fit the joke.

Q: What are you up to professionally these days?

Towsen: I spilt my time between standup and writing. I write comics, articles, etc. I write a lot of punch-up: a process wherein you take a written script, standup routine, etc. and suggest additional jokes that fit the tone of the piece. I do this for everything from TV scripts to best man speeches (yes, you can hire me).

I’m also a writer and editor at Botnik Studios, a creative tech company that uses AI tools to write comedy. 

Oh, and I’m a commercial actor. I’m in a national campaign for Grammarly that’s been running for the past few years.

Q: What would be your dream job?

Towsen: I would love to be a staff writer for a late night show or sitcom and eventually develop my own sitcom. I’d also love to voice cartoon characters — while I’ve done a lot of voice acting, character work is rare. 

But I’m a professional standup comedian who writes comic books and just got to perform on The Tonight Show. I’m already living my college self’s dream.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your career, time at Emerson College, or performing on The Tonight Show?

I don’t have an agent or manager for standup or comedy writing. I’m open to it, but I’m proud of how far I’ve gotten on my own. I obviously would have liked this to happen sooner — say, 10 years ago. But I wasn’t nearly as good at standup 10 years ago, so I’m glad that the TV audience didn’t see that version of me. In a strange way, I’m happy I didn’t get this break any sooner. I feel ready for anything now.

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