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Students Put Theory into Practice in New LA-Based Comedy Conservatory

students dressed as clowns dance on steps at Emerson LA
Comedic Arts students clown around during the Comedy Conservatory program at Emerson Los Angeles this fall. Courtesy photo

As a little kid, Storm Templeton ’25 listed out all the “regular” jobs he didn’t want to work:  Lawyer. Scientist. Firefighter. A self-described character, Templeton loved being silly and performing, but he didn’t know working in comedy was a path he could take.

Until he came to Emerson College.

Now, the Comedic Arts major has spent a semester at Emerson Los Angeles, taking advantage of all the unique opportunities LA offers like connecting with creatives around the city and performing his first stand-up set.  

“If you want to do comedy, then LA is the place to be,” said Templeton. “This semester I’ve been immersed in comedy, and that’s the best way to make progress.”

Templeton is one of eight students participating in the inaugural Comedic Arts Comedy Conservatory program, where juniors spend a semester at Emerson LA studying comedy writing, performance, and production, all while tapping into the vast network of industry resources and professionals unique to LA.

“Students in the program are really seeing how the industry operates. They’re learning from people who work in the industry, meeting guest speakers, going on sets. It’s comedy, comedy, comedy from day one, which makes it different from what they’re doing in Boston,” said Martie Cook ’82, founding director of the Center for Comedic Arts. “Through this intensive conservatory-style program, they’re able to develop their comedic voice, gain confidence in their style and work, and really grow as comedians.”

The Comedy Conservatory was the brainchild of Rob Sabal, former dean of Emerson’s School of the Arts. Cook worked with Comedic Arts faculty in Boston to identify which classes to offer in LA, so that they’d complement the academic schedule of students in the program. By mid-October, she met with sophomores who were Comedic Arts majors and offered them the opportunity to participate.

“It really makes the program bi-coastal,” said Cook. “Students have the opportunity to study comedy in two cities that are known for their bustling comedy scene.”

Fred Armisen and students point at something off camera in front of Emerson step and repeat
Fred Armisen visited Emerson LA last semester to speak to students. Photo/Daryl Paranada

Learning from Industry Talent

Cook worked closely with Emerson LA Assistant Academic Dean Mikhail Gershovich to flesh out logistics of the program, including course curriculum and which LA-area faculty members to hire. 

“We spoke with many, many talented and experienced local folks in comedy over the course of almost a year in recruiting faculty,” said Gershovich. “It was very important for us to build a unique, specialized pre-professional learning experience that could only be possible here in Los Angeles, and we came up with a diverse group of singularly qualified professionals to teach the first cohort.” 

Classes offered this semester include: Performing Sketch Comedy taught by actress and comedian Dahéli Hall; Creating Comedy #Content taught by actor, writer, and comedian Patrick McDonald ’13; The Business of Comedy taught by creative producer Zoe Friedman; and Finding the Funny: Comedic Scene Study for Television taught by Emmy Award–winning director Henry Chan. 

For McDonald’s class, students create three different TikToks a week. Some students questioned how beneficial it would be to post to the online platform, but quickly realized the benefits of developing a portfolio.  

“A digital online profile is one of the ways that people get known, comedically,” said Hillary Block ’25, who’d like to write her own show one day. 

As part of McDonald’s class, she was able to pitch creative content ideas for the head of social media at Crocs. Her pitch involved wearing Crocs at camp, something she did in real life. Not only did Block receive good feedback on her pitch, but the class also got free Crocs. 

“I had a good idea. I made someone really happy. It was so exciting,” said Block. “I like bringing a smile to people’s faces.”

Students in the program spend much of their time together, living in nearby suites and attending the same classes and events. That environment has allowed them to form strong bonds and foster creativity. They riff off each other, workshop ideas, and practice bits.

In contrast to the well-established LA Program attended by seniors, students in the conservatory don’t have internships. Block says that one of her favorite aspects of the program has been seeing everyone’s comedic voices develop and shine through the work they create. 

“It feels like a sitcom, in the best way,” said Block. “It’s funny every day. We just play.”

Block says she’s collaborated with other students in the program on things like filming TikToks and writing. One collaboration spearheaded by Amelie “Circus” Atwater ’25 was a video parody of the opening scene from Saturday Night Fever, where each student struts down Sunset Boulevard dressed as clowns. While filming the video, she encouraged each student to develop their own “Clown-sona.” The final product was featured in a video showcase, which the students wrote and produced with guidance from Hall. 

One of the benefits of having a program in LA is that the students get to learn from people actively working in the industry. When news broke of the Writers Guild reaching a deal with Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, Hall was at one of their rallies near campus listening to speeches. An hour later, she was teaching in class, sharing information about the tentative agreement. 

Taking the specialized classes has allowed Atwater to build upon her comedic skills. Taking the class with Chan opened her eyes on how to direct people. 

“Obviously, I love to perform. By taking the directing class, I learned how to get my ideas across to other people while still letting them be creative,” said Atwater, who’d like to have her own variety show one day.  

Originally from a small town in Washington, Atwater says it took a bit of time for her to adjust to life in LA, but she’s gotten used to it. She’s one of two students in the cohort with a car. 

“There’s so much stuff going on, which is cool. It’s so busy all the time,” said Atwater, who earned the nickname Circus when she attended — you guessed it — a circus, and Sharpied the word on her forehead. The nickname has stuck ever since, perhaps foretelling her future as she’d love to pursue clowning. In the short term, she wants to put on a circus-themed comedy show.

Bob Odenkirk sits in chair speaking to students in chairs in classroom
Bob Odenkirk shared advice and answered questions from students in the Comedy Conservatory program. Photo/Daryl Paranada

A Treasure of Guest Speakers

When Cook was building the program, she knew she needed someone reliable to bring in guests, take students on field trips, and help them delve into the world of LA comedy. Enter Glenn Meehan ’83, who served as Comedic Arts Coordinator for the program. He refers to himself as a kind of “den mother” to the students. 

Cook and Meehan became friends at Emerson. Together, they co-created The EVVYs in 1982. 

“The soul of the Emerson students that I experienced in the ’80s is still there,” said Meehan, who has worked as a producer and development executive for decades. “I am so impressed with them. They really give me hope for the future. They are hungry to learn, respectful. They’ve kind of become my kids. It’s been a very rewarding job for me.”

The Writers Guild and SAG-AFTRA strikes threw a wrench in plans for field trips to comedy TV show sets, but students were able to visit the sets of Big Brother, The Talk, and Entertainment Tonight. The guest speakers Meehan brought in to share career advice and spend time with students is a virtual who’s who in comedy and entertainment:  

  • Director Jake Szymanski and “real guy” Ronald Gladden (Jury Duty)
  • Executive Producer/Writer Eric Kaplan (Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon
  • Actor Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Shrinking)
  • Actor, musician, and comedian Gabe Gibbs ’14 (The Book of Mormon)
  • Comedy duo Frangela
  • TV personality Sharon Osbourne 
  • Actress and TV host Melissa Rivers
  • Comedian and magician Justin Willman ’02
  • Animator Maximus Pauson (Rick and Morty
  • Producer Todd Milliner (Grimm)
  • Actress Kate Flannery (The Office)
  • Comedian and impressionist Justin Rupple
  • Producer and Trustee Kevin Bright ’76 (Friends)
  • Comedian and actor Fred Armisen (SNL, Portlandia)
  • Showrunner and producer Franco Bario ’84 (That ’70s Show, Saved by the Bell
  • Comedian and actor Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul)
  • Writer and producer Kate Bouitlier ’81 (Rugrats, The Wild Thornberrys)
  • TV personality Mark L. Walberg

“The guest speakers are awesome. It’s basically like getting an inspirational TED Talk every few days,” said Atwater. “They’re really friendly and encouraging.”

In addition to the speakers, two alumni were brought in to share advice on a variety of topics with the students throughout the semester. Similar to Emerson LA’s Career Advisory Network program, the alumni met with students three times throughout the semester. Actress, writer, and director Jen Zabrowski ’04 and comedian, actor, writer, and producer Dan Levy ’02 served as mentors. 

“It’s an incredible program because a lot of times you don’t get to LA until your senior year,” said Levy, who invited students to watch him perform stand-up during one of his sets. “When you’re specifically focusing on Comedic Arts, it’s good to be here in LA and take it all in and learn.”

student stands at mic on stage, sign reading "Stand Up on Sunset" behind
Storm Templeton ’25 performs stand up during a night of comedy at Emerson College Los Angeles. Photo/Daryl Paranada

Showcasing Their Chops

Many of the students have taken advantage of all the opportunities provided by living in LA —attending shows, building connections, and exploring the city’s bustling comedy scene. 

Templeton and one of his classmates, W. Cooper Smith, performed short sets while opening for a comedy show at Emerson LA. It was Templeton’s first real stand-up performance. 

“I definitely got a high being on stage and just performing,” said Templeton. “I immediately wanted to go and do it again.”

Performing has always been something he’s loved. Whether it’s rapping, acting, or doing stand-up, Templeton says a big theme for him this year has been taking opportunities. He took time after performing at the comedy show to speak with a handful of the comedians. One standup, Mike Kim, shared something that stuck with him: Allow yourself to fail. It’s one of several pieces of advice that he’s recorded in his video journals to look back on when he needs words of wisdom or inspiration.

“Hearing advice from someone in person who’s doing what you want to do really resonates,” said Templeton.

Ethan Dale ’25 also had his first real stand-up experience while performing at The Crow in Santa Monica. The writers’ strike impacted his ability to work internships as a production assistant over the summer, so he took a job at the club. One of the regular comedians there, Jen Kober, asked Dale to open for her. 

“I was very, very nervous,” said Dale. “This isn’t just like five minutes at an open mic that everyone’s going to forget about right after.”

His classmates were there to support him through the moment. His family—the ones who watched him make a Candyland parody video as a kid and deliver a eulogy for his grandfather that garnered a laugh during a highly tense, emotional moment—were there too. So was Meehan. And for 15 long minutes, Dale stood on stage and drew laughter from the crowd. 

“It went really well,” said Dale, who put a lot of extra pressure on himself to not ruin the moment for the audience. “I was actually shocked.”

Throughout his time in the program, comedians have emphasized finding your voice, which is one of the reasons why Dale and other students interested in stand-up want to keep getting up on stage. 

“We’re making connections, meeting a ton of people. It really does feel like it’s finally real. It feels good,” said Dale. “For the first time, it feels like we’re actually doing it instead of just dreaming.”

Justin Willman sits on stage surrounded by studnets
Students and alumnus Justin Willman ’02, center, watched Dan Levy perform stand up. Courtesy photo
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