Some Minor Funny Business

Melissa Sahagian performs with Police Geese. Photo by Taylor Jarvis '17. The following exam question has been reprinted with permission from the faculty members of Emerson College’s comedy minor.

Are you funny? A. Yes B. No C. All of the above

…So maybe comedy classes don’t have exams. And maybe that exam question isn’t real. But how do you just slap a comedy minor on your degree? And does that automatically make you funny?

“It can’t really be taught,” says Wes Hauptman ’16, Vice President of Inside Joke Comics. “You have to have a mind for it. So this will help people who have a comedic mind find their way into it, which is great. But it’s also something you can’t really teach to everyone.”

Promising young comedians flocked to Emerson long before the comedy minor was instituted in Fall 2014. The school is home to a whopping nine performance troupes: This Is Pathetic, Swolen Monkey Showcase, Stroopwafel, Police Geese, Chocolate Cake City, Emerson Comedy Workshop, The Girlie Project, Derbyn and the Drakefish, and Jimmy’s Traveling All-Stars. Established troupes like Jimmy's Traveling All-Stars, which was formed in 1999, host many shows during a semester, showcasing long and short form improv and sketch talents. In addition to comedy troupes, groups like Inside Joke Comics host open mics on campus for those passionate about standup comedy, allowing comedians in every range of experience to test their best material on student audiences.

But now any wise guy (or girl) can pursue the comedy minor without having to audition.

“I worry that people are going to see that and think that a comedy minor is something that can make them funny,” says This Is Pathetic member Justin Cordua ’16. “I don’t want people to think that you can learn how to be funny, because I’m not sure if you can.”

Still, there isn’t a guidebook to making people laugh, and Emerson doesn’t offer a degree for such a program. So what is a comic to do? Often, they’re forced to figure things out on their own, crafting a major out of the small number of comedy-related classes available and participating in a variety of extracurricular organizations in order to graduate with an adequate amount of experience in the field.

Seeing the need for more structure in comedy education, Martie Cook, associate chair of the Visual and Media Arts department, helped introduce the comedy minor. Strung together from classes in the Writing, Literature and Publishing, Visual and Media Arts, and Performing Arts departments, the minor requires that students take VM 208 The Evolution of Comedy and VM 222 Writing for Television along with three additional classes that include both writing and performance.

As a writer and producer of both television and film, Cook has written a number of comedic screenplays, including some for hit television shows like Full House and Charles in Charge. She believes the value of a comedic education is limitless, whether or not one wishes to pursue a career in comedy.

“I think that comedy is so universal,” she says. “So if you are in any other discipline, it can only behoove you to be able to make your boss laugh.”

She explains the minor isn't just about being funny.

“I love people who use their art to say something that’s worthwhile, and to start conversations that people don’t want to have, and to make the audience think differently,” says Cook. “I would want people to use [the minor] to make the world a better place.”

Wes Hauptman is one of the first Emersonians to minor in comedy. He’s currently taking a workshop class focused on standup comedy.

“It’s great!” he says. “I feel like it’s cheating, because when I came into class I had a half-hour of material already, but I’m trying to work on new stuff in that class.”

While the classes are exciting for Hauptman, other students aren’t so lucky. There are issues with credits and graduation requirements. Several of the courses offered for the comedy minor are within the VMA department, but students are prohibited from double dipping. This means that even though a number of the classes offered for the minor would also count for a VMA major, students can’t take one class counting towards both the major and minor.

Writing for Film and Television major Melissa Sahagian ’17 noted interest in the minor, but denied the opportunity as the excessive amount of overlapping requirements would interfere with her plans to graduate a semester early.

Founder of comedy troupe Derbyn and the Drakefish, Dan Goldberg ’17, helped promote the comedy minor’s launch, but found himself in a similar situation. Although he can’t take on the minor, he says it’s a valuable educational experience.

“Figuring out how to refine your voice and what you’re trying to say is really important, and if people can do that in the classroom, that’s wonderful,” he explains, “I think that it gives students a lot of potential to showcase themselves as people who really take the art of comedy seriously.”

Cook sees the overlap as a necessary component of the minor, insisting that it’s the only way to create well-rounded comedians. But the requirements have unintentionally created roadblocks for students. As a Television Production major, Hauptman had taken Writing for Television before signing up for the comedy minor, and was frustrated to find that he’d need to re-take this class.

Uncertainty about the comedy minor leaves many student comics continuing to look outside the classroom for an education. In doing so, there’s been an increasing trend among aspiring comedians to create alternative organizations to those found on campus. Hauptman, for instance, started hosting off-campus open mics for students intimidated by Boston’s comedy scene. By setting up a microphone and amp in a friend’s apartment, he organized a two-hour-long open mic night for around twenty different student acts.

Similarly, Cordua established an informal practice group with a few friends in an effort to educate himself and others in the art of improv. After crafting a curriculum from the Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual—a publication of improv theory provided by American improvisational theatre and training center the Upright Citizens Brigade—Cordua and his friends are trying to tackle as much technique as possible over the course of the semester.

With or without a comedy minor, Sahagian asserts that extracurricular activities remain the best way to gain experience in the field of comedy.

“Just taking classes isn’t going to get you anywhere. In the real world, you’ll need to go out and audition for things. So I think that auditioning for comedy troupes or Emerson Channel shows is the best way to get practice,” says Sahagian, member of Police Geese.

Perhaps the best way to gain an education in comedy is put simply by Cook, “Utilize everything that Emerson has to offer.”

As of now, the practice of a formal comedic education is rather unique—there are still a few issues to be resolved. But as Emerson continues to establish itself in the world of comedy, opportunities are on the rise, and the comedy minor is only a taste of what’s to come.