You can’t really teach comedy.
You can go to comedy shows. You can perfect your dream routine in between classes. You can watch Bo Burnham videos and curse yourself for not thinking of “designer genes” first. But to make it big, you have to dive right in.
Like Northwestern alumni Stephen Colbert, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Seth Meyers, aspiring comedians come to Northwestern looking for a jumpstart to a career in comedy. It can be tough to follow in the footsteps of such famous faces, and students who want to shine need to create their own success.
Because there’s no such thing as a course on comedy, students polish their skills in student groups, write and perform together for practice and venture into Chicago for real-world experience at open mics and local comedy clubs.
Just as it’s hard to describe the perfect joke or visualize the ideal sketch, it’s nearly impossible to list step-by-step instructions for comedic stardom. To make it big, comedians must achieve a peaceful balance between networking and self-promotion, between falling back on a group for support and standing out from the crowd.
Extracurricular groups, networking within the community and experience in the city are integral components of the Northwestern comedy scene, particularly for those planning to pursue comedy professionally. There’s no easy path to a career in show business, but student comedians work their way into the real world like everyone else — one joke at a time.
Finding your place
Humor comes in all forms — scripted or improvised, with a group or flying solo. Communication senior Aaron Eisenberg has learned this firsthand in his experience with the NU comedy scene. Now a co-director for Mee-Ow, he performed with several other campus comedy groups before finding his niche in improv.
“You’ve got to really have a thick skin because humor is a very subjective process,” says Eisenberg, who also stars in the webshow Gertonberg on North by Northwestern. “Not everybody’s going to say that your sense of humor is what they’re looking for, but some people are going to say it’s exactly what they’re looking for.”
The Titanic Players, Out Da’ Box and Mee-Ow make up the substantial improvisation community at Northwestern. NSTV, a 60-member force of writers, directors, actors, producers and crew members, creates web-based comedic sketches and puts on two live shows per year. Sit & Spin Productions’ yearly stand-up show provided the only opportunity for stand-up comedians on campus, until an open-to-all group called Comedy Forum emerged last year.
Comedy Forum began as two friends talking about funny stuff. Last year, Communication sophomore Dan Selinger, the group’s president, and Weinberg sophomore Chloe Cole, its vice president, started taking the El into Chicago to perform at open mics. They would meet a few hours before leaving to go over their routines.
“There’s something about hanging out with funny people, that you get in this mindset where suddenly the creative juices just start to flow,” says Selinger. “It’s much easier and so much more fun when you can, you know, kind of vamp with people — riff with people.”
The two decided to form a stand-up comedy group, seeking to provide comedians with a similar give-and-take atmosphere on a larger scale. The group, a stand-up workshop designed around the idea that anyone can come and contribute, started out with eight members and has since grown to 23. They meet weekly to critique each other’s jokes, polish ideas and share thoughts in a relaxed environment.
“It provides a structure and also a community where comedians are getting to know each other,” Cole says.
Comedy with a collaborative flair can benefit students at all levels, from new kids trying to find their niche in the comedy world to seasoned pros looking to bounce jokes off their peers. Because of the variety of performing groups on campus, Northwestern students may try their luck in different fields of comedy — improv, sketches, stand-up, long-form — before committing to the type that suits them best.
“I think it makes you a better collaborator to know there’s not a right way or a wrong way to go about it,” Eisenberg says. “It really teaches you the art of exploration and finding out what works for you as a performer.”
Perfecting the craft
What makes a routine funny? Material comes from day-to-day challenges, real life experiences, stories people can relate to — like “family issues, failed romances, waiting for Bagel Bites to cook in the microwave,” says Dan Siegel (Communication ’10), a former co-director of Northwestern Sketch Television.
Some people can sit in a room by themselves and think hilarious thoughts, while others are constantly on the hunt for funny situations in their daily lives. Every comedian goes through the process differently.
“I use stories from my life and I exaggerate a little, add in analogies, and come up with slightly off-color, slightly offensive punch lines,” says Communication junior Lex Singer, a member of Comedy Forum who has contributed to North by Northwestern in the past. He pauses, then adds, “But they’re masked in self-deprecation so it’s a little easier to deal with.”
Crafting the perfect sketch, routine or show is an art. For many students, support from other funny people completes the experience. This is the guiding philosophy behind Comedy Forum and other campus groups that encourage collaboration and co-writing; working with funny people makes you funnier.
“I wouldn’t want to be involved if the people weren’t so amazing,” says Amy Reed, a Communication sophomore and NSTV writer. “It’s such a unique group; other things you do for one weekend, or one quarter, [but] in this you’re writing all year round and constantly trying to improve sketches and make them funnier.”
Comedians shouldn’t limit themselves to one style, either. Eisenberg says even comedians who have found a comfortable “niche” –- for example, those who love stand-up above all else -– should pick up as many other skills as they can, whether in student groups or on their own time. It’s more marketable and more professional.
“It’s about not limiting yourself,” he says. “If you can write and you can perform, learn how to work a camera, and then learn how to improvise. You want to be able to do it all.”
Working the crowd
Students can learn a lot from the diversity of Northwestern’s comedy scene. Working with talented peers gives them a sense of the importance of making connections early and often, whereas establishing a presence on campus or in Chicago as a performer shows initiative and independence. Once you’re on your own, self-promotion becomes even more important.
Dan Siegel attests to this. The recent graduate worked as a production intern at College Humor and was recently hired full-time as an assistant production accountant. It’s not his ideal job since he’s not creating anything, he says, so he keeps his sense of humor in check by performing at open mic nights in New York City four or five nights a week.
The city is noticeably less receptive than the crowds he performed for while in college, he says. He misses the days when he could write entire routines about hot cookie bar or Evanston panhandlers –- upon moving to New York, he says, he scrapped his college routine to start from scratch.
“When you move to New York, you miss those supportive generous crowds that you get in college,” he says. “There’s nothing like performing for a packed audience of your peers.”
Siegel says his dream job is to write and produce for television. Though his current day job as an accountant is more about counting money than being funny, he pays attention to the behind-the-scenes work that goes into producing College Humor material. He says it is crucial to power through setbacks and rejection –- they’re inevitable in show business.
“If you get rejected from everything, start something new,” he says. “Use college as a head start to find your voice.”
Friends in high places
Internships in the comedy field are out there if you look for them. Chloe Cole, who hopes to intern with “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” this summer, says comedy interns try to make as many connections as possible while interning and even submit ideas or scripts to the professional writers for critique. Making friends is as important as making good impressions.
“You try to get your foot in the door any way [you can,]” she says. “I’ve heard stories of people who were secretaries [at comedy venues] and kept trying to submit scripts. I tell my parents I have no illusions that I’m going to be living with cardboard furniture for the first ten years.”
Though young comedians seem to flock to New York, Northwestern’s proximity to Chicago provides a huge advantage for Northwestern students looking for opportunities. The city is known for its vibrant comedy scene –- renowned comedy club The Second City is based out of Chicago –- and students can make connections and contacts by performing in local stand-up shows.
“Generally speaking, I find that people that are of above-average intelligence tend to be funnier because they understand the world better,” says Dave Odd, owner of The Edge Comedy Club in Chicago.
The city sees lots of aspiring comedians, so students have to stand out at open mics if they want to be remembered. According to Eisenberg, this means showing a passion for comedy while maintaining an air of professionalism with anyone who could be a future reference or employer. If you’re driven, it shows.
“I think a lot of it has to do with being gracious, thankful and appreciative, but at the same time being hungry for it,” he says. “You can’t sit around and hope something good happens. You have to make your own luck.”
Just be yourself
In a huge world of comedy hopefuls, establishing your own identity is key, adds Eisenberg. He plans on moving to New York at the end of the year to continue his current job as a correspondent for the MTV show The Seven. He says exploring different kinds of comedy and gaining exposure throughout college helped him land the gig.
“The best thing about comedy is that it’s been around forever, but it’s never been around exactly the same way twice,” he says. “It’s your individuality that makes you get seen.”
Part of that individuality involves stepping up to every microphone with fresh material an audience hasn’t heard before.
“I try and never perform the same material twice in an open mic,” Selinger says. “And people notice that, when you continuously show up and have new stuff.”
Odd agrees that diversity of material and audience is crucial. He says collegiate comedians often make the mistake of performing in front of the same type of “20-something liberal college type crowd” one night after the other. The most successful comedians, he says, are those who can make a new crowd laugh.
“A lot of comedians cater shows to their [own] demographics,” he says. “You have to fight your way through the snobbery.”
There’s no perfect formula for marketing yourself as a comedian. Lex Singer, for example, posts videos of his routines on YouTube. Selinger says student comics may join Facebook groups of Chicagoland comics to look for stand-up gigs or simply roam the city looking for open mics. Fame and fortune aren’t inevitable, but gigs will come to comedians with the moxie to pursue them.
“Being with other smart, funny, passionate people who could do shows together and brainstorm ideas, that was what made comedy at Northwestern so exciting,” Siegel says.