The Comedy College: Storied scene puts Emerson on front lines of funny

, Beacon Staff/strong

“What I love about Emerson, is that comedy is almost its own subcategory of the social scene,” said Patrick McDonald, president of Jimmy’s Traveling Allstars (JTA). Before continuing, he hesitated, aware of the half dozen other troupe members sitting around him, waiting to jump on any joke-fodder as it left his mouth.

“It’s the comedy kids. Then you have the jocks, the athletes—” they pounced. Laughter and friendly ribbing ensued. “Well, actually, you don’t have too many of those.”

But McDonald has a point—at a college with seven performance troupes, a loose collective of standup comedians, and one satirical media organization, “comedy kids” compose a formidable contingent of the student body.

The laughcrafting presence at Emerson, though notably large of late, is nothing new. The college has a long-standing record of spitting out funny people of all stripes—be it Steven Wright, who graduated in 1978, and his monotone one-liners, dripping with droll, or the chin-iest dude on late night, Jay Leno, who graduated in 1973. emSex and the City/em’s sassiest cast member, 1982 graduate Mario Cantone; 2005 graduate Iliza Shlesinger, sixth season winner of emLast Comic Standing/em; and comedienne/stage actress Andrea Martin, who graduated in 1969, all worked the stage while donning purple and gold as well.

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Even 1967 graduate Henry Winkler, best known for punching jukeboxes and jumping sharks, continues to have a hand in contemporary comedy with his bit role on cult-of-the-cancelled favorite, emArrested Development/em.

Over time, Emerson has built a nationwide reputation as a comedic breeding ground, a sort of pre-Laugh Factory laugh factory. In just over three decades, the scene has gone from nearly nonexistent to a rich and varied community.

“My guidance counselor suggested it because of the comedy scene,” said Matthew Newman, a freshman writing for film and television major who is in his first semester with JTA. “That was one of the big reasons I came here.”

The opportunities for students looking to cut their comedy chops are many.

Of course, there are the troupes—JTA, Emerson Comedy Workshop (ECW), Stroopwafel, Chocolate Cake City (CCC), Swolen Monkey Showcase, The Girlie Project, and This is Pathetic.

But if solo joke-slinging’s more your style, stand-up coalition Inside Joke has you covered.

And for those with a knack for printed satire, there’s Hyena, the group behind this publication’s Bizarro World twin, the Freakin’ Beakin.

“We provide a great community for each other,” said junior CCC president Lee Benzaquin. “It’s a safe place to try stand-up or to try sketch and really collaborate and find a voice by the time you leave the school.”

strongThe Tipping Point/strong

The modern era of Emerson comedy can be traced back to 1976. That’s when Eddie Brill met Denis Leary.

The latter — well, he became Denis Leary, making a name for himself in stand-up, film, and television, while the former went on to be a cornerstone of the Late Show with David Letterman dynasty, warming up the crowd before every taping and coordinating talent bookings for the program.

The pair crossed paths by chance while Leary was planting the seeds for what would become ECW, now the college’s oldest active comedy troupe.

“It was a fluke,” said Brill in a phone interview. “I heard Denis talking about this meeting they were going to have to start a comedy group. I went to the first meeting and I was hooked right away.”

At the time, Brill said, there wasn’t much in the way of organized comedy at the college.

“There had been many comedians who had gone to Emerson, but there was never a scene.”

After graduating, Brill stayed involved with the Emerson comedy world, working with a number of other funny alumni to establish a scholarship for comedy. He’ll be on campus Nov. 18 and 20 to host a workshop for student comedians.

“Emerson is the place,” he said. “I tell everyone that they should go to Emerson if they want to do comedy.”

strongThe Digi-LOL Age/strong

The scene saw slight growth and a few now-famous faces throughout the 80s and 90s. This Is Pathetic, founded in 1981, boasted a roster including short-lived Emerson kid and alt-comedy legend David Cross.

Then, the Internet happened. With the advent of YouTube in 2005, it became possible for aspiring comics to distribute DIY content to chuckle-hungry net denizens the world over.

On Feb. 1, 2006 — less than one year after YouTube’s creation — members of Chocolate Cake City uploaded a video titled “Brokeback to the Future.” The faux-movie trailer mashed up footage from the emBack to the Future /emfranchise with sweeping music and new title cards to mimic the plot of everyone’s favorite gay cowboy drama, emBrokeback Mountain/em.

These were the days before commercial entities jumped on the webbie bandwagon — no ads, no pop star music videos, just user-generated content — and “Brokeback to the Future” took off. In just over a month, the video garnered more than 2.5 million views. Emerson comedy had gone viral. The clip now sits pretty at 6,215,610 views as of Wednesday night, with fresh comments posted almost daily.

The way former CCC president Dan Perrault sees it, there wasn’t something that suddenly clicked, catalyzing an exponential growth in Emerson’s comedy clout. Rather, the ‘09 graduate feels it was students’ ability to adapt to a changing media landscape.

“I don’t think the comedy community here has changed that greatly,” said Perrault in a phone interview. “It’s just that the medium changed and we were in the right place at the right time.”

Perrault said this digi-galitarianism led to a shift in the comedy world as a whole. Internet video gave underground, underhyped, and just-a-bit-too-weird-for-television comedians a venue all their own. The web proved a perfect platform for the often off-beat sensibilities of Emerson comedians.

Andrew Coalson, president of ECW, and de facto leader of Inside Joke, said it’s this do-your-own-thing atmosphere that helps the community thrive.

“You don’t even have to join an organization, you can do it all on your own,” said Coalson. “It’s incredible.”

The creative freewheeling enjoyed by laugh-rats at Emerson is a luxury not known to all collegiate comedians. Up Tremont Street, at Suffolk University, the school’s lone comedy performance group, Seriously Bent, functions under a different system. The 12-person improv troupe is run, funded, and controlled by the university’s Performing Arts Office.

“They’re our bosses, in a way,” said Alec Lawless, a senior and co-captain of the troupe. “They say what we can and can’t do, and if we do something really bad in a show they yell at us.”

strongContinued Growth/strong

During the fall 2009 semester, a cadre of comedy lovers at Emerson’s Kasteel Well campus started a short-form improv troupe called Stroopwafel, in honor of the chewy, gooey, Dutch treat beloved by many a castle dweller. The crew returned to Boston in the spring and put down roots as a Student Government Association-recognized troupe.

Current Stroopwafel president Chris Hyacinthe, a senior marketing communication major, said the broad range of styles present in the Emerson comedy community allowed for the fledgling troupe to find its own niche.

“Our endgames are the same,” said Hyacinthe. “We all just want to make people laugh, but we all do it in our own specific way.”

Still, one would think — with so many troupes vying for performance space, new members, and, most importantly, audiences — a rivalry or two would materialize here and there.

Perrault recalls how the early-aughts saw quiet and sometimes tense competition.

“I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t some grudges,” he said.

Nowadays, according to those involved, the scene is experiencing a period of unity. In fact, Benzaquin and McDonald — presidents of CCC and JTA, respectively — are even roommates.

“The first people that come up to you after shows are people from other comedy troupes saying ‘awesome job,’” said JTA’s Gemma Simko, a junior marketing communication major.

Coalson attributes the group-hugginess of it all to a collective jump in talent — an indicator of the current quality of the community.

“When people don’t know what they’re doing, it’s a matter of just grabbing and getting,” said Coalson. “Whereas right now, we have all these troupes where everybody’s doing really well.”

emMiller can be reached at steven_miller@emerson.edu. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_R_Miller./em

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