Splitsider

Monday, March 7th, 2011

Tina Fey's Two Types of Comedy Writer: Harvard Boys and Crazy Improvisers

In the latest issue of the New Yorker Tina Fey has written a piece about her experiences at SNL. I am guessing that this new guest writing stint at the magazine has much to do with her upcoming book, Bossypants, and these pieces are probably adapted from it. But in any case, the article isn't online for non-subscribers, so you'll need to shell out for a hard copy if you want to read it. But here's a fun passage that I transcribed for you because I love you about how Tina separates SNL's writers into two camps: Harvard boys and Chicago improvisers.

The staff of Saturday Night Live has always been a blend of hyper-intelligent Harvard boys (Jim Downey, Al Franken, Conan O'Brien) and gifted, visceral, fun performers (John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Jan Hooks, Horatio Sanz, Bill Murray, Maya Rudolph). Lorne somehow knew that too many of one or the other would knock the show out of balance. To generalize with abandon, if you had nothing but Harvard guys the whole show would be made up of commercial parodies about people wearing barrels after the 1929 stock-market crash. "Flenderson's Poverty Barrels: Replacing Clothes Despite Being More Expensive Since… Right Now. Formerly known as Flenderson's Pickles and Suspenders: A Semiotic Exegesis of Jazz Age Excess and the Failings of the Sherman Anti-trust Act."

If you had nothing but improvisers, the whole show would be made up of loud drag characters named Vicki and Staci screaming their catchphrase over and over: "YOU KISS YOUR MUTHA WITH THAT FACE?"

Harvard boys and improv people think differently because their comedy upbringing is so different. If you're sitting in the Harvard Lampoon Castle with your friends, you can perfect a piece of writing so that it is exactly what you want and you can avoid the feeling of red-hot flop sweat — especially because you won't even be there when someone reads it. But when you're improvising eight shows a week in front of drunk, meat-eating Chicagoans you experience highs and lows. You will be heckled, or, worse, you will hear your heartbeat over the audience's silence. You will be bombing so hard that you will be able to hear a lady in the back putting her gum in a napkin. You may have a point to make about the health-care system in America, but you'll find out that you need to present it through a legally blind bus-driver character or an exotic dancer whose boobs are running for mayor. (I would like to see that sketch, actually.) Ultimately, you will do whatever it takes to win the audience over.

If Harvard is Classical Military Theory, Improv is Vietnam.

I am sure there will be people out there who take offense at only people who went to Harvard or improvisers from Second City being deemed worthy as writers for Fey, but those people would be taking this a wee bit too literally. You can be a funny nerd without going to Harvard, gang. You just won't have those choice Lampoon connections to get you your first gig.

  • amyohconair

    It's all well and good to dismiss it as not being literal but the facts do speak for themselves – a third of her staff is comprised of guys who attended Harvard. It's the same story at The Office, Parks & Recreation and SNL which each have at least four Harvard alum on their writing staffs. Clearly there is a certain amount of preferential treatment given to Harvard alum, particularly at the NBC shows and I think its borderline irresponsible of Fey to pen an article endorsing this hiring practice.

    • http://splitsider.com Adam Frucci

      I mean, what is "preferential treatment"? How do you think people get hired? From knowing people. Improv scenes, be it Chicago, NYC or LA, are big communities where tons of talented young comedians gather together. They network, and then when some of them get successful, they bring their friends along when they can as those are the funny, talented people they know.

      There have been tons of Harvard Lampoon people in TV comedy for years and years. It's a network of friends and acquaintances who all got their starts together. Does it suck to not have those connections if you didn't go to Harvard? Sure. But it's not like you can't get a job writing comedy if you didn't edit the Lampoon. It's just the most obvious example of people hiring the people they worked with before they got their break. I'm not sure what's "irresponsible" about that.

      And I'd say that the Harvard thing is nothing what it was 10-20 years ago, when pretty much the entire SNL and Simpsons writing staffs were Harvard guys. There's still a lot of 'em, but it's not like they run the entire comedy world and keep anyone else out. It's still a meritocracy.

      • http://twitter.com/BreakerCassidy Breaker Cassidy

        If you went to Harvard and your job is to make Homer Simpson or Leslie Knope funny, thanks for taking the spot of some poor Bangladeshi kid who might have cured Cancer. Also, Comedy is about struggle, loss, and pain and how you use comedy to overcome these things. I feel the majority of Harvard people have never seen a cloudy day in their life and on the whole have had pretty charmed lives. Why are these people telling us what is funny? When have they had to use comedy to cope with real pain or loss? Okay, maybe there was that one summer where they lost the skiff they built with their Grandfather on Cape Cod. Wow, I'm sure that was a bummer. Harvard comedians may know what the surface of comedy is and they may be witty or fast with a quip and yes very smart. I certainly hope they are, because they did go to Harvard. Having said that though, I would look to someone who may have had a harder go at life and are still upbeat and funny, because being funny is what got them through it. Comedy is about rebelling against the status quo, not the status quo dictating what is funny. The Jester is the Jester and the King is the King for a reason. The best comedy and creativity comes from struggle and when your back is against the wall. I doubt many Harvard people have ever been in that position. And if they are; why? You went to Harvard. I'm sure right out of the gate you got a gig writing for TV. When that job probably should have gone to the guy that is sleeping in his car and does open mic's every night, but he can't get in the same room because he didn't go to Harvard. That Harvard person doesn't NEED that job. Leave SOMETHING left for the dreamers because that's all they have.

      • http://twitter.com/BreakerCassidy Breaker Cassidy

        If you went to Harvard and your job is to make Homer Simpson or Leslie Knope funny, thanks for taking the spot of some poor Bangladeshi kid who might have cured Cancer. Also, Comedy is about struggle, loss, and pain and how you use comedy to overcome these things. I feel the majority of Harvard people have never seen a cloudy day in their life and on the whole have had pretty charmed lives. Why are these people telling us what is funny? When have they had to use comedy to cope with real pain or loss? Okay, maybe there was that one summer where they lost the skiff they built with their Grandfather on Cape Cod. Wow, I'm sure that was a bummer. Harvard comedians may know what the surface of comedy is and they may be witty or fast with a quip and yes very smart. I certainly hope they are, because they did go to Harvard. Having said that though, I would look to someone who may have had a harder go at life and are still upbeat and funny, because being funny is what got them through it. Comedy is about rebelling against the status quo, not the status quo dictating what is funny. The Jester is the Jester and the King is the King for a reason. The best comedy and creativity comes from struggle and when your back is against the wall. I doubt many Harvard people have ever been in that position. And if they are; why? You went to Harvard. I'm sure right out of the gate you got a gig writing for TV. When that job probably should have gone to the guy that is sleeping in his car and does open mic's every night, but he can't get in the same room because he didn't go to Harvard. That Harvard person doesn't NEED that job. Leave SOMETHING left for the dreamers because that's all they have.

        • jrmamana

          What a startling and totally inaccurate generalization!

          • http://twitter.com/BreakerCassidy Breaker Cassidy

            What a brief and totally unsupported accusation!

  • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

    And the odd stand up comic who comes from neither camp! Those guys always seem to be able to wrinkle their way into the SNL writing staff. Otherwise, this doesn't seem like much of a simplification.

  • Pedro Salinas

    Shut up Twofer we don't care that you went to Harvard