When They Were In College
Before many of our most beloved comedy stars made it big, they had the same four-year college experience as millions of young Americans. They sat nervously through the same orientation sessions, suffered through the same macroeconomics gen-ed classes, and shelled out $200 for the same anthropology textbook they were never going to use. But while we were arranging our class schedule so we could sleep in until noon every day, or briefly pretending to care about politics, our soon-to-be comedy idols were quietly positioning themselves to take over the industry, honing their chops in campus sketch groups, humor newspapers, and open mic nights. Below, we listed some comedians whose college-year accomplishments will put to shame that thesis project you proudly uploaded to Funny or Die.
Coco’s college years are better documented than those of most other comedians, thanks to his post as editor of the storied Harvard Lampoon, the same humor publication that gave us Sen. Al Franken, American Office creator and showrunner Greg Daniels, Simon Rich, and legendary Simpsons writers George Meyer and Brent Forrester. Among his exploits with the Lampoon was an incident that bizarrely foreshadowed the Tonight Show debacle at NBC in 2010. O’Brien and his fellow Lampoon staffers had an ongoing rivalry with Harvard’s newspaper, the Crimson, which was then led by future NBC exec Jeff Zucker. The Crimson described their relationship this way in 2004:
In fact, O’Brien first met Zucker, his current boss, one day when O’Brien and the Lampoon editors stole all the copies of that morning’s Crimson. Zucker, then Crimson President, called the police and met O’Brien face to face while he was being arrested.
Deadline reported that Conan had also used Zucker’s dorm phone number in a fake phone sex ad, and that Zucker told a Yale gathering in 2005 that O’Brien only forgave him when Zucker gave him the Tonight Show. Between these battles and the ones that led to the invention of Facebook, Harvard’s hallowed grounds are crimson bloody from as much political strife as any DC backroom or Hollywood agency.
New York University
Most online comedy video groups would probably list among their inspirations the sketch group DERRICK (actors Donald Glover, DC Pierson and Dominic Dierkes, director Dan Eckman, and producer Meggie McFadden), who pioneered the movement with viral hits like “Bro Rape.” The group met when they were members of NYU’s improv and sketch groups Dangerbox and Hammerkatz, but rather than limit their work to small theaters in the city, the boys went online, churning out videos at a rate and quality that was rare for Internet comedians in those days. While earning their degrees at NYU, the group also became active members of the UCB community, where they met other rising comedy stars like Bobby Moynihan, Ellie Kemper, and Aubrey Plaza, who all appeared in their 2009 film Mystery Team (which you can now watch for free on Hulu).
Comedian and SNL writer John Mulaney occasionally mentions his days as an intern at UCB and doing improv in college at Georgetown, but what many people may not realize is the Georgetown Improv Association (a group whose name has changed over the years) was also the old stomping grounds for comedians Mike Birbiglia and Nick Kroll. Last year, Mulaney told Splitsider about his college comedy experience:
I got to Georgetown, and I auditioned for the improv group within the first week of being there. And I was cast, and I did that for four years. That was all I was doing. I was OK at school, but I was mainly doing comedy. I started doing monologues at improv shows, and from that I started doing stand-up. The person who cast me in the group was Nick Kroll. He was a senior when I was a freshman. He and I started working together a lot. I would follow him up to New York and visit him. He was doing open mics, so I was just emulating him and started doing open mics. That’s when I was like, “oh, I’m 100 percent doing this.”
University of Southern California
From comedy nerd to comedy king, to comedy king-maker, it’s safe to say Judd Apatow’s perseverance has paid off. After spending his high school years obsessing over comedy and scoring local radio interviews of his heroes Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling, Apatow enrolled at USC to study screenwriting. There, he began hosting stand-up events on campus, with special guest hosts like Kevin Nealon. According to a 2007 New York Times profile, Apatow also branched out to the Hollywood comedy club scene:
Within a few years, he was volunteering for Comic Relief fund-raisers and introducing comedians at the Improv, the legendary Hollywood comedy club. He finally met like-minded kids who could stay up all night talking about Monty Python. “I felt like the bumblebee girl in the Blind Melon video who finally meets other bumblebees,” Apatow told me. “I cried every time I saw that.”
Apatow fell in with a slightly older group of young comics, including [Paul] Feig, who rented a dilapidated home in the Valley affectionately called the Ranch. Apatow would come over, play poker and soak up the banter. “We were all 24, 25, and I was so immature I could barely do my stand-up,” Feig recalls. “And Judd’s 18, and he’s booking comedy clubs. I told the other guys: ‘Be nice to Judd. He’s going to run the town someday.’”
SNL head writer Seth Meyers was a standout of Chicago’s improv scene, which he came to be a part of as a result of his involvement with the Northwestern improv group Mee-Ow, where he met longtime friend and comedy partner Pete Grosz (head writer for the Colbert Report). Meyers described his experience doing improv at Northwestern in an interview with the college’s online newspaper:
Mee-Ow is absolutely the reason I am in comedy today. I was at Northwestern, I was a RTVF major, I wasn’t a very good student […] I consider myself an absentee student. But I was in the creative writing program, which I really loved, and I was sort of thinking of getting involved in screenwriting. But my senior year, I got into Mee-Ow and absolutely fell in love with it. Then I started going down to Chicago and doing stuff at Improv Olympic. So when I graduated, I thought, “Well I’m going to keep trying to do this until someone tells me to stop.” My best friend at Northwestern, his name is Pete Grosz … He and I were in Mee-Ow together, we did improv together in Chicago. Then we auditioned and got hired together for a group called Boom Chicago in Amsterdam, which was started by Northwestern guys who were older than us, but who were also Mee-Ow guys. And I think one of the reasons they hired us is because we had that Mee-Ow pedigree. Mee-Ow was key for me in a lot of ways.
Cambridge University’s long running comedy group, the Cambridge Footlights, has had an enormous influence on British comedy, with its most famous alumni being Eric Idle, John Cleese, and Graham Chapman of Monty Python. Idle joined the group a year after Cleese and Chapman, who went on to write for BBC after graduation. Idle became the Footlights’ president and was the first to allow women to join the group. Idle told author George Perry in The Life of Python about how he came to be part of the group:
I’d never heard of the Footlights when I got there, but we had a tradition of college smoking-concerts, and I sent in some sketches parodying a play that had just been done. Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie auditioned me for the Footlights smoker, and that led to me discovering about and getting into the Footlights, which was great.
After graduating from Cambridge, Idle worked in children’s television with Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam before reuniting with Cleese and Chapman on Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1969.
Before moving to Chicago and performing at the Second City, Steve Carell studied history and theater at Denison University in Ohio, intending on a career as a lawyer. His freshman year, he joined the college’s comedy revue club, Burpee’s Seedy Theatrical Company, where he initially missed rehearsals because he was driving to Columbus to visit a girlfriend at Ohio State. Eventually he started to take the group more seriously, as he explained to Denison Magazine in 2005:
“Burpee was my first taste of being in a repertory company. It was so much fun, so exciting. It taught me discipline and a work ethic. We would rate every show. We were very tough on ourselves. What was important was not if we killed, but if we did it the right way. It wasn’t a bunch of kids going out and fooling around. I learned that the most important person in a scene is your partner.
I was given the chance to completely fail on stage. Risking failure, I had no qualms about looking like an idiot in front of people, which may have adversely affected my dating life at Denison.
Watch an amateur video of Carell performing improv at Denison in 2009 for a Burpee’s alumni show.
Office star and creator of her upcoming Fox series, Mindy Kaling studied theater at Dartmouth, where she went to pursue her “love of white people and North Face parkas,” according to her book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). Kaling was an active performer at the college, joining an a cappella group and the Dog Day Players improv team, as well as an emerging playwright and a writer for Dartmouth’s humor magazine, the Jack-O-Lantern. In a profile in Dartmouth’s alumni magazine, Kaling discussed her stint creating a comic strip at the college:
Junior year, she became a campus celebrity with her comic strip, “Badly Drawn Girl.” Published daily in The Dartmouth, the strip, which was indeed badly drawn but also exceptionally funny, riffed on day-to-day campus life and took a witty stab at everything from fraternity life to alumni. “There were times I was at The D at like 3 a.m., outside in my car while it was snowing and I’d just put my blinkers on and sit there drawing. I don’t know how I kept up with everything.”
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs on the improv team The Cartel at the iO West Theater. When he was in college, he was a member of the University of Florida’s Theatre Strike Force, for which he once dressed up as a giant peanut and rapped about Jimmy Carter.