Is a $160,000 Degree in “Comedic Arts” Worth It?
The average cost of tuition at a private college in 2015 was over $32,000 according to CollegeData.com, but that number is even higher at Boston’s Emerson College, where tuition is over $42,000 per year — nearly $60,000 when room and board is included. Anyone who spends over $160,000 on their child’s college education (or goes deeply into debt for their own) would hope that they come out with a degree that is worth many times over that figure, but there will always be majors that draw eyerolls, such as “Communications” (this very author’s major), “Political Science,” and “General Studies.” And then last year Emerson became the first accredited university in the country to offer a certain major that was intended to make people laugh:
A degree in “Comedy.”
More specifically, Emerson’s “BFA in Comedic Arts” is intended to combine writing, performance, and production with classes such as “Why Did the Chicken?–Fundamentals of Comedic Storytelling,” “Writing the Webisode,” and “Theories of Humor and Laughter.” But even though they are only making it official now (the first group of grads with a Comedic Arts major will graduate in 2020 and are entering as freshmen this fall), Emerson has a longstanding history of producing influential people in comedy and entertainment. That includes former grads who will be teaching classes in the program with recognizable brands such as the Upright Citizens Brigade and Funny Or Die. Students won’t necessarily learn how to be funny — the debate about whether or not you can “teach funny” rages on — but program creator Martie Cook hopes that students will learn how to make a career out of being funny.
She’s banking on the idea that paying for a degree in comedy with a potential six-figure debt will out-measure what many UCB students often pay a mere $2,000 or less for, and who many others pay nothing more than hard work for: a career as a comedian.
Cook, herself a graduate of Emerson who went on to write for TV shows like Full House and Charles In Charge, knew there was a great opportunity to become revolutionary in celebrating the value in making a career out of comedy. “There’s such an interest in it, that ‘Why not?‘,” says Cook. “You can get a degree in performing arts, writing, why not be able to get a degree in comedy? It’s as much of an artform at many of the other things that people get degrees for.”
She also teaches classes in the program that you won’t see at most universities, like “pilot writing,” “the comedy writers room,” “writing for late night,” and a new class that will focus on writing comedy for “tweens.” The program will also try to teach students about performance and production, which is where UCB and Funny or Die have come in to give real world advice, but also brand recognition to 18-year-olds deciding on a major.
Manny Basanese, a former writer and producer on The Steve Harvey Show, will be teaching “Branded Entertainment: Creating for New Media with Funny or Die,” a class that teaches students how to produce comedic content specifically for branded entertainment and short-form videos. Perhaps more importantly though, the students will receive advice directly from Funny or Die execs. “If you’re a student and you’re interested in this sort of thing and you see UCB and Funny or Die are involved with the school,” says Basanese, “then it just really adds to the cachet. It’s inspiring and makes the students really want to come here. It empowers the college.”
The very last of the courses they will take is simply titled “Upright Citizens Brigade,” a course on how to do longform improv that is co-taught on the LA campus by professor Brad Lemack and veteran UCB performer Drew DiFonzo Marks. “I first got asked to teach at the UCB in 2007. I had been doing longform for four or five years at that point,” says DiFonzo Marks, who is on the improv team “Last Day of School,” a group that also includes past and present members Paul Rust and Neil Campbell, among others.
When the UCB applied for accreditation a couple of years ago and partnered up with Emerson, they wanted to find someone who was an established teacher at the UCB who had also attended Emerson; DiFonzo Marks was one of a few who fit the bill and accepted the offer.
DiFonzo Marks’ own history at Emerson began when he saw a show called “Welcome to Bonerville” during a campus visit while applying to colleges. Even if the school didn’t have a Comedic Arts BFA until this year, they still have a long-running history of attracting funny people and supplying Hollywood with comedy writers, performers, and producers. In DiFonzo Marks’ circle of friends alone during his time at the school were Harris Wittels (Parks and Rec), Joe Mande (Parks and Rec), Noah Garfinkel (New Girl), Mookie Blaiklock (Comedy Bang! Bang!), Dave Horwitz (Don’t Trust the B), and Armen Weitzman (Another Period).
So is it worth it then to dedicate a four-year program to just comedy when so many students were already doing well getting jobs in Hollywood already and could just sign up for classes at the UCB, which are only $400 each?
Christina Catucci, a recent writing graduate from Emerson who took the UCB class and has continued her improv training, thinks so. “It certainly wasn’t just goofing around. We were learning something very ‘real-world’ about acting every single class. We had a Hollywood agent come and talk to us one day. We went out to UCB together one night and got to pick some notable improviser’s brains. It was so much more than what you’d think at first glance.”
But if this is the first comedy degree of its kind — and we know that comedy has been around for a very long time — many will still question the need for a $160,000-plus education specifically dedicated to it. The UCB class at Emerson will only advance students through level one if they choose to continue through the UCB, like Catucci has, a savings of $400. Since UCB has four levels of improv currently, anyone off the street could technically pay $1,600-$2,000 (the school can make students re-take courses, and there are advanced classes after level four) for an intensive education in longform improv at about one percent of the cost of a private college education.
“It’s great that they have classes for it,” says Jeff Schaffer, co-creator of The League who has also written for Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. “To be exposed to any of that stuff before you do it is great because usually you don’t even know about it until you’re there — but I don’t know if you have to pay for a whole college education for it when you could just go to UCB and other things like that. You’re paying a lot for a different sweatshirt.”
“Also, if you’re not funny then it doesn’t really matter.”
Schaffer is also quick to point out that he knows a lot of funny people who went to Emerson and that it’s great for getting your foot in the door with the industry. “But for comedy, if you practice at it and you’re with good people you’ll learn to avoid a lot of bad habits and you’ll get better at it because you’re doing it. Writing a sitcom isn’t an artform, it’s a craft: It’s like building a barrel, and the more you do it, the better you get at building barrels.”
Still, perhaps the best thing Emerson or any school could do in attracting students to a comedy program is to prove that they have a formula for making enrollees funnier than they were when they started.
“There’s this idea that you can’t teach people to be funny,” says Basanese. “But you can help people hone their skills. We want to give people opportunities to enhance their talent. It’s really specific and practical ways to develop what they can use.”
DiFonzo Marks thinks that you can teach people to be funny, “But there’s a lot of stuff you can’t teach. You can’t really teach someone to be themselves. That’s something they have to come to on their own. There are some students over the last decade of teaching where I thought ‘that person is terrible’ and now I look at them years later performing and they’re pretty good. They’ve learned.”
Of course, a career in comedy is not a joke: sitcoms, movies, and even streaming webseries are big business. Back in 2013, Defamer estimated that a staff TV writer can make between $96,000 and $157,000, at least. That’s just for people who have broken down the door and are officially “in the business” at that level. Keep it up and start running your own show, and the amount that can be made could pay for a college tuition for your kids and grandkids many times over. It’s enough that Cook has garnered plenty of interest from people who are way past college age and would love to come back to Emerson and take a few of these classes, but the courses aren’t available a la carte: “Unfortunately it’s a solid degree so you’re either going to get it or you’re not.”
So is it worth it to pay six figures for a degree in comedy, when no other working comedian up to this point has ever done that? Schaffer added that it’s good to know what you want to do for a living as early as possible and that he saw many of his friends waste time in other fields only to come back to comedy. If you’re graduating high school and know that’s what you want to do, Emerson has certainly given you something to consider.