Majoring in Comedy Is No Laughing Matter
Students are serious about the study of comedy, especially given the evolving nature of what is socially acceptable.
- A handful of colleges offer majors in comedy, which are growing in popularity among students.
- These programs combine comedy theory with hands-on career preparation.
- Teaching and practicing comedy in today's hypersensitive social climate can prove tricky.
- Graduates of comedy programs pursue careers in entertainment and various other industries.
What's the deal with comedy majors?
No, seriously. Can you really major in comedy?
Yes, you certainly can. Comedy majors are growing in popularity and sending graduates into careers in film, television, stand-up, and theater, along with a wide range of additional pursuits.
If you fashion yourself the next Kevin Hart, John Mulaney, or Amy Poehler, why not spend your college years honing your craft?
The Emergence of Comedy Studies
Comedy studies has only recently emerged as an academic discipline. The first program began in 2010. Or 2012. Or 2016. It depends on how you define things.
In 2010, the University of Southern California (USC) launched the first program "dedicated to training filmmakers in the art of comedy." USC's program resides within the university's School of Cinematic Arts.
USC Comedy, as it's known, isn't a degree-granting program but rather an academic focus layered across all disciplines within cinematic arts. Faculty offer instruction in writing, directing, and producing, along with the history and theory of comedy.
Undergrads at USC can minor in comedy, and courses are open to graduate students as well. About 400 students enroll in comedy classes each year.
Barnet Kellman, who holds the Robin Williams endowed chair in comedy at USC (George Lucas endowed the chair in Williams' honor) and directed hit TV shows such as "Murphy Brown" and "Mad About You," told BestColleges that although the university has a long tradition of producing famous comics — Will Ferrell, Judd Apatow, and John Ritter, to name a few — the formal study of comedy wasn't always taken seriously.
"We're a comedy-friendly space," he said, "which we were not before we started this thing."
Across the country, folks at Emerson College in Boston would have you believe their program was the first of its kind.
Like USC, Emerson has a proud history of producing comic talent: Jay Leno, Norman Lear, Henry Winkler … the list goes on. The college's bachelor of fine arts (BFA) in comedic arts, which launched in 2016, blends the theory and practice of comedy and benefits from close collaboration with the college's Center for Comedic Arts.
Emerson's program is small by design, enrolling about 24-30 students per year.
Martie Cook, a writer for TV shows such as "Full House" and "Charles in Charge" and founder of Emerson's program, explained to BestColleges how it came to be. While filming a "CBS Sunday Morning" piece on the American Comedy Archives, housed at Emerson, a reporter sparked the idea by asking if it's possible to major in comedy.
"I thought, 'We're already known for comedy, so why not just formalize it with a degree?'" Cook said.
The program — housed within the college's theater department — traces its roots to a semester-long comedy studies immersion program at Chicago's famed The Second City, where Anne Libera, a Columbia College assistant professor and director of comedy studies, has worked for more than 30 years.
Columbia debuted its program in 2012 and has maintained its relationship with The Second City, requiring the college's roughly 250 comedy majors to spend a semester studying improv and sketch comedy at the venue that's shaped the careers of countless comic legends.
A few miles away, Liz Joynt Sandberg runs DePaul University's BFA in comedy arts program, which began in 2019 and enrolls about 55 majors. DePaul's program, like Columbia's, operates under the theater umbrella.
Sandberg, a comedy writer and performer with a "Ph.D. in drunk people at midnight," consults with organizations such as Harvard Business School, Google, and Microsoft, helping them use comedy to solve problems.
"Something about the way that comedians think about and see the world is really valuable," Sandberg told BestColleges.
Can Anyone Learn to Be Funny?
It may be valuable, but is it teachable? Can you teach anyone to be funny?
"Of course not," Columbia College's Libera told BestColleges. "There are people who will never be funny in the same way that I will never do a pullup.
"But that's not the point. The point of teaching comedy isn't to teach someone who will never be funny to be funny. The point is to help the people who are funny and who want to work in comedy to become funnier."
USC's Kellman agrees.
"I'm not teaching people to be funny any more than I can teach you to have a great musical ear if you don't," he said.
Sandberg is more optimistic.
"Yes, I think I can absolutely teach anyone to be funny," she said.
But, she adds, humor has to come from a place of authenticity.
"I'm going to teach you to be funny by teaching you to be fearlessly and shamelessly yourself," Sandberg said.
Among these programs, only Emerson uses some form of humor litmus test to judge applicants' suitability for admission. Cook and her faculty colleagues review student portfolios to determine who's cracked up to be a crack-up.
"You absolutely have to show us that you have some seeds of talent," Cook said.
Libera, by comparison, said she "doesn't care" about an applicant's funny quotient at the outset.
"I care that they have a passion for this," she said. "I care that they're willing to do the work. I also know from my years as a teacher at The Second City that it's not always the most brilliant person on day one who ends up having the career."
Navigating the Sensitive Social Landscape Through Comedy
Today's college students were weaned on humor, Kellman notes, which has helped generate interest in comedy programs and resulted in their rapid growth.
"The first sea change in academia starts to arise at the beginning of the Jon Stewart period when comedy starts to gain a lot more respect," Kellman said. "Suddenly, people are turning away from news media for their intelligent political discourse and turning toward comic observers like John Oliver and Stewart and Stephen Colbert. And so kids, as they came up through school in the last 10 or 15 years, are way more sophisticated and interested in comedy and have a higher sense of its purpose and utility."
They also have a fine-tuned sense of what's comedically appropriate given a social climate governed by wokeness, cancel culture, and hypersensitivity around issues such as race and gender.
Yet the nature of comedy has always been to navigate the edges of social norms and hold nothing sacred. It's a delicate balance these days.
"In all my introductory lectures I include a warning and a disclaimer and a recognition that comedy is inherently a risk-taking business in which we explore moral and social boundaries," Kellman said. "While … our intention is not to upset or offend … we can't guarantee that we won't. … We're asking people in good faith to decide whether they want to come into this space.
"If you asked me if I would have made that speech 15 years ago," Kellman added, "no, it wouldn't have occurred to me."
Libera concurs that teaching comedy is "100%" harder today than it was just a few years ago.
"There are lots of things that we … as comedians didn't realize were painful to people, and our audience didn't realize were painful to people," she said. "And now, we do."
Cook agrees that today's social norms have a "huge impact" on how comedy is taught and practiced, even allowing for comedy's tradition of pushing the envelope.
"Sometimes the very reason to write a joke that's offensive is to bring attention to something that will start conversations and that will affect social change," Cook said. "But it can be much harder to do that in this day and age."
Students adroitly walk this comedic tightrope, says Chava Novogrodsky-Godt, a junior in DePaul's BFA program.
She told BestColleges propriety depends on whether the person telling the joke embodies its content. Women can tell jokes about the experience of women, just as Latino comics can riff on being Latino. But don't expect a white comic telling jokes about Black culture to fly with today's audiences.
"I think some people are struggling to make comedy in this climate," Novogrodsky-Godt said, "but that could be because they may be making comedy outside of their own perspective."
Recent graduate Paige Mackey, who works at Second City, experienced a similar atmosphere at Columbia College, where students would test material among peers who wouldn't hesitate to offer constructive feedback.
"If you're making comedy through your lens," Mackey told BestColleges, "you know how far you can take it."
Preparing for Careers in Entertainment and Other Industries
One similarity among all the programs is the hands-on career preparation. While in school, students are writing television scripts and screenplays, performing in sketch comedy and improv, directing and producing shows and documentaries, and managing backstage functions like costuming and wardrobe.
"It doesn't feel like college," Mackey said. "It feels like a simulation for your dream job."
Many graduates do, in fact, pursue careers in the entertainment industry. USC's program has numerous alumni in film and television, which isn't surprising given its location and connections to Hollywood.
Filmmaker Jeanne Jo, who earned her Ph.D. in cinematic arts studying under Kellman, calls her experience at USC "completely life-changing." In addition to producing her own comedic films, she's worked on such hits as "Black Panther" and "Star Trek Beyond."
Others follow a variety of paths outside entertainment yet find ways to draw on their comedic education. Many graduates of these programs work in marketing and advertising, as well as social media and graphic design.
Novogrodsky-Godt wants to pursue a dual career in children's television and elementary school teaching after she graduates from DePaul and believes her comedic training provides outstanding preparation for both.
"We spend a lot of time talking about comedy's effect on the brain and how to use comedy as a form of education," Novogrodsky-Godt said. "It's helping me develop a pedagogy for how I want to learn to teach."
"I think studying theater and comedy," she added, "really helps with every career path."