Emerson College carries a rich history steeped in comedy and entertainment. Learn more about key alumni who have set the stage and helped us foster an environment where you can explore these fields within an academic curriculum.
Famous Figures (1881–1960)
At the new Boston Conservatory of Elocution, Oratory, and Dramatic Art (the original name of Emerson College), students were required to study “Humorous Reading and Recitation.”
World War II veterans like Norman Lear, Bill Dana and Rod Parker enroll at Emerson College. Courses in drama and radio provide opportunities for them and many others to develop as comedy writers and performers.
After graduating, Norman Lear launches his career, working as a writer for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on the Colgate Comedy Hour and later for The Martha Raye Show. Bill Dana moves to New York, working as an NBC page before moving to the west coast, where he lands a job as a writer on The Steve Allen Show.
Henry Winkler, Andrea Martin, and Vin DiBona study acting, writing, and performing at Emerson. Upon graduation, each of these individuals launch careers that will lead to milestone moments on the timeline of American comedy. Rod Parker lands a job as a writer for The Honeymooners. Bill Dana becomes the first Emerson alumnus to star in a sitcom, The Bill Dana Show.
Stand Up Up-Starts (1970s–1980s)
Boston becomes known as a thriving center for stand-up comedy. Emerson students Eddie Brill, Denis Leary, Jay Leno and Steve Wright attend classes by day and hone their stand-up comedy chops at night at legendary clubs like Ding Ho and The Comedy Connection. During this decade, co-curriculars develop as important training grounds for Emerson’s future comedy greats.
Denis Leary, John Baltzer, Jodi Haffner, Dave Whiteman, Eddie Brill, Chris Phillips, and Adam Roth, create the comedy troupe Extinction Agency.
Denis Leary, Eddie Brill and others launch the Emerson Comedy Workshop out of frustration at not being able to secure good roles in theatre productions. They team up with student writers, performers, animators, and musicians to present evenings of sketch comedy, film, and music.
From the Stage to the Small Screen
In addition to the students studying stand-up and sketch comedy at Emerson, other students like Kevin Bright and Doug Herzog study television and radio production, preparing them for groundbreaking careers as producers, directors and executives in the television comedy industry. Howard Lapides will go on to become a manager and promoter for some of the nation’s top comedians.
During this decade, Emerson alumni continue to earn national and international acclaim for their contributions to the field of American comedy. The first episode of Norman Lear’s sitcom All in the Family is broadcast on January 13, 1971. In 1972, Bill Dana, already well-known for his humorous character Jose Jimenez, writes the script for one of the most memorable All in the Family episodes, “Sammy’s Visit.” In 1974, Henry Winkler debuts “The Fonz” on Happy Days. In 1976, Andrea Martin joins SCTV as an actor and writer.
Send in the Troupes (1980s–2000s)
Student-run comedy troupes continued to flourish at Emerson. After its founding members graduate, the Emerson Comedy Workshop is sustained by incoming students like Mario Cantone. This is Pathetic is created in 1981 and includes Anthony Clark, Laura Kightlinger, Mike Bent, and David Cross as members. The Swolen Monkey Showcase is established in 1985. The rise of cable television leads to broader exposure for Emerson’s student comedians, who appear on programs like Campus Comedy, Evening at the Improv, and Caroline’s Comedy Hour.
The Norman Lear Comedy Writing Workshop becomes part of the comedy writing program established by professors Jim Randall and Charlotte Lindgren. The workshop brings writers to campus from shows including Maude, M*A*S*H*, and All in the Family to work with students who have already demonstrated comedy writing talent. Emerson’s comedy greats continue to gather awards and accolades. The first episode of Vin Di Bona’s hit show America’s Funniest Home Videos airs on November 28, 1989. Steven Wright makes his first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and wins an Academy Award for his short film The Appointments of Dennis Jennings; Andrea Martin wins two Emmys for her writing on SCTV.
Emerson continues to attract students with comedic talent. Max Mutchnick, Bill Burr, Eric Drysdale, Bill Daly, Opus Moreschi and Joe Randazzo all study at Emerson during this decade, honing their craft and preparing to make their mark on American comedy. Meanwhile, Emerson alumni continue to make a substantial impact on comedy. Denis Leary garners international acclaim with appearances on MTV and a breakthrough performance of No Cure for Cancer at the Edinburgh International Arts Festival.
Eddie Brill begins working on The Late Show with David Letterman, booking comedians and warming up audiences. Jay Leno becomes host of The Tonight Show in 1992. Andrea Martin wins her first Tony Award for her role in My Favorite Year. Kevin Bright is executive producer on Friends, which debuts in 1994. Doug Herzog is named President at Comedy Central in 1995. Max Mutchnick is co-creator and Anthony Clark stars in Boston Common, a sitcom about life at a small liberal arts college in Boston’s Back Bay. Mutchnick's and David Kohan’s next project, sitcom Will & Grace, premieres in 1998.
The tradition of student-run comedy troupes continues with the establishment of Jimmy’s Traveling All Stars, Chocolate Cake City, and The Girlie Show.
Seeing Stars (2000s)
Emerson alumni continue to make America laugh. Eric Drysdale wins his first Emmy for his writing on The Daily Show in 2001. He also goes on to write for The Colbert Report, and contributes to Colbert’s bestselling book I am America (And So Can You!). On May 6, 2004, 52.5 million viewers watch the final episode of Friends, directed by Kevin Bright.
Mario Cantone’s one-man show Laugh Whore becomes the first Broadway production to air as a special on Showtime. Jennifer Coolidge makes a big impact with her roles in American Pie, Legally Blonde, and Best in Show. Joe Randazzo becomes editor of The Onion. Opus Moreschi wins his first Emmy for his writing on The Colbert Report. Harris Wittels becomes a writer and executive producer on the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation.
Emerson alumni nominated for Emmy Awards in 2019.
Active comedy troupes at Emerson, focusing on sketch, improv, and long-form comedy.
The first bachelor's degree offered in comedy in the country.
Collecting Comedic History
The American Comedy Archives is established as part of Emerson’s Iwasaki Library. Spearheaded by comedian Bill Dana '50, it is a first-of-its-kind collection of materials that fosters the exploration of comedy as an authentic American art form. It reflects Emerson’s view that comedy – as a social, cultural and political phenomenon and as a form of entertainment – is an underrepresented field of study.
Bill Dana works with archivists Jenni Matz and Robert Fleming to videotape 60 oral history interviews with comedy legends including Jonathan Winters, Bea Arthur, Dick Van Dyke, George Schlatter, and Betty White. The focus of the interviews is part historical and part educational. Topics include recalling a “big break” and frank personal stories about show business. The interviews, which were filmed in their entirety, are just the first phase; since then, archivists have also been collecting scripts, monographs, photographs, audio and video recordings, ephemera, memorabilia, and the personal papers of important comedy figures.
30 Years of Comedy is presented at the Cutler Majestic Theatre on October 11, 2007. Part of the 8th annual Boston International Comedy and Movie Festival, 30 Years of Comedy marks the 30th anniversary since Denis Leary, Eddie Brill, and a band of other Emerson College students created the Emerson Comedy Workshop. The celebration features performances by Eddie Brill, Bill Burr, Anthony Clark, Bill Dana, Denis Leary, and Steven Wright.
An exhibit of the Will & Grace sitcom set is installed in the Iwasaki Library. The iconic set, depicting an upscale New York City apartment inhabited by Will Truman and Grace Adler, is a gift to the College from Max Mutchnick ’87, co-creator and executive producer of the series and an Emerson Trustee.
Emerson Trustee, Emmy Award winner, and Will & Grace co-creator and executive producer Max Mutchnick ’87 delivers Emerson's commencement address.
Back to Emerson (2010s–Present)
Emerson President Lee Pelton "officially" renames the School of Communication the “Ron Burgundy School of Communication.” Burgundy (actor Will Ferrell) accepts a plaque of recognition during a press conference packed with journalists and Emerson students. Pelton reminds Burgundy that the renaming of the school is for one day only “and not a minute longer.”
Jay Leno ’73 receives a Doctor of Humane Letters and delivers the undergraduate address at Emerson’s 134th Commencement.
Emerson College launches a comedy minor, further strengthening further the College’s foothold in the entertainment industry. The Comedy minor is interdisciplinary—meaning that courses for the minor are offered by multiple academic departments. In this case, the courses are in Visual and Media Arts; Writing, Literature and Publishing; and Performing Arts.
Emerson College is the first school in the country to offer a specialized Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Comedic Arts. Grounded in the history and theory of comedy with a concentration of practical experiential learning and a capstone project, the BFA in Comedic Arts will prepare students for careers in comedy performance, writing, and production.
The inaugural class of Comedic Arts BFA students arrives at Emerson in fall 2016.