Alumni insights: Host of AYA fundraiser talks about a decade in the entertainment industry

Conor Knighton
Conor Knighton

Santa Monica’s Broad Stage was full of Yalies and friends on March 10 during a benefit gala produced by the Association of Yale Alumni (AYA) and hosted by Conor Knighton ’03 to support arts education in Los Angeles.

The event was one of three annual benefit concerts organized by the AYA in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, part of the group’s mission of supporting Yale alumni community around the country and across the world.

The gala featured music by the Yale Whiffenpoofs and the Duke’s Men, with special guest appearances by “New Girl” star Zooey Deschanel and “Modern Family” star Jesse Tyler Ferguson. The event benefited P.S. Arts.

Knighton is one of a number of younger Yale alumni who have made a mark in entertainment in recent years.  After graduation, he helped launch cable network Current TV and was the first person to appear on air. He was host and executive producer of three comedic news series for the channel. His other work has included AMC’s “The Movie List” and many appearances as a pop culture analyst on “CNN Newsroom,” “Chelsea Lately,” and other shows. He can currently be seen as a contributor on CBS Sunday Morning. 

YaleNews caught up with him to discuss his time at Yale and what he’s learned in a decade of work in the entertainment industry.

What class had the greatest impact on you, and why?

I guess I technically have Yale to thank for giving me my first appearance on national television … as a cheering, jeering, dancing audience member on the “Ricki Lake Show.”

My “Sociology of Mass Media” class took a field trip into NYC to attend a taping.  It was hilariously awful.  That course was one of my early experiences in trying to find something smart to say about dumb television, which, essentially, is what my show “infoMania” on Current was all about.

All of my film and screenwriting classes were very influential. My all-time favorite class was the hugely popular “Computers and the Law” with Professor Robert Dunne.  I was saddened to learn of his untimely passing in 2008. He was a great teacher. 

What was your favorite spot on campus?

Although I probably should have spent a little more time there myself, Sterling Library symbolizes Yale for me. Whenever I wanted to step out of things for a bit, I’d head up Prospect Street to Farnam Gardens.

What surprised you the most about Yale? 

I was not mentally prepared for co-ed bathrooms in the residential colleges. Ultimately, you realize it’s no big deal, but I’m pretty sure for that first week I only went to the restroom at four in the morning.

You were a member of the Duke’s Men. A cappella singing is a big tradition at Yale. Why does it stay so strong over the generations? Will it remain so for generations to come?

Until I arrived in New Haven, my knowledge of a cappella was limited to the group who sang the theme song for “Where in the World in Carmen Sandiego?” They definitely did not strike me as guys who were cool in college.

So, it was a shock when I got to campus and saw how prevalent and popular Yale’s groups were. A cappella involves a lot of talent and passion, and I think those are qualities the Yale student body really values. Sure, it can be cheesy and silly, but the groups are clearly having so much damn fun that it’s infectious. I don’t see the tradition dying off any time soon.  As music becomes more and more over-produced, there’s something refreshing and timeless about pure vocals.

You once played a Yale student on “The Gilmore Girls.” What was that like?

The set looked like it was straight out of Lindsey-Chittenden Hall. I was surprised how accurate it all felt.

My role was extremely small.  I played a guy who’s trying to impress another student on a speed date. She quickly rejects me. I would like to thank the women of Yale for preparing me extremely well for that scene.

Many Yalies go on to careers in journalism and media. What do you think accounts for the great interest in such careers?

The huge starting salaries and ironclad job security?

I’m not actually sure …  Journalism and media are certainly front and center in campus life, whether you’re walking by the Yale Daily News’ headquarters or taking a class in Henry Luce Hall. 

And, of course, there may be something in that whole “Lux et Veritas” motto that inspires Yalies to want to shine a light on important issues.  

You have been able to work in a variety of shows and platforms, and the work has almost always been in a fast-paced environment. What do you do to stay focused and balanced?

I got very good at procrastinating in college, but I quickly found I couldn’t do much of that in television. Once you launch a show, you have to keep feeding that beast. To stay focused on delivering content on a short deadline, I had to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to get an “A” on every episode. But fortunately, with most of the projects I’ve done, the slate is wiped clean the next day/week and you get to try again.

To stay balanced, I try to make sure I give myself some time when I’m not looking at some sort of screen.  I live at the base of Griffith Park in LA and go hiking a lot.

You recently hosted “My Viral Video” on the Biography Channel. Any tips for videographers looking for maximum virality?

Find an adorable cat. Train it to kick you in the testicles. If you succeed, you will have the most popular video on the internet.

What advice do you have for current college students who are looking to make it in the world of television?

Develop a wide range of skills. Even if your dream is to write, learn how to shoot and edit. Take an improv class. Television jobs are increasingly hybrid in nature, and the more comfortable you are working in a variety of different areas, the more likely you are to find work.

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