Yale comedy finds new life in New Haven
John Hodgman ’94 is a humorist who has written multiple books, hosted the comedy podcast “Judge John Hodgman,” and played the role of the Eccentric Billionaire on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Yet as a student at Yale, he says, he failed to see the lighter side of school.
“I was too self-serious for comedy then,” Hodgeman said. “I made a mistake.”
Most people know Yale produces presidents, chief justices, and Nobel laureates, but its role in the comedy world has been unheralded.
“There’s a perception of Yale as the home of pale, feeble aristocrats who aren’t particularly funny,” Hodgman says. “That largely comes from the character of Monty Burns on ‘The Simpsons,’ a Yale graduate.”
In reality, however, Yale and New Haven have become home to a number of vibrant improvisational, sketch, and stand-up comedy groups.
Over the past few years, the size and influence of these groups has been felt both on campus and on late-night television. Rebecca Shaw ’18 and Ben Kronengold ’18 work at the “Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon, while the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” has comedy writers River Clegg ’11 and Eliana Kwalter ’16. Others, such as Charlie Bardey ’17 and Dash Turner ’15, are pursuing stand-up careers in New York City.
The success of Yale alumni in comedy is no accident. Groups on campus are quite rigorous in their pursuit of comedy. Regardless of the specific focus of the group, students can expect a tough audition process, weekly meetings, multiple shows a semester, touring, and community outreach.
The Exit Players are the oldest improvisational comedy group on campus. Each year about four new members are selected from a group of about 40 auditioning students. The group presents shows year-round on campus and tours the U.S., performing in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The group started as an experimental theater troupe in 1984.
“‘Exit’ stands for ‘experimental improv theater,’ so we try to live up to that,” explains Tarek Ziad ‘21, the current director of The Exit Players. “We’ve done a show completely in the dark in the basement of St. Anthony’s Hall. We’ve done shows with a cappella groups, where we improvise a scene while they sing.”
Music plays an even more crucial role for Just Add Water (JAW), Yale’s only musical improv comedy group.
“At least one of our full-time members is always a pianist whose job it is to improvise the music as we make up songs on the spot, whether in games or in the 20-minute improvised musical we perform at the end of each show,” said Lily Dodd, the current director of JAW.
Improv groups are by no means the only avenues for comedy on campus.
In sketch groups like Red Hot Pokers and The Fifth Humour, students get a chance to hone their writing and directing skills and to get more experience performing.
“People tend to come to Red Hot Poker for one of two reasons: They are excited about performing and looking to grow as writers, or they are excited about writing and are looking to grow as performers,” says Matt Nadel, this year’s Red Hot Pokers director.
The sketch format allows for a more deliberate form of comedy, says Sarah Al-Salash, the current director of the Fifth Humour.
“We like to break down what makes things funny and what makes us laugh. Many other groups just go with their gut and write what makes sense to them; for us it’s more of an analytical, intellectual exercise,” she says.
Recently, more sketch groups have been established on campus, with some — such as The Sphincter Troupe — specifically focusing on non-male-identifying comics.
“For a long time, it was a boy’s club,” says Madelyn Blaney, the external relations chair at the Yale Record, the oldest humor magazine in the country, and a member of Sphincter. “In recent years there have been more women and people of color starting and participating in comedy groups.”
Beyond sketch and improv, Yale provides opportunities for students who want to try their hand at stand-up comedy. The Cucumber is a monthly stand-up open mic run by the Yale Record.
“I went up to some people I knew before the show and said, ‘You have to laugh no matter what.’ Then when I saw people who I hadn’t explicitly asked to laugh, laughing, I thought, ‘This is going well,’” recalls Chloe Prendergast, the current president of the Cucumber.
The Yale College Council hosts a Last Comic Standing show, where eight people are selected to perform in Sudler Hall. The audience votes for a winner, who opens for a professional comedian. Prendergast was last year’s winner and opened for “Saturday Night Live’s” Sasheer Zamata in a show on campus.
During that show, Prendergast joked about her difficulties with condescending men, saying, “Here is a fun fact about me: I would rather get injured using a machine at the gym incorrectly than have a man tell me how to do it.”
New Haven community
New Haven has become home to a budding comedy scene of its own. College Street Music Hall is a popular stop for professional comedians touring the United States. In the coming months, Nick Kroll, Comedy Bang Bang, and Leslie Jones will be making appearances there.
The space always provides opportunities for local professional comedians to get their start. Dan Kalwhite, a working Connecticut comic, recently got the chance to open for T.J. Miller, a notorious comedian known for his role in HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”
“College Street Music Hall was wild. I got to open for 900 people. It was incredible,” Kalwhite recalls. The comic hosts a biweekly open mic night in Pacific Standard Tavern in downtown New Haven, where aspiring Yale comedians perform on occasion.
While Yale and New Haven offer many ways to launch careers in comedy, only a few will take the risk of entering the world of professional comedy.
Hodgman advises those considering a comedy career to reflect on the importance of “learning to embrace and not deny what makes your work unique and appealing and worth money, because people are much more likely to give you money for your unique voice and passion, once you’ve found it, than for anything you think you should be doing.”