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NU: Cradle of Commedians

By Jenny Hontz
Spring 2018

Why has Northwestern generated such a wealth of talent in the late-night news-comedy arena? While Stephen Colbert ’86, ’11 H and Seth Meyers ’96, ’16 H cite the influence of professors, and Robin Thede gives credit to the journalism program for teaching her to write, cross-pollination of students and classes in different fields may also be key. There’s also the Chicago factor — the city is a hotbed of comedy clubs and improv, from Second City to iO Theater to Zanies.

“Northwestern has a great theater program, great communications program, great journalism program and then a strong political science department,” says Michael Schneider ’95, executive editor at IndieWire and editor at large at Variety. “I remember taking all those classes and also going to comedy shows in Chicago. It’s almost like it was the perfect stew for this kind of comedy.”

Meyers credits “wonderful teachers” in the School of Communication’s Creative Writing for the Media program. But classes outside of his major also left their mark.

“I managed to sneak into Paul Edwards’ performance studies classes,” says Meyers. “I also took a War and Peace class I think about all the time, and I took a history of Vietnam class that was really memorable. That’s one of the great things about Northwestern. You didn’t just show up and take four years of classes about how to light a film set or how to wire somebody for sound.”

Edwards ’72, ’73 MA/MS, director of undergraduate studies in the performance studies department, recalls Meyers from his classes on adapting fiction for stage performance. “You always felt that kind of wonderful, funny, sarcastic energy — somebody who was just on it, who was listening, who was really honed in … . Seth was always a brilliant monologist. And you could already begin to see the seeds of that character he did on SNL and that he’s doing now — the kind of hard smile and sarcasm.”

The last time Edwards remembers talking to Colbert before he graduated, they were “standing in the parking lot at Stateville prison,” he says. “We had gone down to see a group called the Geese Theatre that did in-prison workshops with lifers. We went in, and it was about 150 lifers doing hard time and the Geese Theatre and about 10 cops and us. They were a tough crowd.

“I was just thinking how, back at that time, Northwestern was a great place to be interested in lots of different kinds of stuff,” Edwards adds. “Sketch comedy and stand-up and activist theater and traditional theater and mixing RTVF with theater with various kinds of social muses that you can put performance to.”

Colbert credits Ann Woodworth’s dance and movement class with having a lasting influence. “She really taught us the physical pain of holding prostrations,” he says of Woodworth ’75, ’79 MA. “She’d go for a walk, and when she came back, we’d all have to be in the same positions. Strangely, those kinds of things come back to me as lessons on working hard and not focusing on how you might be feeling.”

What happened outside of class, however, was just as important. Getting cast in the Mee-Ow Show was probably the most pivotal moment of Meyers’ Northwestern career. “I auditioned for it three times and didn’t get in,” he says. “The fact that I got in my senior year changed the course of my life pursuit.”

It was because of Mee-Ow that Meyers had the courage to start “going down to Chicago to take improv classes,” he says. “And because my parents had gone to Northwestern and were hip to what Second City was, I would try to go down to see every new show when it came out. That was a show doing political comedy in a way that I found really interesting.”

David Tolchinsky, director of the MFA program in Writing for the Screen and Stage, has taught some of the more recent grads working in late-night comedy, including writer/performers Jenny Hagel and Jen Spyra, who succeeded mostly by “ignoring what I said and just trusting their own comic impulses,” he says. (Hagel ’09 MFA is earning a lot of praise for the “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” segment — which tackles gay and racial issues — on Late Night with Seth Meyers. And Spyra ’12 MFA is a staff writer on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.)

“There are certain students I feel like I can mold and shape and give them tools, and then there are some students I’m just like, ‘Well, just don’t break them.’ You can make suggestions, but they came in with a very strong vision already.” — J.H.

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