While many graduates from Ivy League institutions choose to pursue careers in banking or medicine, a select few tell jokes for “less money than you can imagine anyone living on in New York City.”
1983 Wharton graduate Shaun Breidbart, who worked in finance after graduation, experienced a change of heart seven years ago when he founded Ivy League Comedy Showcase. He left his banking job to become a full-time standup comedian two and a half years ago.
Ivy League Comedy, a troupe of “professional comedians who went to Ivy League schools and then disappointed their parents by quitting Wall Street or the law firm,” thrives on its founding principle of clean and smart humor.
The small troupe, which tells jokes without swearing or profanity, travels to country clubs, corporate seminars and law firm client events and hosts comedians that have appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Comedy Central.
The idea of forming a comedy club based on profanity-free humor came from Breidbart’s interactions with clients during his time as a banker.
His clients often asked Breidbart to direct them to “clean” shows. “So I saw a product that didn’t exist and started it,” he said. “There’s the Wharton answer for you.”
Other Penn graduates have also found success in the comedy world. 2004 College graduate Vanessa Bayer, who was in Bloomers — Penn’s all-female comedy troupe — is a cast member of Saturday Night Live. She is well-known for impersonating Miley Cyrus and was invited to perform on “The Miley Cyrus Show.”
2003 College graduate Whitney Cummings currently stars in NBC’s sitcom Whitney and co-created the CBS series Two Broke Girls. She was also a former cast member of MTV’s Punk’d.
Wharton senior and Bloomers chairwoman Megan Lacey noted other former Bloomers members working toward their big break, like 2011 College graduate Sara Kalkstein, who is taking classes at Upright Citizen’s Brigade — an improvisation school in New York that boasts famous alumni such as Amy Poehler. 2009 College graduate Jen Jackson is taking classes at the Second City in Chicago, which graduated Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch.
However, the numbers do not run deep and Ivy League Comedy remains one of a kind, as the comedy industry is not a path well-traveled for Penn and Ivy League students.
Finding the funny at Penn
While the majority of students who delve into comedy at Penn do not plan on entering the entertainment industry, they devote hours each week to planning, writing and rehearsing for their shows.
For College senior Lucy Wolf, Without a Net director and a former 34th Street editor, the improvisation comedy troupe has been the “best thing I’ve done in college.” However, she does not plan on pursuing an acting career.
Wharton Follies, an MBA comedic performance group, puts on an annual production with a $100,000 budget. “It’s a huge production and we begin fundraising, writing, rehearsing, shooting video and choreographing dances from the beginning of the year,” 2011 MBA recipient Lee Fan, one of the producers of last year’s show, said.
Despite the magnitude of the show, MBA students see Follies as just “a hobby,” Lee said.
“Given that people in the MBA program will go into business in some capacity, a lot of them don’t abandon that to go into the show business,” she said.
Other students, however, use comedy to escape from mainstream Penn life. College senior and Mask & Wig Chairman Alon Gur said the all-male troupe “provides a relief from the stress of everyone having to fight for a job” in the real world.
“You come to rehearsal and you have fun and joke around with your friends,” he said.
Yet, there are a handful of students who use their involvement in comedy groups as a springboard for their future in entertainment.
College senior Sean Kelly wants to do film and creative writing after Penn. Editor-in-Chief of Punchbowl, Penn’s humor magazine, Kelly also began a new situational comedy series this year called Classless. The series, which Kelly hopes will continue for 10 episodes this semester, follows a senior who creates another campus newspaper to compete with an established paper.
While he calls his future in comedy writing “terrifying for me and my parents,” he also sees the opportunity as very exciting. “I can go anywhere. I have no idea where I’m going to end up and I kind of like that.”
A small community
Some students feel that Penn’s comedy community is overshadowed by its pre-professional atmosphere.
“Structurally, Penn would steer people away from comedy,” Lacey said.
Since there isn’t a film production or comedy writing concentration, Wolf said, “Penn doesn’t help future comedians as much as it might help future bankers.”
Comedy clubs at Penn constitute a small, yet vibrant collective, Wolf said, adding that there are often overlaps of members between the various groups.
“Though we are small, that makes us very close-knit,” Lacey said, explaining that each year Bloomers and Mask & Wig members support each other’s performances.
Every fall, Bloomers, Mask & Wig, Without a Net, Simply Chaos and Pennsylvania Six put on Charitable Laughter, a collaboration show that donate its proceeds to charity.
“It’s a benefit that brings us all together,” Wolf said, adding that this was the first year the comedy groups did a joint show during New Student Orientation as well.
However, Wolf wishes for more visibility of the community. “We’re a really strong area of the performing arts, and if more people knew about it, then more people would like it.”
Many students agree that the academic rigor at Penn and their experience in undergraduate comedy clubs will help them in the various career paths they choose to pursue.
“The skills that you learn during comedy, such as public speaking and thinking on your feet are very valuable,” Wolf said. “I’m a lot more comfortable in professional situations because of these last four years of improvisation.”
Similarly, Breidbart said he has utilized many business skills in the entertainment business, such as defining the problem, being courteous and listening to other people.
Comedy is “one-third writing, one-third performing and one-third marketing,” he said. “And you need two out of the three to be successful.”
Ivy League laughs
Though Ivy League Comedy prides itself on smart humor, it is careful not to be snobby, Breidbart said.
Kelly agrees, saying he does not expect the Penn brand to carry him in his career. While having a Penn degree is extremely helpful, he said, ultimately he believes his comedy will be graded on how much it makes people laugh.
“Having Penn on the resume certainly doesn’t hurt, but it helps less than in other industries,” Lacey said, adding that the alumni community is much smaller than that of banking and consulting.
“On the one hand, having the label of an Ivy could help someone get a foot in the door knowing they have the brains to think on their feet,” Wolf said. “On the other hand, the arts are unique in that it really does depend on your audition and personality.”
Though Breidbart says he has no regrets on his career choice. “In 2011, no banker will look on anyone’s profession and say, ‘Why are you not a banker?’”
“I invested in my own education, but it’s not like I became a brilliant surgeon and I’m throwing it all away,” he said.
“Many people have left corporate jobs dreaming of being entertainers, but I don’t know many entertainers who say they want to go into banking,” he said.Comments powered by Disqus
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