Late-Night at Chums
Students from Writing for Television crafted jokes for several comedians’ stand-up routines
14 students, four comedians, approximately 70 audience members and a professor walk into a bar. Such was the case Tuesday night in Cholmondeley's Coffee House at 8 p.m. The students of the course Writing for Television were tasked by their professor, Prof. Marc Weinberg (ENG), to write jokes for several local comedians. The jokes were then performed in an hour-long comedy show hosted by Will Smalley, a Boston Comedy Festival Finalist.
Weinberg has been teaching at Brandeis since 2005, though he first began his career as a story analyst for several studios and production companies. His writing resume includes story and script sales to the Discovery Channel, Paramount Pictures and Dick Clark Productions.
Weinberg also teaches Directed Writing: Beginning Screenplay, Intermediate Screenwriting and Scriptwriting for the Short Film. Yet he took a different approach with the focus of this course. “I started it as a way for students to break into the industry. There are a lot more avenues in television than there are in film,” Weinberg said in an interview with the Justice.
The culmination of the course will be for students to complete half hour pilots for their very own sitcoms. This is Weinberg’s first year teaching the course, though he hopes to continue it next year.
“I thought it would be a great idea since one of the things in college is you don’t have the opportunity to get real world experience. So there's this insular environment that you have at college... [but it’s good to get] a sense of what it’s going to be like once you graduate,” Weinberg said.
One of Weinberg’s favorite real world examples, is Josh Gondelman ’07, a former student who now is a writer for John Oliver. Weinberg has kept in touch with other students as well. It was during a conversation with former student Anthony Scibelli ’09 that Weinberg came up with the idea for a comedy night.
“I said to him at one point, ‘Do you think you’d be interested in working with the students where they write material?’ And he said, ‘Oh absolutely,’” Weinberg explained. Scibelli used his contacts to get comedians Wes Hazard, Brett Johnson and Suzi Berlin on board.
From there, Weinberg showed his students short videos of each of the comedians. This, he said, was an essential part of the students learning the distinct comedic style of each comedian. “So part of writing jokes is learning how to tell a joke and how a joke is constructed, but another is learning to write for a particular voice,” Weinberg said.
Ben Benson ’18, a student in Weinberg’s class and aspiring comedian, explained how he worked to create jokes that worked for Scibelli’s voice. “Some of the jokes were jokes I had come up with for my own stand-up routine originally, and others I wrote specifically for Anthony, working with him to make sure they meshed well with his style,” he explained in an email interview with the Justice.
Danielle Balanov ’18, another one of Weinberg’s students, explained the process that went into creating jokes for Berlin, her assigned comedian. “My team knew we had to write for a certain voice, so our material was molded to represent Suzi's humor. I do improv on campus, so I'm definitely used to quicker situational comedy, and this pushed me to really sit down and develop a joke,” Balanov said in an email interview with the Justice.
One of her classmates, Ari Givner ’17, who wrote for Brett Johnson, also talked about the difficult aspects of joke writing in an email interview with the Justice. “Coming up with jokes is tough. I don't think people understand how difficult it is until they try it. The first step is figuring out what you want the subject of your joke will be. The second is thinking about what people associate with the subject matter. And the third is trying to put a comedic spin on one of those associations,” Givner said.
All three students agreed that the event went exceedingly well, as did Weinberg. “I think it went terrific, I really do. I was delighted with the turnout we got,” Weinberg said.
Yet for Weinberg, one of the best moments of the evening was being able to observe his students as they watched the audience respond to their jokes.
“I watched my students really warm to the idea that they had written jokes that were getting laughs, and it encouraged them that this was something they could do — that it’s not impossible. I think a lot of people go into writing and think ‘I can’t do that,’ and the only way you’ll know is to try,” Weinberg said.