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Comedy gets serious attention at the annual School of Communication Writers Panel

It’s often said that laughter is the best medicine—which renders good comedy writing not just entertaining, but vital.

About 100 Northwestern University School of Communication students—including graduate students in the MFA program in Writing for Screen and Stage and undergraduate students in the school’s competitive Creative Writing for the Media Program—gathered at Annie May Swift Hall’s Helmerich Auditorium on May 6 to hear from a panel of professionals from various parts of the comedy world.

Featured on the panel were:

Playwright Thomas Bradshaw, an assistant professor at Medgar Evers College in New York, who is the author of The Ashes, Mary, The Bereaved (named one of the Best Plays of 2009 in Time Out New York and a New York Times Critic’s Pick), and Southern Promises and Dawn (both listed among the Best Performances of Stage and Screen for 2008 in The New Yorker).

Michele Ganeless (C87), president of Comedy Central, where her mandate is to bolster the strength of the channel’s brand and its programming in the traditional television landscape and in the digital universe. Ganeless is responsible for the leadership, strategy, and management of the network as well as the day-to-day operations of the channel.

Holly Laurent, a Chicago writer, actor, and improviser. She is a member of the longstanding improv group The Reckoning, has toured with the Second City National touring company, and has trained at iO Chicago, the Annoyance Theater, and the Second City Conservatory. She is currently performing South Side of Heaven on the main stage at Second City Chicago.

Luke Matheny (J97), a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based filmmaker, writer, and actor whose short film God of Love—a comedy about a lounge-singing darts champion who receives a package of love-inducing darts—won the 2011 Academy Award in the Best-Live Action Short category. Matheny teaches writing and directing at the School of Cinema and Performing Arts in Brooklyn.

An overriding theme from all four panelists was that students interested in pursuing a career in comedy need to “roll up their sleeves and work their a**es off,” Laurent said.

Laurent shared her experience of working a “day job” to earn enough to pay for rent and insurance while pursuing her dream of improv at night and on the weekends. She only recently quit her day job in somewhat of a panic, only to be asked to be a cast member of Second City mainstage the very same day.

The theme of choosing to be serious about comedy ran through many of the panelists’ comments.

“[Writers] in my career I have seen become successful are really true to who they are,” said Michele Ganeless, who has worked with talents like Stephen Colbert (C87) and Jon Stewart, also both of Comedy Central.

Thomas Bradshaw said theatre is “something he has to do,” as he “can’t imagine doing anything else.” Known for pushing the envelope with his work, Bradshaw said, “If you’re only endorsing values of audience, it’s not exactly art. It has to challenge if we’re going to call it ‘art.'”

Luke Matheny, who was recently “hit by the asteroid of success” with his Oscar win, shared that is working very seriously toward his next effort, a full-length feature.

Working in comedy, in fact, may have particular benefits to the artist, Matheny said. Hearing laughter is often more concrete “proof” that his work is a success, he said, as compared to working with dramatic material that doesn’t always elicit a concrete response.

MFA program director David Tolchinsky moderated the panel. “The comment that seemed to stick for a lot of students was that it’s about having a good work ethic, working hard, keeping at it, developing your craft,” Tolchinsky said. “Ironic and appropriate that comedy should also be serious.”

Panelists also fielded questions from MFA and CWMP students at a lunch at Norris prior to the panel.

Over the weekend, panelist attended performances of scripts by MFA students in a showcase of student work at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.