School of Communication alumnus Lou Wallach, producer of such comedy powerhouses as Chappelle’s Show and The Colbert Report, returned to campus November 8 to speak with students about writing, maintaining enthusiasm, and the art of being prepared.
“Comedy is a lot of things to a lot of people and it’s both scripted and unscripted,” Wallach told students. “For me, I was always drawn to comedy. I was a class clown and I always thought comedy people were smarter people. Plus, in high school, people quoted Caddy Shack, not, you know, Apocalypse Now.”
Wallach’s question and answer session, sponsored by the Office of External Programs, Internships and Career Services (EPICS) and moderated by Department of Radio/Television/Film faculty Zina Camblin and Erik Gernand, touched upon everything from how television programming has changed in his 26-year career to advice for students hoping to break into the business.
Wallach (C91), said he began his time at Northwestern as a theatre Cherub, the program administered by the National High School Institute, which brings high school students to campus every summer for immersive learning in theatre, film, or debate. Wallach matriculated at Northwestern as a Theatre major but quickly decided he wasn’t cut out for the stage and switched his major to Radio/Television/Film. After graduation, he worked at William Morris Agency.
“I knew a lot about television, for better or worse, because I watched a lot of TV, and when I went in for an interview with the agency, I really made an effort to talk about what I liked and why,” he said. “To this day, I think that’s what got me the job. They were looking for passionate people who wanted to be there.”
It didn’t take long for Wallach to determine he didn’t want to be an agent, but the job opened doors and helped him make connections. He went on to work for NBC at a time the network introduced blockbuster shows like Friends and Seinfeld.
“Timing is everything,” Wallach said. “I’ve been very lucky with timing, but I also think I took advantage of timing, too.”
Wallach left NBC to go to CBS, and then from there went to the then-fledgling cable network, Comedy Central. At that time, when The Daily Show was maybe a year old, traditional networks scoffed at their alternatives.
“Everyone pooh-poohed cable, but now look,” he said. “And Netflix and Hulu are breathing down everyone’s necks. Digital streaming is a real threat. But what’s interesting is all the producers and showrunners are TV people. They came from television. So, really, you never know where you’ll end up.”
As a producer, his job revolved around finding talent and signing them, including Dave Chappelle.
“I’ve got an eye for talent, but that’s because I spent a lot of nights in comedy clubs and improv clubs,” he said.
About Chappelle’s Show, he said Chappelle questioned sketch show norms and broke barriers.
“He earned what he got,” Wallach said. “He came to me and said, ‘I want a band to play in the fourth act,’ which just wasn’t done on a skit show. But, he was the first guy to get Kanye West on television. He did it his way and he earned all the success he got.”
Wallach’s assignment to students in attendance: write every day, even if that’s just for ten minutes a day.
“It’s a muscle that needs exercise,” he told them. “If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to perform, get in front of an open mic. It’s the only way you’ll get better. It’s not just about honing your craft, it’s also about overcoming your fear.”
One student also asked him about his feelings about diversity in the writer’s room.
“It’s getting better,” he said. “You see more women leading cable networks and more women in the executive ranks in television than probably in movies right now…I look at the landscape with 400 scripted shows being produced, and with Hulu and Netflix having endless bandwidth, there’s room on the spectrum for diversity. There’s no need just to hire a white guy from New York.”
When he began in the business, he said, new writers would often write spec scripts, or samples of shows already out there. Now, new writers, actors and directors are encouraged to pitch their own original ideas, and he encouraged the students to write in their own voice and build a portfolio around their point of view.
“Not everything you write is going to be great, so you need to give yourself choices,” he said.
Maria Valencia, an R/TV/F sophomore who wants to write comedy, said she found Wallach’s talk very useful.
“What I’m really taking away from this is how important it is to write,” she said. “It’s easy to get sidetracked, or think, well, that class project will be fine for my portfolio, I don’t need to do more, but now I know I really need to do more writing.”
– Cara Lockwood