Before he wrote for “Saturday Night Live,” before his career soared with “The Comeback Kid” and “Kid Gorgeous,” and before he produced “Big Mouth,” John Mulaney (COL ’04) was a member of the Georgetown University Improv Association, then the Georgetown Players Improv Group.
Georgetown University has made a name for itself in the comedy world, as some of its more well-known graduates include big names like Nick Kroll (COL ’01), Jim Gaffigan (MSB ’88) and Mike Birbiglia (COL ’00). These world-famous comedians got their start on Georgetown’s very own campus. From improv groups to stand-up and sketch comedy to satirical news publications, a niche comedy scene has developed against an otherwise serious academic background to build student communities that foster meaningful collaboration as well as valuable personal growth.
Comedy Through Community
As students seek out ways to channel their passion for comedy, they run into a vast amount of opportunities for involvement, according to student comedian Zev Burton (SFS ’22).
“Georgetown’s campus is very receptive to comedy, as can be seen from the sheer amount of opportunities on campus for humor,” Burton wrote in a message to The Hoya.
Georgetown’s small artistic community exists within a larger, academically focused school. This dichotomy makes comedy the perfect pocket of creative expression for people who want to take a break from their academics and learn comedy, according to Rachel Thomas (COL ’22), an executive producer for the Georgetown Sketch Comedy Society.
“It works in our favor that we’re not an art school because it means people involved in comedy have found themselves a small niche,” Thomas said in an interview with The Hoya. “It’s conducive to a supportive community, and we help each other.”
Within the Sketch Comedy Society, members write short comedic sketches and work on them together to put on a free show every semester. It is a process that is necessarily collaborative, according to Thomas.
“Comedy is a very collaborative craft, and so we really do support each other a lot and help each other a lot,” Thomas said.
This teamwork is especially necessary in improv, according to GUerrilla Improv Business Manager Shannon Burke (NHS ’22).
“Improv is all about supporting your scene partners and accepting the reality that they have created, which makes a really welcoming environment,” Burke wrote in a message to The Hoya. “Our team has definitely grown a lot over the years.”
Across media, many students who are involved in comedy are involved in multiple groups to try their hand at a wide variety of avenues, according to Joe Stewart (SFS ’22), an executive producer for the Sketch Comedy Society who also participates in improv and writes for The Georgetown Heckler, a satirical online publication founded in 2003.
“There’s a ton of opportunities,” Stewart said in an interview with The Hoya. “There’s a large crossover at Georgetown with the comedy groups. Several members in Sketch are in improv and The Heckler, and a large connection with theater.”
The relationships formed by participation in comedy communities is remarkable, according to Michelle Renslo (COL ’22), a member of both the Georgetown Improv Association and the Sketch Comedy Society.
“I found a family of people who are immensely supportive and don’t take themselves too seriously,” Renslo said in an interview with The Hoya.
Even among the rich opportunities for comedic engagement on campus, however, there is not a formal organization for stand-up like there is for sketch or improv. The stand-up scene still has plenty of room to grow because there is a fair amount of interest but less of an organized community for it, according to Burton.
“We really only have one event a year, Georgetown’s Funniest Human,” Burton wrote. “I think that there are a ton of people who write stand-up and would be interested in trying it out if there were more opportunities for it.”
In Funniest Human, one of the few campus events dedicated to stand-up comedy, 10 students compete for the title awarded by a panel of judges.
Students who are dedicated to refining their craft are also able to explore opportunities off campus. Stand-up comedian Gary Simons (COL ’21) became involved first in the Georgetown Improv Association and later tried sketch writing and stand-up. People interested in comedy should seek out opportunities to pursue it, as even off-campus opportunities abound in Washington, D.C., according to Simons.
“Anyone who’s interested in comedy should reach out. If they think it’s something they might be interested in, they should go out and find it,” Simons wrote in a message to The Hoya. “There’s no stand-up club, so I go on my own and do stand up. I’ve performed at Dupont Underground, which is an abandoned subway tunnel. I’ve also done a couple bars that do open mics.”
As students create characters through performances and writings, they find the process to be character-building for themselves as well, according to Renslo.
“It’s definitely challenging and can be scary, but that’s why I like it — because it keeps me on my toes,” Renslo said.
The wide array of Georgetown’s comedy groups not only serves to increase opportunities for comedy on campus, but also to offer those who may be afraid to step out of their comfort zones a chance to express themselves. Self-assurance is one of the important aspects of these comedy groups, according to GUerrilla Improv member — and the club’s fall 2019 Mr. Georgetown representative — Jack Reichert (SFS ’20).
“You get into GUerilla by going to practices and being committed to the team,” Reichert wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We believe that anyone can be funny if they work at it.”
Building self-confidence is a facet of participation in comedy organizations, according to Stewart.
“More people could be more involved in comedy if they wanted to be,” Stewart said. “We have friends who are really funny, but don’t think they could ever be funny if it is written and not in the moment. I think people are funnier than they think they are.”
One of the benefits of participating in comedy, even for those with the slightest of interest, is personal growth, according to Burke.
“We really love to see people just try improv. Whether it sticks or not, I think that comedy can teach you really important skills and give you a much needed break from everything else you have going on,” Burke wrote. “Improv makes me feel really validated and confident. You have to make strong choices in scenes in order for them to be successful, so you learn to be sure of yourself.”
Admittedly, the comedy community can also be daunting to those looking in from the outside. These smaller, close-knit groups can be intimidating to students who are not already friends with people in them, but pushing oneself to explore those communities pays off, according to Eliza Palter (COL ’20), editor-in-chief of The Heckler.
“There’s also a pretty notable lack of diversity in the comedy community, specifically in The Heckler. There are not many women and in any comedy setting it is difficult to speak up, especially because affirmation in a comedy setting is laughter,” Palter said in an interview with The Hoya. “I barely went to Heckler meetings my first year because I just felt like no one was interested in what I had to say. It took a conscious effort to get out of my comfort zone.”
With increased time and involvement, however, participating in comedy on campus became an encouraging experience, according to Palter.
“It’s a close-knit comedy community. It’s a really nice, supportive space,” Palter said.
Futures in Comedy
For some, engaging with comedy in some form outside of Georgetown is natural after having affirmed their passion for comedy and built their self-assurance through their experiences on campus, according to Burke.
“I wouldn’t say that many GUerrilla members are planning to pursue comedy outside of college, but there are definitely a few who have started doing stand-up comedy outside of Georgetown,” Burke wrote.
While many students use comedy as a channel for creativity, for others it becomes a life goal. Reichert plans to pursue a career in stand-up after finishing school, even though he is majoring in global business. After discovering the comedy scene at Georgetown, it became more than just a hobby and developed into what he actually wants to do as a career, Reichert said.
“After coming to Georgetown — that’s where I discovered comedy, and that sort of spiraled into that being what I actually want to do,” Reichert said. “[Business] is definitely going to be super helpful down the line because if it ends up like I’m not funny, I’ll have it to fall back on.”
Approaching comedy with dedication and serious practice is a large part of finding success, according to Reichert.
“I street performed for an entire summer in New York. It was terrifying. Every day I would wake up, get on the train with my backpack and a couple peanut butter sandwiches. I thought I was good going into it, but after a week, I thought, ‘Wow, I’m bad,’” Reichert said. “I completely redid how I wrote jokes. I would go to open mic nights every night. I started to get my own voice. By the end of the summer, I got sort of good, and I could rattle out jokes every day, just for fun.”
As he continues his journey in the field, the comedy scene at Georgetown has unquestionably left its mark, according to Reichert.
“People don’t generally think that college improv groups are good, but in reality they can exceed the skill of professional groups and other amateur groups,” Reichert said. “I’ve been to other university comedy shows, and I think that Georgetown has this weird competitive edge.”