No Such Thing as Clown College? The Joke’s on You.

Courtesy of Columbia College

Let’s be honest, the main reason people study abroad is to have a good time, take fun classes in a foreign country, meet that cutie whose only English word is “yes,” and to come back home with an experience that will wow your peers and enhance your résumé. But with times being tough, who has the money for lodging, food, or a plane ticket out of Chicago? If you’ve ever considered going abroad, but are a fan the staycation price, Columbia College has your answer.

Enter the Comedy Studies Program. Combining forces with the world-renowned Second City (now we mention Tina Fey, Steve Carell, and Stephen Colbert), Columbia has created a one-of-a-kind experience for college students wishing to study comedy in depth for an entire semester.

You read right: a full course load, for college credit, strictly on how to improve your comedic chops.

Sound too good to be true? Not to Anne Libera, Program Head and Instructor for the program, who called the coming together of the two schools a “natural” partnership. Libera explains, “There has been a longstanding relationship between Second City and Columbia College Chicago. Sheldon Patinkin was one of the earliest directors for The Second City and still serves as Artistic Consultant for the theatre. Over the years there has been a sizeable overlap between the Columbia College improvisation faculty and that of the Second City Training Center. I have worked for Second City since 1987 and taught for Columbia since 1998.”

It was a “somewhat casual” conversation, Libera says, between Patinkin, Andrew Alexander (Second City’s CEO), and herself that got the wheels turning. The result? Sixteen credit hours that include learning comedy writing, improvisation, history of comedy, and physical comedy work. Launched spring 2007, the program has 10-15 students per class to make up an ensemble. The students take classes and rehearse four days a week, their dedication furthered by extracurricular writing sessions and rehearsals outside of class time.

“We looked at the skills that made Second City actors like Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey so successful in the professional comedy world,” Libera said. “It became clear that it was their combined background in improvisation, acting, writing, an understanding of collaboration, [and] the ability to analyze and look at their own work critically. The program was constructed on that foundation, and then developed collaboratively by teaching artists at Second City with academic help from Columbia College.”

The reception of the program by parents and students, Libera said, has been “overwhelmingly positive.” There are so many college students for whom improvisation and comedy is their passion and they are thrilled to be able to study those subjects in depth. I’m also really pleasantly surprised by the positive reactions of the parents—not an easy thing to have your son or daughter say ‘I want you to pay college tuition so that I can go to Chicago and study comedy’. ”

All classes are taught at the Second City Training Center

One of those students was Chelsea Devantez, who took on the program in spring 2008 while studying acting at NYU. “I would have travelled anywhere to be a part of a program so specific to the comedic art form,” Devantez said. “Comedy Studies offered everything I was looking to study – Improv, Comedic Writing, History of Comedy, etc. I got my BFA from a conservatory, which was phenomenal training, but they didn’t come close to offering me the training in comedy that I craved.

In addition to the full course load, students accepted into Comedy Studies spend time seeing comedy around the city, networking with Chicago performers, and developing their own comedic voice. Current student Zachary Rebich, who flew in from Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, says the program has given him more than he had bargained for. “It covers a very wide breadth of material in a pretty concise way.” Said Rebich “One of the classes we have is ‘Context for Comedy.’ It’s mostly about the creative process and figuring out what you’re going to put together if you’re given the opportunity to put a show on. That goes into the business of comedy side, as well as how to be funny on stage. I didn’t expect to get that kind of training.”

How do you get in, you ask? There are requirements, of course: 60 credit hours or more, completion of beginning courses in improv, acting, and basic English courses. But what the program is really looking for are students with an obvious passion for pursuing comedy on a deeper level. “I’m less stringent about pre-requisites and more interested in what draws the students to the world of comedy and why they have a passion to study, write, and perform,” Libera said. “Ultimately, that demonstrated passion trumps everything else.”

Interestingly enough, one obvious pre-requisite doesn’t make the list: being funny. “Ideally, they spend the semester digging into themselves and finding their own comedic voice,” Libera said. “I want our students to look at the whole – whether that’s a sketch, a work project, or their community and see what their part is and how that part supports and fits into the whole. That’s the essence of a successful Second City ensemble and a strong part of a successful career, whatever you choose to go into.”

The YouTube Video below, made by students from the Class of 2009, agrees with this insight:

As the semester comes to a close, current Comedy Studies students employ all of these skills when preparing for their finals: putting together a showcase for their friends, family, and growing fan base. While their studies in the world of comedy may be ending, the impact the program has had on them is far from being out of use.

“I seriously owe Comedy Studies so much. It completely changed my life.  I didn’t even know what improv was until I was a freshman in college. After studying at Second City I was enlightened to what kind of artist I could be, and then given the tools to work towards that. When you have the tools to create your own work, which Comedy Studies taught me, the possibilities that are available to you as an artist become limitless,” said Deventez, who has since graduated from NYU. She currently lives and works in the Windy City.

Rebich has also made plans to extend his stay, enrolling in classes at Columbia for his final semester of his college career. “It occurred to me that if I actually wanted to do comedy as a thing, coming here and then leaving right away wouldn’t make much sense.”

He offers these words of wisdom to those considering the program: “Anybody who wants to get into comedy and is serious about it should look into this program. It puts you in the world of professional entertainment. It gets you into the grind of it, which is great because the grind of comedy is so much better than the grind of [we’ll let you insert pretty much anything here].”

________________________________________________________

For full info on the program and to apply, check out the Comedy Studies home page. The Class of Fall 2010 will be holding their final performances on December 13th and 14th. Details coming soon, so stay put!

For another view on the program, check out Robert K. Edler’s article here.

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