Major Thoughts: Embracing comedic and cultural identity

This article is part of the “Major Thoughts” series. Contributors will be voicing their opinions about their major, including improvements they would like to see and advice for other students. 

When browsing potential colleges, I realized no other institution could offer me the diverse mix of classes Emerson’s comedic arts major could. Until then, I struggled to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to write, act, and produce, but most of all, I wanted to entertain, and this seemed very difficult to do in one major at any college.

When I arrived at Emerson as a comedic arts major, I expected the world. In many ways, I received it. There are some groundbreaking aspects, like theory classes about the basics of humor. Prior to these classes, I never knew that laughter is distinctly human and way more psychological than it may appear. I was not expecting to learn this deeper education of comedy and human nature.   

As a freshman, I expected the required classes to be extremely boring and monotonous, yet I was pleasantly surprised to learn about comedians from all walks of life. We studied black, queer, and foreign comedy in my freshman year classes.

As a black student of color, it felt great to know my culture’s humor was being studied. I felt like Emerson and its comedic arts major were places I would be appreciated. In my experience, people don’t appreciate the history behind black comedy and how it helped shape American comedy.

On top of that, I never expected classes to be as fun as they are—I found myself laughing in every single one. I would be surprised to find other students at Emerson that enjoy their major as much as comedic arts students.

However, during my first three semesters, I struggled with the major. Of course, I was having fun and enjoying the classes, but there were personal struggles impeding me from being my most authentic self. Similarly to Emerson as a whole, the major is dominated by a white majority. Despite learning about various types of comedy, I did not see them represented in the class.

This became a conundrum, as I love Black humor. Many of my speech patterns, mannerisms, and references are black-centric. So, I wasn’t sure how my humor and, more importantly, my personality would function in a class with no people of color.  Because of these worries, I severely suppressed my personality in class.

It wasn’t until I had my mid-semester meeting with improv teacher Erin Schwall that my mindset changed. She told me that exploring my unique voice would help me open up more in scenes.

By applying my life experience and unique approach to humor afterward, my work in the class improved tremendously. I can now proudly say I act as a black voice for my classes. People know when I’m in class because I’m always laughing and hollering. Now, I liven up places with the funny personality I previously concealed. It sounds cliché, but the key to success really is to be your most authentic self. In a subjective industry like entertainment, authenticity is what gets you noticed. After seeing this change in myself, I can’t help but think that having a more diverse mix of students and teachers would do wonders for not only comedy, but nearly everything at Emerson.

In addition, there should be diversity with classes. There should be a class that teaches a combination of writing, performance, and production because it would not only push students to focus on producing actual studio work under time constraints, but also give students professional work for their portfolios. The class Modes of Comedy Production currently attempts to combines these three elements. Nevertheless, the focus is on learning the basics of production more than writing or acting.

The biggest issue, however, is the lack of classes for all the comedic arts majors. The only classes that are exclusively for comedic arts were a few of the required classes. Even still, some of our requirements are not exclusive. We share classes with visual and media arts; writing, literature, and publishing; and performing arts majors; yet there aren’t any additional classes or seats to compensate. Consequently, there’s plenty of comedic arts students who can’t take their “dream class.” It can be frustrating because we came here under the impression of classes beyond our wildest dreams and are now only left with the scraps of other curricula. This is an issue that comedic arts upperclassmen are still dealing with.

However, there is room for comedy in so many professional industries. Whether it be writing, leadership, comics, or music, experience in comedy can fit into many places. I think the comedic arts major is definitely what you make of it. We think highly of each others’ talents as entertainers. We provide opportunities for each other here at Emerson. I believe we will be doing the same in our professional careers because Emerson provides great spaces for us to perfect our craft and make connections outside the classroom.

But the issues we face aren’t only institutional ones. Comedic arts students, like many performers, feel the need to impress each other. I felt the need to prove myself in the beginning, but never acted on it, feeling that my efforts would fall on deaf ears. I now know this is a backward mindset. I think many of us feel this imaginary pressure because comedy is such a subjective art form.

At the end of the day, the comedic arts major is innovative in that it provides us with great opportunities to gain experience in and out of the classroom. As a new major, there are aspects that need to be improved, but I have learned more about the craft of comedy. I have become a well-rounded entertainer. I have decided to take my talent and focus on working in animation. Comedy is ever-present in animation, and so much of what I learned here applies. Whether I’m acting or writing, I feel confident that this major is preparing me to accomplish great things in my career.

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