We're Laughing With You: Part 2

Theatre assistant professor Anne Libera talks about creating the first ever BA in Comedy Writing and Performance and why the next Tina Fey is probably here at Columbia.

Our top ranked Comedy Studies Program still has some work to do. “I’m going to be really honest, we’re figuring it out as we go along. As a director, performer, writer and improviser, that’s what you do: you use your best knowledge, dig back and revise,” says Theatre assistant professor Anne Libera.

Libera has worked with The Second City for more than 30 years and is the director of the Comedy Studies Program, a 16-week partnership with The Second City, where the classes are taught. The success of the program led to the creation of the Columbia’s BA in Comedy Writing and Performance—the first academic degree of its kind anywhere in the world.

In 2007, The Second City’s Andrew Alexander and the late Sheldon Patinkin began talking about creating a school at The Second City. But The Second City didn’t have the infrastructure to provide coursework, so students who came to Columbia through the Comedy Studies program began creating ad hoc majors in order to matriculate.

Libera recognized a demand for a major. She saw Columbia as the perfect place to teach comedy in an immersive way while blending in the pedagogical expertise of the college.
In 2012, with the help of then-Chair of the Theatre Department John Green, the BA in Comedy Performance and Writing was born. In its first year, there were less than 100 majors. Now in its fourth year, there are more than 242.

The Next Tina Fey
“When I talk to other people about this kind of study, this idea of comedy cross-training keeps coming back. We know that the people who really succeed in this industry—like Tina Fey, Keegan Michael Key, and Louis C.K.­­­­—are those with multiple skill sets in comedy. They write, perform and produce. So, the foundation of the program is interdisciplinary. Taking this approach was an educated guess on our part. But, it seems to be working!”

Why Am I So Funny?
“I’m really interested in the connections with comedy and things like behavioral sciences. Fundamentally, comedy is a way our brains explore our rationalities and irrationalities. Comedians have been exploiting biases for comic sake for decades. In the classroom, we talk theory but we are all practitioners. Our work is similar to the design model. We create a prototype, test, and revise.”

Chicago is Funnier than NY and LA
“Chicago is not the epicenter of the comedy industry. But, we are where people come to get their comedy chops up. Chicago has a wealth of comedy knowledge. People flock to Chicago because of The Second City, Annoyance Theatre, Improv Olympics [iO Theater], The Onion and amazing physical comedians. What makes Chicago a brilliant place for a college-based comedy program is students get to be a part of this deep and broad community.

“In New York, there’s Upright Citizens Brigade, which moved the Chicago model to New York. In LA, opportunities are mostly industry-related which are completely different. You are creating what you’re doing to sell yourself. But here, you really get to develop yourself. There’s nowhere else that has what we have in the same way. To really understand how comedy works, you need to do it in front of an audience and there’s an astonishing amount of available opportunities to perform in front of audiences here.”

We’re Laughing with You
“Comedy doesn’t happen on your own, it happens between people. Even when you make yourself laugh, there’s an element of self-separation—it’s like you’re two people. There’s something contagious about improv. You watch it and you say: ‘I can do that.’ Also, what’s exciting about Columbia students is their willingness to say: ‘I can make that. I can make something happen.’”


Read why Anne Libera thinks poop jokes will never die in Comedy, Truth, Distance and Poop: Part 1.