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It’s no joke, Emerson College offering a comedy major

Jay Leno is among the famous comedians to graduate from Emerson College.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

Did you hear the one about the Boston school that’s offering students an opportunity to major in comedy?

There’s no punch line here — it’s happening at Emerson College next year.

Beginning in September 2016, undergraduates looking to brush up on their on-screen performance skills or comedy-writing abilities will be able to work toward a bachelor of fine arts degree in the “Comedic Arts.”

“This is going to be a hands-on program,” said Martie Cook, Emerson’s associate chairwoman of visual and media arts department. “If you want to be a sitcom writer, we are going to take you through sitcom writing, and you will walk out of here with several scripts in your hand that you can then show to agents and producers, so you actually have a portfolio.”


Cook said the college’s new program will offer classes that run the gamut. Students will learn about the history of the subject, dating back to the Greeks and Romans, and how to perfect a sketch comedy performance.

“It’s not going to be just lecturing,” she said. “I think what this program offers that’s unique is that you are going to have to actually do it.”

Students will be trained in how to write jokes for both the stage and the screen, so they can find their voices as comedians. There will also be production courses, comedy editing courses, and classes geared toward students who want to study the art and theory of laughter.

Emerson is known for churning out some of the industry’s top talents — Jay Leno, Bill Burr, Harris Wittels, and Denis Leary all attended the school — and Cook expects there to be some famous guest lecturers.

“Many of our faculty are people who have had experience in the industry, and who continue to work in the business,” she said. “The plan is that we will also be offering master classes and events with a lot of event speakers.”


Emerson will make use of both its Boston and Los Angeles campuses for the new initiative.

“This is a great moment for Emerson to bring what has become one of our distinctive strengths to the forefront,” said Doug Herzog, an Emerson alumnus and president of Viacom Music and Entertainment Group, which oversees Comedy Central, in a statement. “Some schools develop NFL quarterbacks. We develop great comedic talent.”

Last year, Emerson announced the rollout of a minor concentration called “Comedy: Writing and Performance.” Cook said the success of that program was so overwhelming that making it a major, in a time when comedy is so prevalent for millennials, was a no-brainer.

“They live in a world that’s comedy based,” she said. “Look at how they get their news: They don’t turn on network news, they go to the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, places like that. Everything is comedy driven. Comedy is just hotter than it’s ever been.”

Noah Garfinkel, who graduated from Emerson in 2006 and now writes for the Fox sitcom New Girl, starring Zooey Deschanel, said the school has long been a destination for people interested in humor.

“There are so many people who went there when I was there that went for comedy writing,” said Garfinkel, who has also written scripts for Comedy Central’s Workaholics.

He said the academic experience could be a big help, teaching students to write comedy scripts before they enter the field full time, for instance.


“I think you’re either going to be good at it or you’re not,” he said. “You’re not going to learn to be funny, but if it’s something you wanted to do or are capable of doing, this major is certainly something that will help that. It’s not the easiest career to navigate.”

Boston-bred stand-up comedian Ryan Doon, who rose to fame using Twitter’s six-second video app, Vine, said he would have pursued a comedy major if one had been available to him.

“I wish I went to Emerson in the first place,” he said. “I think if you’re a creative person and want to be in show business or in that world, I would suggest going there.”

But Doon added that aspiring stand-up comics need experience to go along with their education.

“If you want to be a stand-up comedian, don’t go to college,” he said. “Work at a Starbucks and do open mikes every single night. It’s the best way. If someone is in a position where they can pay for college and do open mikes, that would be ideal.”

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.