A degree in funny in the town that takes comedy seriously

You can imagine the scene in thousands of family rooms: "Mom and Dad, I want to major in comedy." Silence. "Comedy? Not on our dime, you don't."

To some parents, the notion of heading to Columbia College Chicago for a full-on degree program in matters of amusement won't be far removed from little Johnny announcing he wants to join the circus. Some of those with wisdom and painful experience will flash-forward to a future interview in some corporate recruiter's office. She'll scan the resume, look up in bemusement and, likely as not, ask, "Comedy studies? Tell me a joke."

Well, let us stipulate that nobody learned to be funny by just taking a class. That is not the point of Columbia's offering, which has been around for a while as a semesterlong program for Columbia undergraduates taught in collaboration with The Second City, but was formalized last week as a bachelor's degree in theater with a concentration in comedy writing and performance. It's coordinated by Second City's Anne Libera. Students will both write and perform (among other things), satisfying the industry's current high valuation on those who can do their own material, especially in short, online bites. Columbia claims it is the only such program in the United States.

Well, Chicago is the right town for it. It has the history. One night back in 2005, the official archivist of the University of Chicago declared that the fine art of improv had been invented in 1955 in Hyde Park, when the legendary Compass Players, which boasted the great, and now, alas, terminally ill, Valerie Harper among its number, first took the stage of the Francis X. Kinahan Theater in the university's Reynolds Club. The veracity of that claim depended on how one defined improv, granted, but there was a good case made that improv was born and raised in Chicago, at least as surely as electric blues or deep-dish pizza.

And Chicago surely has developed the talent over the long haul. Stephen Colbert, who came back to Chicago last weekend to headline an event for the Lookingglass Theatre and his old pals from Northwestern University, talked with strikingly raw emotion about his time spent honing his skills in Chicago, including performing shows at the old Second City Northwest, a outpost in Arlington Heights. Colbert has stocked his writing staff with writers and performers from Chicago.

And there is no question that Tina Fey's innovations on "30 Rock," the phenomenally successful and formatively influential NBC television show, flowed directly from her work on Second City's main stage, which was roiling with change and rule-breaking in the 1990s. The very idea for "Saturday Night Live" came from Second City; the first cast of the show was pretty much a wholesale raid of Second City's Toronto company.

One could go on, of course. In other words, it's not so much that Chicago institutions such as iO and Second City have fed the industry talent, although they have; it's that the talent that has come from here has tended to be more inclined to innovation. Del Close, the spiritual father of iO, was certainly not interested in honing someone's skill set for employability; he was building artistry as surely as method-acting inventor Constantin Stanislavski. And Fey, whose clout is remarkable, now is associated with formative leadership, mentorship, role-modeling and the rest, perhaps more than any comedian of her generation.

So for all the jokes that anyone who majors in comedy will have to suffer, the crews from Chicago have, by and large, been the industry's historians, educators and intellectuals. You only had to hear Colbert talk last weekend; he could well move on to a political career if he chooses.

Careers and performances matter everywhere, of course, but the fields of sketch comedy and improv are treated in Chicago, at events like the Chicago Improv Festival or SketchFest, as arts created by giants and sustained only by careful nurturing and training in definable skills. Chicago's remove from the industry centers helps, as does the city's abiding inability to make many of its artists rich, unless they choose to leave. Those who stay typically are about something else, and teaching is a big part of what they do.

Columbia's new program might also have the benefit of formalizing some of the comedy world's more controversial pay-to-play elements, which have been attracting attention in New York of late, where there has been much chatter about the habit of the Upright Citizens Brigade to pay performers little or nothing at all. Indeed, many comedy theaters, including Second City, Upright Citizens Brigade and iO, make a lot of their revenue from students who are taking classes in the hope that one day the comedy theaters will become their employers or their showcase. There is logic to that system — the work done by those companies requires performers who have the skills — but it also is a system with many inherent ethical challenges.

Getting a university, with its ethical strictures and systems of rigor, accreditation and quality control, in the middle of this unwieldy marketplace of training and opportunity can only be a good thing for aspiring comics who want to come to Chicago and immerse themselves in all this history and tradition. Instead of just some skills and costly certificates that don't mean much to outsiders, they will now at least be able to show their parents an actual, bona fide, very funny degree.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

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