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Columbia, Second City partner for comedy degree

Chicago's comedy scene just got a little bit more serious this week after Columbia College announced Tuesday that it will be partnering with The Second City to offer a new four-year degree in comedy writing and performance.

The new bachelor's degree, which will officially begin this fall, was inspired by Columbia's five-year-old Comedy Studies program that gives students the opportunity to "study abroad" at Second City for a semester and receive credit hours to take improv classes and workshops at the comedy club.

"The program really succeeded beyond our wildest dreams--in terms of the passion of the students and how well they did coming out of the program and getting jobs and moving forward," said Anne Libera, director of Comedy Studies and coordinator of the new degree program. "It wasn't long until [chair of Columbia's theater department] Dr. John Green looked at me and said, ‘This should be a major.' "

She said Aidy Bryant, who was recently added to the "Saturday Night Live" cast after graduating from Columbia in 2009, said the Comedy Studies program is what prepared and pushed her to be able to start performing at Second City.

Libera has taught at Columbia since 1997 and worked at Second City for 25 years. She was Stephen Colbert's college roommate at Northwestern and has worked with comics including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Jack McBrayer and Kristen Schaal. She said during her time at Second City she has noticed that the students who attend comedy and improv classes during college usually succeed more quickly than individuals who move to Chicago to pursue those fields after college.

"I think it's the immersion in the art form," Libera said. "The thing we'll be doing in the major is cross training--of having actors write and writers act, and have everyone working together to put material up at a regular pace. We want to give our students all those skills--but also the ability to produce, manage and create their own work."

"There aren't gatekeepers who look down at comedians and say, ‘Hey, let me give you a series!' " Libera added. "The pathway to a career in comedy is being able to produce yourself."

Andrew Alexander, CEO and executive producer of The Second City Inc. and a trustee at Columbia College, said in a press release that the new program fits perfectly into Columbia College's experiential curriculum that creates students "that are not only knowledgeable about their chosen field, but they're also ready to work."

Columbia junior Naomi Penner, 21, is a theatre major but is considering switching over to the new comedy writing and performance major in the fall--even though it might mean she'll have to stay in school another semester. Penner, who said she had never thought she would have the opportunity to pursue comedy as a major, said the extra time would definitely be worth it.

"Knowing that there's a chance that I could continue on in comedy after taking Comedy Studies and still be in that world-- I never thought it would be a possibility," Penner said. "But I'm glad it is now."

Libera said she's excited that her students will now be able to work on comedy full-time in Chicago, a city that she says is an exciting place for comedy because there are so many opportunities for people to develop themselves and their talent.

"One of the biggest things about Chicago, for me, is that Chicago is such an amazing place to develop your own voice," she said. "Los Angeles and New York are places where you sell your voice--but Chicago is the place where you figure out who you are."

Erin Vogel is a RedEye special contributor.

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