Three high-profile alumni of the Harvard Lampoon, the university’s undergraduate humor publication, gathered Sunday at USC to discuss “The Simpsons” and the steps to a successful career in comedy, among other topics.
Conan O’Brien, Greg Daniels and Al Jean, all of whom worked together on “The Simpsons” in the 1990s (Jean remains showrunner of the Fox toon), took part in a panel discussion about the Lampoon’s impact on Hollywood.
Lawrence O’Donnell (MSNBC’s “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell”) moderated; Jim Downey, a “Saturday Night Live” alum, was expected, but couldn’t make the sesh that closed out USC’s second annual Comedy @SCA fest.
Although Downey was absent, the panelists lauded his trailblazing efforts as the first to go from the Lampoon to “SNL,” noting that he paved the way for many at Harvard.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do, I didn’t know how I was going to do it,” O’Brien said, of his decision to follow Downey into the world of comedy writing. “But I remember thinking it’s not going to be medical school, it’s not going to be law school, the male modeling is not going to happen, and it’s going to be, definitely, me being in show business.”
Daniels, who was O’Brien’s writing partner when they left Harvard, recalled the hardships that they endured after heading to Los Angeles in 1985. The two taught SAT prep courses, shared a $600 car and tiny apartment, and bit their fingernails over stressful three-week contracts.
O’Brien remembered being so stressed out that he gave himself shingles — in one eye. He also told the aud about the pains of working as a secretary for an attractive woman at a suede and leather house, which he likened to the set of a contempo porn film.
“Give a white male from Harvard a frickin’ chance is what we’re here to say,” O’Brien quipped.
O’Donnell, who worked as a writer on “The West Wing” before landing his own MSNBC talkshow, was more of a ringleader than a moderator. He handed a majority of the question-asking duties over to the packed house at the Eileen Norris Cinema Theater. But he did elucidate some of the differences between writing for drama and comedy — at least in terms of stress.
“The only thing that could make us feel better about our jobs was looking at the comedy guys,” O’Donnell said, noting comedy writers’ long hours and seemingly endless rewrites. “The things you’re going for (as a drama writer) are not actually as difficult to achieve as a laugh.”
O’Brien acknowledged that laughs are definitely tough to get — and the money jokes don’t materialize out of thin air. Comedy writers are definitely subject to Malcolm Gladwell’s rule of having to put in 10,000 hours before you ever start to become proficient.
“Anybody who makes a living doing comedy developed this mechanism when they were two or three years old,” he said. “It’s a hyper-developed defense mechanism. … This is all I had. I couldn’t fight, no girls were interested, I couldn’t sing, this is all I had. And I developed it and developed it and developed it — and it’s sad.”
O’Brien, Daniels and Jean said their tenure at the Harvard humor mag had a big impact on their sensibilities.
Jean applauded the humor mag’s lack of nepotism, underlining the fact that the Castle isn’t just filled with a bunch of East Coasters that know each other — you have to be picked. He defined the Lampoon’s sensibility as: “If you trust us, you’re an idiot.”
Group reminisced about their time spent in the Castle, with O’Brien highlighting one of his favorite memories: a John Candy anecdote.
O’Brien, who served in the lofty role of president of the Lampoon, was tasked with greeting and showing Candy around. He said it was Candy — in between dinner toasts and éclair binges — who gave him his best advice for comedy: “It’s not something you try,” Candy told O’Brien.
Daniels said the best advice he ever got came from O’Brien, who always took himself seriously and wouldn’t let the duo do any “crap work.” Then, Daniels — after being buttered up by O’Brien as a wizard of comedy writing — gave some advice of his own.
“Put your writers together like a baseball team,” Daniels said, elaborating that the people who are stronger at story and character should be in the upper, more senior level roles, and those better at jokes, should be younger, less-experienced scribes.
Jean said he took inspiration from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “The Simpsons’” James L. Brooks, who told Jean that even though “Simpsons” was “an animated show, you have to believe that they’re real characters.”
“That’s infused in all our best moments,” Jean said.
The trio indulged in their most memorable “Simpsons” work — mostly at the expense of O’Brien, who became the butt of a panel-long joke for an episode he penned in for season four, titled “Marge vs. the Monorail.”
Many have remarked that “The Simpsons,” 25 seasons deep, owes its longevity to Brooks and Matt Groening’s mission to keep the toon as realistic as possible. O’Brien admitted that because the “Monorail” episode dipped into the surreal more so than others, he was chided once for “breaking” the show.
But that fear of breaking something funny is not the worst thing in the world. In a way, it’s necessary.
Said O’Brien: “Insecurity drives every performer, and anybody who isn’t nervous or a little bit insecure before they get up onstage is a bad performer.”
The Lampoon panel closed out the second annual Comedy@SCA fest, part of USC’s Comedy@SCA initiative, an interdisciplinary pathway through the school’s cinematic arts curriculum.
(Pictured from left: Lawrence O’Donnell, Conan O’Brien, Greg Daniels and Al Jean)