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Robin Williams Chair in Comedy at USC Creates a Home for Students

Even though Robin Williams was cited by Montreal’s Just for Laughs Comedy Festival co-founder Andy Nulman as “the one who got away,” who, despite decades of pursuing him for a fest slot, never made it to the Montreal comedy gathering, the impact of the legendary comic’s work will undoubtedly be felt in all corners of the comedy world for years to come.

Director and producer Barnet Kellman was in Chicago shooting the 1992 romantic comedy “Straight Talk,” starring Dolly Parton, James Woods and Griffin Dunne, when Robin Williams stopped by to say greet to the cast and crew.

“Everybody turned and listened,” recalls Kellman, “as Robin uncorked his comedy for 15 straight minutes. He was a magical presence.”

So Kellman “never ever imagined” that decades later he would be named the inaugural holder of the Robin Williams Endowed Chair in Comedy at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, where Kellman, professor in SCA’s division of film and television production, helped found its program in comedy.

“I think I just went white, my blood sugar dropped and then shot up, in rapid succession,” says Kellman upon being told of his appointment. “We all had such an incredibly visceral reaction to the news that Robin was gone. Everybody appreciated him but, as it happens when you lose somebody, the depth of that appreciation increased. Everybody became just so aware of what he meant to us. So to be associated with his name, to have his name associated with the School of Cinematic Arts, was just an awesome surprise. It just came as a total shock to me.”

Established by the George Lucas Family Foundation in June, it was Lucas himself — calling Williams “a comedy genius with a boundless talent” — who brought the idea for the Robin William Chair to dean Elizabeth M. Daley. Lucas, an alumnus and one of SCA’s primary benefactors, had already financed many chairs at the school, including the Sergei Eisenstein Endowed Chair in Cinematic Design and the Joseph Campbell Endowed Chair in Cinematic Ethics, and there was also the Jack Oakie Endowed Chair in Comedy, held by SCA screenwriting professor Jack Epps Jr., but there remained a comedic hole in the production division.

“No school has taken on fostering comedy. Here at USC, we want to be the incubator.”
Barnet Kellman

“We were talking about the comedy program at a board meeting and [George] said [we] should have a chair for Robin,” says Daley. “They were very close and he said to me, ‘This should be one of the things that really is the crown jewel of the comedy program.’ ”

Together with Epps and David Isaacs, screenwriting professor and Emmy-winning executive producer on “Cheers,” Kellman had worked diligently to build up the comedy curricula at SCA, but “there was a vacuum in the teaching of comedy directing” that Kellman and Daley knew needed to be filled.

“I give credit to Paul [Junger] Witt who said to me several years ago at a board meeting, ‘You know, you should really own comedy. Have you looked at your alumni?’ ” recalls Daley. “And then you start realizing your [alumni] are Judd Apatow, Jason Reitman, Josh Schwartz, Shawn Levy — the list goes on and on. And we talked to them, and we realized that they all needed a home, a place where funny people can get together and explore getting their sea legs and try different things, knowing it’s OK to fail. Because while you can’t make somebody have a sense of humor, you can certainly teach an awful lot of it, and you can give them an environment where those instincts are supported.”

But it wasn’t just USC that was lacking a degree track in comedy; academic institutions all over seemed loathe to take comedy seriously as a subject matter worth studying. “There really were no courses like the ones that I created anywhere,” says Kellman. “No school has really taken on the mantle of fostering comedy. Here [at USC] we want to be the incubator of comedy.”

Today, thanks in large part to the addition of the Robin Williams Chair, SCA students can pursue degrees in their chosen division, while minoring in comedy. Offered courses include foundations of comedy, writing the half-hour comedy series and directing the comedy scene.

“It’s important to learn the history of comedy, how it’s practiced andhow it’s developed.”
Zak Williams

“People think when you say comedy directing you’re talking about how to direct a sitcom, and sitcoms are an important part of comedy, but comedy is a much larger subject in a much larger field,” Kellman says. “The root questions that my course tries to address is, when the writer or performer comes up with a concept, the intention of which is to make an audience laugh, how do you make sure that happens? What goes into that? How do you make something that’s intended to be funny actually come out funny on the other end with an audience? That’s the question that my class asks and tries to address through workshop. That didn’t exist before.”

To further honor Williams’ legacy, the School of Cinematic Arts has also launched a three-day com edy festival featuring panels, discussions and screenings so that aspiring artists can cut their proverbial comic teeth.

Zak Williams, Robin’s son, knows in his heart that his Oscar-winning father would have been “humbled by the honor” and grateful that “his craft, which he so deeply loved and respected” has been formally legitimized at the collegiate level.

“Beyond being a place of learning, the USC Comedy Chair and the community surrounding is a place for people to connect and a forum for comedy,” he says. “It’s like a beacon, so any place where a beacon for comedy is formally established is a place where awesome things happen. So I think he would have been very supportive of the fact that someone had the prescience to develop curricula associated with the art and practice of comedy. My father’s drive and discpline brought him to venues across the United States, where he was constantly testing out his material. And, yes, a lot is learned in the field — the clubs and the stages — but learning about the history of comedy, how it’s practiced and how it’s developed, is equally important. [USC] is simply another stage and podium for the practice to be learned and developed. It’s a place where community can thrive.”

What matters most to Kellman is not that he’s been named the Robin Williams Chair, but that the chair itself will enable the study of comedy to continue in perpetuity at USC.

“The name Robin Williams has added enormous credibility to all of our projects and enormous recognition to the industry, and it’s added to the dignity of Robin Williams’ life,” says Kellman. “It goes way beyond whatever class I happen to teach. At the School of Cinematic Arts, we’re building a critical mass, we’re building a community. It’s a place where you can meet your creative partners for life.”

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