For a long time, comedy has generally been considered too frivolous for the hallowed halls of academia — the stuff of clubs, not classrooms. But the University of Southern California is determined to shift that attitude, and now comedy legend Robin Williams will be a part of the change.
On June 6, nearly three years after Williams’ death, USC’s School of Cinematic Arts — which in 2011 launched one of the first programs devoted to teaching comedy at a major university — will dedicate a new Robin Williams Endowed Chair in Comedy.
Endowed by the George Lucas Family Foundation, the chair not only honors Williams’ brilliant comic mind, says Elizabeth M. Daley, dean of the School of Cinematic Arts, but will help further legitimize the notion that comedy is a subject worthy of in-depth study.
“It sets a standard,” said Daley. “More than anything it says, ‘This is the standard to which we aspire.’ It’s a crown jewel in our comedy program.”
When Williams himself was starting out, there were few places within the traditional academic system where a fledgling comedic talent could go to actually study his craft. When he told his father of his dream of being an actor and comedian, his dad’s response, he recalled while accepting the Academy Award for his turn in “Good Will Hunting,” was somewhat skeptical: “ ‘Wonderful. Just have a backup profession, like welding.’ ”
For Williams’ family, the naming of a chair in comedy in his honor at a major academic institution like USC is a deeply moving tribute to the late actor — albeit a somewhat surprising one.
“I think Dad would find it really exciting,” said the actor’s daughter, actress, writer and director Zelda Williams. “I also think he’d find it fascinating and confusing.” She laughed. “He’d be, like, ‘What? They’re actually going to do that now?’ Comedy isn’t something that I think for a long time anyone even tried to teach. When he was at college, a lot of the way he learned it was by busking on the street.”
Williams’ son Zak says his father always felt that being funny was serious business, a conviction he backed up with a tireless work ethic. “He definitely believed comedy should be explored and thought about,” he said. “Just like there are institutions that focus on acting or dramatic writing, there is a craft that’s associated with comedy, and I think it’s important that people take a critical and thoughtful approach to developing that art.”
USC’s comedy program allows students in the School of Cinematic Arts to minor in comedy; courses include Foundations of Comedy, Writing the Half-Hour Comedy Series and Directing the Comedy Scene. The school has also mounted three comedy festivals. According to the university, a number of students who’ve passed through the comedy program since its inception have landed writing, directing and producing jobs in the film and television industries.
Director and producer Barnet Kellman, who teaches film and television production at the School of Cinematic Arts and helped found the comedy program, will be the first holder of the Robin Williams Chair. He says the actor — who committed suicide at age 63 after struggling with a degenerative brain disease called Lewy body dementia — is virtually without equal as an icon in the comedy world.
“Robin’s work and his life represents a level of achievement and a proud identification point for everybody in comedy,” Kellman said. “He marries the two extremes that those of us who love comedy value. His antic nature and invention on the one hand and the root seriousness which was his driving force on the other.”
Indeed, though his comedy could often be gleefully silly, from his earliest days on TV’s “Mork & Mindy” and on the stages of clubs like San Francisco’s Holy City Zoo and L.A.’s Comedy Store, Williams’ approach to his work was anything but. He seemed to hold to the same philosophy as the inspiring boarding-school English teacher he played in the 1989 film “Dead Poets Society”: “Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way.”
Long after he had achieved wealth and fame, says his widow, Susan Schneider Williams, he considered himself a student of the craft, routinely pushing himself outside his comfort zone to take on new creative challenges and showing up at comedy clubs to watch other comics do stand-up and lend his support. Among his numerous philanthropic endeavors, he funded a scholarship at New York’s Juilliard School, which he attended, to enable students to study acting.
“When someone is as good as Robin, what people don’t see is the hours and hours of work behind it,” said Schneider Williams. “He would read and study and write and learn and rehearse over and over again to find that brilliant point that only he could find.
“Whenever he was traveling for work,” she added, “he’d hit the clubs. Other comedians would flock around him like ducklings to their mama duck, and that never got old for him. He really enjoyed that one-on-one contact.”
That kind of devotion to craft gives the lie to the pervasive notion that comedy can’t be taught, says Kellman. “With comedy, there’s this attitude that it’s kind of like sex: You have to learn it on the street — find somebody who does it well and do it with them,” he said. “Of course, that’s crucial to one’s development. But to say there’s not a time and a place where one can dedicate oneself to developing one’s voice, one’s craft, one’s practice — I just don’t buy it.”
As for the idea that comedy is somehow too frothy or trivial a subject for an academic setting, Daley rejects that as well. “My argument is always: What’s more powerful?” she said. “You want to talk about the shows that changed society — should we talk about ‘All in the Family’? Should we talk about ‘Fresh Off the Boat’? Or we can go centuries back and talk about ‘Lysistrata.’ If you can get people to laugh at things, you can often get them to deal with things.”
Kellman says the endowment in Williams’ name to USC’s comedy program — the 30th endowed faculty chair at the School of Cinematic Arts — will help attract more students, draw more Hollywood luminaries to teach and guest lecture, and support new course work in comedy.
“When Judd Apatow came to USC, he was there for a while and he left because he didn’t feel he could develop his comedy there,” he said. “If one kid like Judd can now find their way to USC and stay and blossom within our program — I certainly think the credibility the name Robin Williams has is going to help that.”
Schneider Williams says she’s especially moved that the chair has been endowed by Lucas, who was a close friend of Williams and is one of a number of major filmmakers, including comedy directors like Paul Feig and Jay Roach, who have come out of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.
“This gift is made possible out of one man’s genius and his love for another man’s genius,” said Schneider Williams. “That’s a beautiful thing. This chair allows Robin’s efforts to move into the realm of mentorship in a way that he didn’t get a chance to do. He and I had started talking about this idea that it’s important to pass on what you’ve learned in life, what your path has taught you. This is his opportunity to pass that on.
“I’m sure Robin is relieved that all of these students won’t have to take up welding,” she added with a laugh. “No offense to welders out there, but we’re all born for something.”
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