They've surely got a degree of humor

Special to The Times

"Oh, no -- there's lots of white people!" quips Michael Junior, a young African American comedian, as he gives the packed house at the Improv a once-over.

Junior, who recently appeared on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," is right. It's almost midnight at the Melrose Avenue comedy club, and the mostly twentysomething, mostly white audience members have something else in common: an Ivy League degree. They've come to see their peers -- those who chose joke-telling over medicine or investment banking -- in the third of a series of "All-Ivy" showcases featuring stand-ups with diplomas from the likes of Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

"My parents were like, 'You could have done anything -- why this?' " says Andrea Savage, a Cornell graduate who has the Improv audience howling at her unapologetic admission of self-absorption: "I want people inconvenienced when I die!"

Although she writes sketch comedy and has guest-starred on "Suddenly Susan" and "Good Morning, Miami," Savage recalls that "there was a period when my dad would send me business school applications and ask why I picked the one career that has no guarantee."

Show business may not offer guarantees, but when it comes to TV series gigs or the ultimate pot of gold -- the development deal -- doing stand-up isn't a bad insurance policy. According to Katie O'Connell, vice president of comedy programming at Imagine Television, gone are the days when the "Harvard Mafia" dominated the credit roll at the end of every sitcom.

Now, agrees ICM literary agent Michael Rizzo, an Ivy League degree and sample scripts often need bolstering by live performance.

"The stereotype of the brainy kids being socially awkward and reclusive tends to have some truth to it," Rizzo explains. "But when they can connect with an audience, that's great, because often their joke-telling is so smart."

Smart indeed. At a recent Ivy League showcase, audiences were left to decipher punch lines like, "That makes me heterozygous for having no soul" -- Harvard graduate Daley Haggar's sardonic take on having one atheist and one Catholic parent. But Stu Golfman, the Improv's talent coordinator, who admires Haggar's irreverent style, cautioned that "she can get into trouble with her education. She used to have a Thomas Pynchon reference in her set, and I had to tell her, 'No one gets this.' "

Haggar, who wrote for "South Park" and hopes to land more series work, finds stand-up important for testing her material. "I wrote a novel for my college thesis, which was horrible -- it was one of those postmodern disasters that mercifully wasn't shown to the public," she says. "But when you show your work onstage, you quickly learn what works and what doesn't."

What doesn't work, insists Marty Belafsky, who uses broad physical comedy in his act and has opened for Rodney Dangerfield in Las Vegas, is telling audiences that he went to Brown. "It goes against my whole act of being a moron," says the self-deprecating, reed-thin 27-year-old, whose height appears to be inversely proportional to his width. "And besides, once you say you've gone to a fancy school, some people think you're spoiled."

"That's a naive stereotype," says Richard Claflin, vice president of comedy programming at ABC and a 1992 Harvard graduate. "I didn't go to school with the ascot-wearing, martini-swilling set."

But Lesley Wolff, a University of Pennsylvania alumna and producer of the "All-Ivy" series, admits that if comedy is said to come from tragedy, many Ivy Leaguers are underachievers in the angst category.

Wolff's act, in fact, revolves around the problem of having no problems.

"Part of my shtick is that I'm this person who has to create angst," she says. "I do a bit about how, despite all I've achieved academically, being a teen mentor gives me an inferiority complex. I mean, what could I possibly offer to an at-risk teen? I'm an unemployed comedian. What kind of role model is that?"

Mining for angst

Faith Salie, a Rhodes scholar and Harvard graduate who became a finalist for this year's HBO/Aspen Comedy Festival, can relate. "People who go to these schools have a secret fear that they may have peaked in college, so that's where a lot of the comedy comes from," she says. "It's not, 'I'm so smart, here are my observations on the world,' but 'I went to this great school, and now I'm a big screw-up.' "

ICM's Rizzo isn't worried about Ivy Leaguers having it too easy. "One of the hardest things is to put yourself out there and control the room," he says. "If you haven't had angst before you started, you'll definitely have it after."

Even for well-received comics like Princeton's Pedro Hernandez -- who opens his set with a joke about being a black kid in Detroit cursed with a Hispanic name -- there's also the angst of playing the comparison game. "A lot of my friends from college are about to graduate from law school, and they're looking at six figures right now. I don't get that kind of guarantee." Armed with a degree in architecture, Hernandez can always fall back on a design career, but he hopes Plan A will work out.

"Hope is a great thing," says the Improv's Golfman. "These kids haven't experienced much failure, and they don't want to be some [bad] road comic. They want to be the next Seinfeld." Or Ivy League successes like Conan O'Brien, Bill Maher, "Talk Soup's" Aisha Tyler and "The Daily Show's" Lewis Black.

Still, says ABC's Claflin, "Executives don't care where comedy writers went to school. The only time an agent might mention a client's Ivy League affiliation is when there's an opening on 'Frasier' and the agent might say, 'My client went to Harvard, so he'll understand effete references.' "

But Claflin adds that doing stand-up can give Ivy Leaguers "street cred" -- especially when they're seen by non-Ivy industry types like "Saturday Night Live's" Chris Parnell, comedian Chris Hardwick and Andrew Green, a former producer on "Suddenly Susan," all of whom sat in the audience.

"It's sort of like networking for the intelligentsia," Harvard's Salie says wryly of the "All-Ivy" series, which continues next month at the Comedy Union. Salie also finds the camaraderie of her peers to be a welcome respite from the cutthroat stand-up world. Sure, the same people who once vied for the highest SAT score now compete with equal fervor for their big break, but Salie feels that bonding with fellow Ivy Leaguers tames her competitive instincts. Well, mostly.

"I still want the Harvard comics to be funnier than those from Yale," she concedes. "But maybe that's just because Yale rejected me. Twice."

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