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Awards

How I Made It: ‘You gotta make a lot of bad jokes to make a good joke,’ says USC comedy professor Barnet Kellman

Barnet Kellman
Two-time Emmy Award winner Barnet Kellman on the set of soon-to-be-released documentary “The Process.” Kellman is part of a trio that launched USC’s Comedy program.
(Mitzi Kapture)

The gig: Barnet Kellman is a professor of directing at USC’s Comedy program at the School of Cinematic Arts and a two-time Emmy Award winner. Kellman, 68, is part of a trio that launched the program in 2011. He describes USC Comedy as the nation’s first university program dedicated to courses on writing, producing and directing comedy features. Students can earn a minor in comedy.

Learning to laugh: A self-styled “theater geek before it was a good thing,” Kellman grew up in Long Island, N.Y., mere miles from Broadway. He began acting in a number of theater performances from an early age and became interested in directing them by the age of 15. Regardless of his role, Kellman brought humor to his craft. “I played Hamlet when I was in college and everyone laughed,” he said. “Whether intended or not, everything I did came out with a comedic stint. It was natural for me.”

Kickstarting his career: While in college, Kellman worked as an assistant to accomplished director Alan Schneider on two Broadway performances. After graduating magna cum laude from Colgate University in 1969, Kellman studied at the Yale School of Drama and abroad in London and Paris. He eventually returned to New York, eager to make his mark on the industry. “I worked anywhere, for [no money], forever,” Kellman said. “But I directed in what became some of the most important theaters in New York City, such as the Manhattan Theatre Club and Playwrights Horizons.”

A big break: Kellman gradually gained a reputation as a capable director, but it was the success of 1981 comedy “Key Exchange” that brought him mainstream attention. The play was later adapted into a 1985 movie, Kellman’s debut as a film director, and afforded him a degree of financial stability. Offers for major work in Hollywood came soon after, and Kellman directed a number of television pilots for ABC and CBS, including “Murphy Brown,” which became a hit TV series that ran for 10 seasons. More recently, Kellman has directed several episodes of popular television shows such as “Mad about You” and “The Middle.”

Accolades: “Murphy Brown,” a comedy sitcom centered on a snarky journalist and news anchor, was the highlight of Kellman’s career. The series won him two Emmy awards and an award from the Directors Guild of America. Kellman directed dozens of episodes for other TV series throughout his career and worked with a number of famous actors and actresses.

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From director to professor: Kellman began teaching courses at colleges including New York University and Columbia University to support himself while directing plays early in his career. When the 2007-08 Writer’s Guild of America strike drew near, Kellman began teaching at USC. Kellman was eager to teach students about the art of directing comedies and pass on his decades of experience to a new generation. That prompted him and two other colleagues — Jack Epps Jr. and David Isaacs — to launch a university comedy program, one that would allow aspiring comedians and directors to hone their craft.  Drawing on his deep connections, Kellman frequently invites prominent guests, such as “Ghostbusters” director Paul Feig, to speak to his students. “We think comedy is higher learning and is serious, in a very funny way,” he said. 

A memorable teacher: When Kellman was up for tenure at USC in 2010, one of the faculty members on the committee remembered him as his professor from Columbia University. “There are three tenured members on the faculty at USC Film School that were my students at Columbia, and I was completely unaware of it,” Kellman said. “They remembered things I taught them which makes me even more proud.”

The future of comedy in academia: “The future for it is huge,” Kellman said. Other universities around the nation have begun to offer comedy courses in recent years, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, according to Kellman. “Students are hungry for comedy,” he says. “I’m nervous and proud to say that there are [other colleges] nipping at our heels.”

Personal: Kellman lives in Los Angeles with wife Nancy Mette, an actress. They have three children, who are now adults. In his downtime, Kellman enjoys playing tennis and is a member of the Los Angeles Tennis Club in Hancock Park.

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Advice: Aspiring comedians and directors need to “work, work, and work more” — and take plenty of risks, Kellman advises. “You gotta make a lot of bad jokes to make a good joke,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re doing stand-up, sketches, plays, movies or TV pilots. You have to risk a lot and try many things.”

tyler.hersko@latimes.com

@TylerHersko


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