On Tuesday evening, Professor Barnet Kellman was honored as the first holder of the Robin Williams Endowed Chair in Comedy, a position that was funded by the George Lucas Foundation. The ceremony was held at the Ray Stark Family Theatre, in the presence of faculty, alumni and students of the School of Cinematic Arts, and Zach and Zelda Williams, the children of Robin Williams.
The ceremony was both a celebration of Kellman’s newly appointed position and a commemoration of the late Robin Williams, a renowned and dedicated comedic actor. With the Williams Chair as the 30th endowed chair to the school, Dean Elizabeth Daley expressed the great significance of the position to USC, SCA and its comedy program in her opening speech.
“We are very gracious that we have had two endowed chairs [to the comedy program],” Daley said. “A lot of success in comedy is creating programs, supporting students and bringing in faculty who will be a great inspiration in the world of comedy.”
Zak Williams described witnessing the craft of comedy through his father as incredible — but a craft that requires much discipline and practice. Kellman, though not an actor, embodies these qualities through his work as an advocate for comedy as a discipline of study at USC.
“I couldn’t think of a better inaugural professor than Barnet Kellman,” Williams said.
Kellman was one of the three founders of the USC Comedy program in 2011. However, before his teaching tenure at USC as a professor in the film and television production division at SCA, Kellman was an award-winning television director and producer who harbored a love for comedy throughout his extensive career.
“I’m speechless [to receive this position],” Kellman said, in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “The name Robin Williams was both a surprise and an honor … For me to be the first person to hold that chair with the knowledge that someone will always carry on through it the tradition of comedy — it is more than I have ever imagined.”
Yet even before his directing career, Kellman was always drawn to comedy in the roles he was cast in and discovered a talent for character comedy.
“Comedy is such a big card in everybody’s life and something they take for granted in a good way,” Kellman said. “My job [as a director] was to find real human behavior. And I find human behavior to be funny, so I incorporated that into my production.
In 2009, Kellman realized the importance of teaching comedy academically in a film school setting. Years later, after the successful creation of the first academic comedy program in the nation, Kellman reflects on how he — and his co-program founders — took a risk to pioneer comedy at USC.
“It’s a subject that really has been neglected,” Kellman said. “Nobody teaches directing comedy; there was not even a book about it.”
And Kellman ties this element of risk to Robin Williams himself. Kellman saw Williams as an outsider to traditional comedy by breaking social norms in his various roles.
“Robin Williams was truly singular in his willingness to embrace risk,” Kellman said. “Comedy demands us to take a risk, to explore boundaries and to exercise the will to take chances.”
Gloria Cheng contributed to this report.