This weekend, November 9th and 10th, USC’s School of Cinematic Arts will host Volume 2 of its Comedy@SCA Festival. The festival is part of the school’s greater initiative to cultivate an understanding and appreciation of the discipline of comedy. Launched in 2011, the program includes a new interdisciplinary comedy concentration open to all majors within the film school.
Vol. 2 will feature five different panels and an advanced screening of the film Grudge Match. Alumni of several touchstone comedic television shows—including Cheers, The Simpsons, and Friends—will serve as panelists, offering up nuggets of wisdom to USC’s Hollywood hopefuls.
SCA Animation Professor Thomas Sito will moderate a panel featuring legendary producer James L. Brooks (co-creator of The Simpsons), director Vicky Jenson (Shrek, Shark Tale), David Silverman (The Simpsons, co-dir. Monsters Inc.), Richard Appel (The Cleveland Show, American Dad!), and Matt O’Callaghan (dir. Curious George).
Sito, who has numerous Disney Classics credits under his belt, hopes these veterans can impart upon students an understanding of how they once dramatically altered the landscape of comedy.
“When they started The Simpsons there was no ‘prime time’ animation,” he reflects. “Animation was just for Saturday mornings. The idea of a cartoon being the most successful show on television, bar none, for twenty-five years, is incredible.”
Sito enjoys working in animation because it demands strong characters and allows for more surreal subject matter than live action filmmaking. The future, he recognizes, though, is in formal hybridization.
“The reason why they asked me to do this panel is to talk about this growing interrelationship between animation and live action,” says Sito. “Take a movie like Ted. Ted’s an animated character in a live action movie. So you’re learning how to write for animation as opposed to live action…I hope on this panel we’ll explore the boundaries and the similarities between them.”
Sito believes the professional landscape is changing along with the artistic.
“When I began my career in Hollywood in the 1970s, people were more or less in hard and fast categories: if you did animation you didn’t do live action; and for the live action folks if you did theatrical you didn’t do television; if you did games you didn’t do commercials. In modern media, a lot of people are moving around between these categories. People aren’t pigeon-holed anymore.”
Joanna Cherensky, another moderator and SCA MFA alumnus, echoed Sito on the importance of stressing to students that comedy is changing.
“It’s very different breaking into the industry today than it was 30 years ago,” Cherensky says. “So I want people to students and alumni and give them advice they can act on, whether that’s creating their own web series or writing a pilot or creating a Twitter account.”
Cherensky was involved with the first Comedy@SCA Festival. She had organized and moderated several similar panels with her organization, Women of Cinematic Arts (WCA).
“Last time we called it Emerging Women in Comedy this time we have more of a balance in terms of experience,” she says.
The young writer was thrilled to discover that Tracy Oliver, of The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl team, is an alumnus of USC’s Stark Producing Program. Panelist Dana Fox is also a Stark alumnus, feature film writer, and former producer on The New Girl.
“I was really looking for entrepreneurial women in comedy, who are creating their own content and breaking through in that way,” says Cherensky. Her search led her to Jen Statsky (Parks and Recreation, Hello Ladies) and Katie Dippold (writer of The Heat).
Cherensky is thrilled to again be instrumental in bringing SCA more professional female voices. She is proud of the progress made by WCA as the leading liaison between aspiring women artists and industry professionals. She also sees it as a place to meet students outside of one’s immediate field.
Cherensky and Sito both look forward to attending the event with Lisa Kudrow and sit-com legend James Burrows. They also agree that the Comedy@SCA initiative is a great way to rightfully rebrand the study of comedy.
“I think it’s really great that ‘SC—even though they did it after my graduation—it’s really nice to see them focusing on comedy,” says Cherensky. “Even when I was in school, there can be that attitude of ‘oh, you’re writing comedy’, as if it’s frivolous, but it’s a craft like any other. I think it’s great that they’re highlighting it and giving it it’s due.”
Sito is eager to see how students will grow from the comedy initiative.
“More people know Bart Simpson than they know their own brother or sister,” he laughs. “When you can create a character that complete, that sort of enters everybody’s psyche, that’s the ultimate victory. So I think there are always newer characters, and new ways of looking at things. It will be interesting to see what the stars of the future will do.”
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