For more than five decades, Emerson College has been putting comics on the road to success
Bill Burr was shy. Steven Wright avoided the limelight. Henry Winkler struggled to read. Eddie Brill worried about his small-town upbringing.
Now celebrities, all four arrived at Emerson College with the same inner doubts and modest ambitions as any other new kid on campus.
But like comedian Bill Dana and television producer Norman Lear before them, they became mass-media personalities with one thing in common: a degree from the small communications college that for so many years existed in the shadow of Boston University's College of Communication and New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
Like many of its high-powered alumni, whose roster also includes Denis Leary, Anthony Clark, and Jay Leno, Emerson wasn't on the show business map 30 years ago. But whether by luck or intuition, college officials captured raw talent and released laser-focused graduates who have helped define America's comedy culture.
Some of those stars - including Leary, Brill, Clark, and Burr - will perform Thursday as part of the Boston Comedy Festival, which begins today.
"Emerson was a college that really took a chance on people," said Grafton Nunes, dean of the School of Arts, who is producing the Emerson alumni performance with Brill. "They were maybe people who didn't fit into the common mode in high school, and then they came to Emerson and they found a home. They found a place where they could be accepted for their differences."
Actor Chris Phillips, who graduated from Emerson in 1980 and today plays in Leary's comedy band, has a more irreverent point of view.
"At the time, just going to school," he said, "it was like, 'Wow, this is a great bunch of folks, but I can see them on the most wanted list.' "
Rather than outlaws, at least 35 Emerson graduates have become highly successful media professionals, according to a 2006 article in the college's Alumni magazine.
Doug Herzog, president of the Comedy Central cable-TV network, has a bird's-eye view over the art form's evolution and his fellow Emerson alumni, including Leary, with whom he was friendly in college.
"We always say at Comedy Central," said Herzog, "that our biggest successes have come from people who come to the table bringing a different point of view, whether it be Sarah Silverman or Dave Chappelle. And that was Denis.
"Denis, in particular, was like a rock star," said Herzog. "There was something about him that made him stand out."
It was Leary, Phillips, Brill, and Adam Roth who in 1976 founded the Emerson Comedy Workshop, a training ground for countless artists ever since.
The 1978 graduate is among the most recognizable stand-up comedians for his droll delivery and unique ability to twist the ordinary like a Salvador Dali painting.
"The people I met at school, the other students, were such interesting characters and so creative," he said in an interview last month. "Some of my most favorite times in life were those two years at Emerson, living on Beacon Street, blending with the other students."
Wright, who comes from Burlington, said he spent two years getting an associate's degree at Middlesex Community College in Bedford before enrolling at Emerson. Unlike Leary and Brill, Wright said, he shunned performances and avoided attention there.
"I'd wanted to do stand-up since I was 14 from watching Johnny Carson, but I knew it was a fantasy," he said. At Emerson, Wright focused on radio broadcasting courses, all the while struggling against an overpowering desire to perform like Carson. "I was battling the conflict of performer and introvert," he said.
It wasn't until Wright was 23 that he attempted a stand-up routine at Boston's Comedy Connection.
Remembering that night, with his knees shaking under the table as he waited to perform, Wright said he's glad that his "desire was so strong that I made myself push through . . .
"If I didn't do it, I wouldn't be here right now," said Wright, who will perform Saturday evening at the Orpheum. "I feel fortunate that I've made a living from my imagination."
Winkler credits Emerson with giving him a foundation to succeed, despite his inability, as a dyslexic, to decipher words on a page or to form written sentences.
"I can't do math," he said in an interview. "I can't figure out how to sound out a word in order to spell it. I've written letters all my life substituting words for what I want to say . . . I sent my first e-mail in my life last year."
Winkler said he applied to 28 colleges while he was a high school senior in New York City and was accepted by only two. He arrived on campus in 1963 in a state of panic because he couldn't keep up with the work.
"I was not the prime candidate for college," he said, "but Emerson saw something and they took me. I nearly flunked out my first year."
Winkler said his "big personality" made him a natural for providing tours to prospective students - a gift he speculates persuaded college officials to let him return for his sophomore year. "I went back and something kicked in, and I began at least to pass and graduated," he said. "In my senior year, I auditioned for the Yale School of Drama and got in."
Winkler graduated from Emerson in 1967 and earned a master's of fine arts from Yale in 1970. In 1974, he was cast in the film "The Lords of Flatbush," and that same year he won the part of Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli in the hit television series "Happy Days." He remained in the role until the show's cancellation in 1984, becoming an iconic figure in American television. Today he coauthors a series of books about a dyslexic boy named Hank Zipzer. His next volume is due in December.
Already well known within the industry, Burr could be the next breakout artist from Emerson. According to Herzog, Comedy Central officials have discussed vehicles for his humor on several occasions.
"We just had a big meeting last week and we were drawing up short lists in terms of stand-up personalities," said Herzog, "and Bill was at the top of the list."
Characterizing Burr's brand of comedy as "a little angry and super funny," Herzog said the network will continue to reach out to Burr to try to find the right opportunity.
Burr said he felt himself floundering after graduating from Canton High School in 1987. Hopscotching from one college to another, he ended up at Emerson in 1991. "I was really, really, really shy and reserved," he said.
At the beginning of 1992, he made a New Year's resolution that at some point during the year, he would perform on stage. Two months later, Nick's Comedy Stop in Boston ran a contest to find the funniest college student. On March 2, Burr got on stage to do five minutes of material.
"As I walked to the mike, I forgot everything I was going to say," he said. "I just started talking and meandered my way into the middle of the five minutes, and then I went back to the beginning . . . That night wasn't about killing" - as in knocking them dead - "it was just about the nerve."
Though Burr doesn't know why he chose Emerson, today he can recognize how his experiences there changed him.
"Emerson was probably the first place I went to where I was able to get better at the thing I wanted to do," he said. "It gave me the sense I was going to be all right in this business. There are so many people in the business - not just comedians, but writers, actors, producers, directors, creators of shows - and they were all doing well . . . It makes it really tangible."
Every day before David Letterman comes onstage, his studio audience is treated to a stand-up comedy routine by Brill. The 1980 Emerson grad has been working for the show for a decade and now scouts for new talent.
"When I came to the Letterman show to work," said Brill, "Dave's assistant had gone to Emerson. It made my life so much easier because I had her on my side."
That, in a nutshell, helps explains the success of Emerson alumni.
"In this business, it's who you know," said Brill, noting that alumni not only open doors for each other, but return to the school to help.
One of those alumni was Norman Lear, who visited in 1978. Brill, as a student government representative, got invited to a luncheon with the television producer. Brill recalls mentioning the students' fledgling efforts to stage comedy performances, and Lear responded by helping to fund comedy-writing courses. Today, Brill and Leary, in turn, visit Emerson regularly to impart experience and knowledge.
An excellent student in math and science, Brill veered from his goal of attending MIT and landed on the other side of the Charles River in 1976. "Boston to me was a big city. There were all these cosmopolitan kids here, and I was from this backwater Florida town."
Brill chose a media career in high school, after his stepfather died of melanoma. The oldest of five children, Brill took charge of the family and became aware of life's fragility.
"I realized after my stepfather died," he said, "that math and science were interesting, but I wanted to have a life where I made a difference."
Emerson alumni will appear in "31 Years of Comedy at Emerson" at the Cutler Majestic Theater, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. The Boston Comedy Festival schedule is online at bostoncomedyfestival.com.
Joyce Pellino Crane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.