CHANCES ARE, IF YOU'RE like most Americans, you've said to yourself, "I'll bet I could write for television." Maybe you saw the first episode of "Grace Under Fire" on ABC last week, and when the kids started fighting in the back seat and the cop pulled the mom over you said to yourself, "I'll bet she fakes hysterics so he doesn't give her a ticket," and when you saw you were right you thought, "Hey, I'm stupid enough to do this!" But the truth is, you're not. Because you didn't go to Harvard.
Yes, Harvard. It is only natural that graduates of our greatest university should fill the most prestigious, influential and, of course, best-paying positions in society. In successive centuries, these have been ministers, industrialists and lawyers, but if sitcom writers are what the country needs today, Harvard's own stand ready to serve. Take Richard Appel, who graduated magna cum laude in 1985, went to Harvard Law School and became an assistant U.S. attorney in New York, a traditional steppingstone to a lucrative partnership. But even as he trudged up the treadmill to Sullivan and Cromwell, the Zeitgeist was shifting. Underachievement was suddenly fashionable. just at the moment when Bill Clinton proved that anyone really could become president, most people decided they'd rather be stand-up comics with their own talk shows. So Appel is changing his goals as well. He's going to be a writer for "The Simpsons."
Of course, he'll have to make some sacrifices. For one thing, he'll be the only writer in Hollywood who won't be able to say he's just in it for the money. He's in it for the laughs, just like Stewart Burns, '92, who quit what he was doing last spring to be with his friends in Hollywood and write scripts for "Beavis and Butt-head." Bums had been working on a graduate degree in mathematics at Berkeley. You could read the entire story of American decline in that one career move. And Appel and Bums are hardly alone. Harvard alumni -almost all of them male -have constituted more than half the writers who have worked on "The Simpsons." They're prominent on "Saturday Night Live," on "Seinfeld" and the cult HBO hit "The Larry Sanders Show." The same hallowed halls that nurtured Mailer and Updike have given birth more recently to Bill Scheft, '79, who writes 30 jokes a day for David Letterman, of which perhaps two will actually pass the sacred lips of the host himself.
For the most part, guys like Scheft are philosophical about the tragic waste of their $100,000 educations and the frittering away of once promising intellectual gifts. "Hey, someone has to entertain America," says Jeff Martin, '82, who is developing a sitcom, "The Good Life," at Disney. "If I had tried to do something else, I wouldn't be as good at it," says Letterman writer Steve Young, '87, who counts as one of his proudest achievements a segment that included a rare LP of Ed McMahon singing a kids' song about career choices. "Leave the doctoring and lawyering to the people who are good at it."
Of course, they're the first to admit that their formal educations contributed little or nothing to their work. Whatever their majors, their real field of study was television. "We were told it was a waste of time," says John Collier, Harvard '83, currently a "Simpsons" writer, "but it was great career training!" Almost all of them worked on the Lampoon, Harvard's venerable humor magazine, spending most of their days and nights hanging around its legend-encrusted headquarters, The Castle - which doesn't explain why the issues still get thrown together in the last 48 hours before they go to press. The Lampoon has been a route into television at least since Jim Dow '74, went to "Saturday Night Live," but the key event was the elevation of former Lampoon editor and "Simpsons" writer Conan O'Brien, '85, to Letterman's "Late Night" job. This was Harvard's finest moment since John F. Kennedy became president of the United States. Creative Artists Agency called the Lampoon to solicit scripts from undergraduates. By the end of August two editors from the class of '93 had landed writing jobs with "Saturday Night Live."
It's not just contacts that Harvard bestows on its alumni, though; it's an attitude, a way of looking at the world that Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons," refers to admiringly as "a snotty sense of entitlement." (Of course, Greening, who was turned down by Harvard and went to Evergreen State College in Washington instead, may be kidding.) Harvard's contribution to television comedy is not just more, or even better, jokes. it is the creation of a whole new form of humor, which Martin calls "humor about humor." "Beavis and Butt-head" does not aspire to be anything so obvious as funny; instead, at its deepest level it invites the viewer to laugh at the sort of person who would find it funny. Lew Morton of the Lampoon, asked what he'd like to be if not a comedy writer, responds: "Playboy photographer." The interviewer groans. "That's not a joke," Morton says quickly. "It's an anti-joke. It's a parody of what somebody else would say as a joke."
Anti-jokes! Humor about humor! Imagine trying to explain to your parents what you do for a living. Four years at Harvard and he can't even write a joke! Even among those who've been successful at it, there are sometimes moments of self-doubt, when you feel, in the words of former "Simpsons" writer John Vitti, '81, that "'The Simpsons' is bad but everything else is worse." Still, he adds, "at least you don't go home at night hating yourself for what you do."
And how many lawyers can say that?