Campus & Community

Franken, Lithgow lead laughs at ARTS FIRST

5 min read
Al Franken

Good luck keeping a straight face during ARTS FIRST 2000.

Actor John Lithgow ’67 and comedian Al Franken ’73 will light up the marquee at the Pan-Harvard Comedy Carnival that kicks off tonight (May 4) at Radcliffe Yard. The humor continues through the weekend with several shows at five different venues.

The carnival is an integral part of Harvard’s annual four-day spring celebration of students and faculty in the arts. Many events are free to the public.

“We are going to test the audience endurance – packing the schedule as full as we can,” says carnival artistic director Justin Krebs ’00. “No doubt, we’re going to end up with a dynamic, active, expert, masterful group of performers.”

Lithgow, the star of television’s 3rd Rock From the Sun, will welcome the audience at tonight’s opening events. Franken, a former writer on Saturday Night Live, and the brains behind the mildly neurotic and therapy-laden Stuart Smalley character (“I’m good enough. I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me”), will be featured during a question-and-answer session on Friday evening.

Don’t expect to run into Smalley at the carnival, however. “I think Stuart would be pretty intimidated by Harvard,” Franken jokes. “He knows himself well, I think, and [he’s sure] that if he went to Harvard, he’d go into a shame spiral.”

Krebs is delighted with the carnival lineup this year, saying it’s the first time “there’s been a holistic approach that will bring together different comedy troupes.” Audience members will often see several performers on the same stage at the same time. For example, the All-Harvard Variety Show tonight will feature a jumble of jugglers and improvisers, as well as a monologist known as Moonface Max, all in the name of presenting “humor on the cutting edge.”

“We are not just separate groups,” Krebs says. “We all do what we’re doing for a shared reason, on a shared campus, before a shared audience, so [we decided] to create a shared experience out of that.”

Making comedy a focal point of ARTS FIRST 2000 is something that’s been in the works for quite some time. Myra Mayman, the director of the Office for the Arts (OFA) at Harvard, says the idea was first raised during a planning group meeting last October, when members considered how to best structure the kick-off event. Just weeks later, the plans were set. “ARTS FIRST seems to evolve every year and reflect the interests of the current students, so that’s how [the concept of the Comedy Carnival] emerged,” Mayman says. “Justin, in his energetic way, picked it up and ran with it.”

Krebs professes an acute purpose for his mission: to dispel the myths about what goes on at America’s oldest university. “On the one hand, there is this tradition of comedy at Harvard, but on the other hand, for those people on the outside, there’s still this odd juxtaposition. When you think of Harvard, you don’t think comedy. You think of old brick buildings and Ralph Waldo Emerson,” he says. “But there is so much funny here if you think about it.”

A number of Harvard organizations will be represented in the Comedy Carnival lineup, including the improvisational group the Immediate Gratification Players (IGP). The Players will take center stage tonight at the Rieman Center for the Performing Arts at Radcliffe Yard to present Mazel Tov!, billed as “a fully improvised secular bar mitzvah.” Krebs describes it as a “long-form theme show,” focusing on a symbolic IGP character entering manhood, that will “really let the actors take their imaginations as far as they want.”

Harvard-Radcliffe Television (HRTV) will present the HRTV Comedy Corner, featuring a number of humorous short films by, of, and for Harvard students on Friday and Saturday nights in the Lyman Common Room at Agassiz House. A series of one-act plays entitled One-Acts Are Better Than One will be presented Friday afternoon at the Agassiz Theatre, and Friday and Saturday nights at the Rieman Center for the Performing Arts.

Other highlights include an “improvised musical” titled It Can Be Done, presented by IGP on Friday and Saturday nights, and Standing Tall, a showcase for Harvard’s own standup comics on Friday night in the Lyman Common Room at Agassiz House. Also on Friday night, audiences at the Rieman Center will be treated to two performances of Here We Go, Ionesco, a series of bizarre and funny short plays.

For those looking for more than just laughs, there are plenty of other activities on the ARTS FIRST 2000 schedule. Dozens of plays, concerts, films, and workshops will be presented over the weekend. The ARTS FIRST 2000 parade will wind its way down Massachusetts Avenue at 11:30 on Saturday morning. A Performance Fair, featuring 75 free musical, theatrical, and dance performances, will take over ten sites around Harvard Yard on Saturday afternoon. The ARTS FIRST Millennium Celebration Concert will top the marquee at Sanders Theatre on Saturday night.