Choosing what degree to study at college can be a tricky decision – especially given today’s job market. Still, it’s not all bad. According to a recent study by Georgetown University, almost 200,000 jobs were added in the US during the recession – followed by a further two million during the recovery – for people with bachelor’s degrees.
Of course, there are still plenty of challenges inherent in going to college, on top of deciding what to study. The 10 famous comedians featured on this list cracked open books on everything from electrical engineering to law before changing course and joining the comedy world – but that doesn’t mean their studies weren’t worthwhile. ABC World News anchor and correspondent David Muir put it this way: “The curiosity and the willingness to adapt are more important than what the degree is in.”
10. Demetri Martin
In 1995, New York comedian Demetri Martin graduated from Yale University and went on to study at the New York University School of Law on a full scholarship. Since he was 11 years old, his dream was to go into law, and he worked hard to achieve his goal. When people asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up, he would say, “I don’t know, either litigation or corporate mergers.”
Martin completed two of the three years required for law school but dropped out in 1997. He realized that he had made a mistake and decided to cut his losses and move on, but the decision wasn’t an easy one. Martin says, “It was a total crisis, a total crisis of relevance, because I was now an adult. What happens when you remove the plan? What you’re left with is a guy who likes to do anagrams and doesn’t have a job.” Fortunately for Martin, he wasn’t without a job for too long and is now a successful comedian, albeit an unconventional one.
9. Aisha Tyler
Actress, author and stand-up comedian Aisha Tyler studied at Ivy League research university Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. In 1992, she graduated with a degree in Environmental Policy. Although Tyler got a job as a marketing executive at an advertising firm in San Francisco, she missed performing – something she had enjoyed in high school and college. In 1994, she left her job and decided to try her luck touring the country as a stand-up comedian. Things weren’t exactly easy starting out, and Tyler even had slices of pizza thrown in her face, but she stuck with it – something she chalks up to pure “unadulterated bullheadedness.”
Eventually, though, Tyler’s career in show business took off, and there’s been no looking back. She told Lemondrop.com, “I think my environmental background plays more of a role in my personal behavior [than my performances].” She recycles, drives a hybrid car and renovated her home to make it greener. “I suppose it informs my charity work,” added Tyler; “which, after my creative life, is the most important part of my job.”
8. Jerry Seinfeld
Jerry Seinfeld is best known for co-creating and starring in wildly popular sitcom Seinfeld, which ran from July 1989 to May 1998 – but it may have never happened if he hadn’t gone to college. Seinfeld attended Queens College at the City University of New York. He graduated in 1976 with a degree in Communications and Theater.
While at university, Seinfeld participated in a few of the college productions, developing a particular interest in stand-up comedy. He performed at local venues until he caught a break on Rodney Dangerfield’s 1976 HBO special. After that, his career took off and he was later hoisted into the spotlight by Seinfeld. After the show ended, Seinfeld went back to stand-up. It’s probably safe to say that both communications and theater have come in handy during his incredibly successful career.
7. Larry David
Larry David studied at the University of Maryland. He earned a bachelor’s degree in History in 1969, before going on to study Business Administration, picking up this second degree the following year. When he graduated, David joined the US Army Reserve for a stint. However, fortunately for television comedy, he then decided to try his luck as a stand-up comic, working various jobs – as a limo driver, store clerk and TV repairman – to support himself.
In 1979, David got a break when he was employed as a writer and performer for late night comedy show Fridays. This led to him landing a gig as a writer on Saturday Night Live in 1982, and he later created Seinfeld with fellow graduate Jerry Seinfeld in 1988. More recently, David has, of course, gained further kudos as the creator, writer and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Interestingly, according to the University of Maryland student newspaper The Diamondback, David was spotted on campus in 2013 whilst on a tour of the facilities with his daughter.
6. Sacha Baron Cohen
English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen studied History at Cambridge University’s Christ’s College, where he developed a love for theater. He graduated in 1990 and went on to create four satirical characters, namely Ali G, Borat, Brüno and Admiral General Aladeen. Each of these characters is as ridiculous as they are funny, challenging stereotypes with gutsy stunts and over-the-top social commentary.
Before achieving recognition as an unconventional comedian, Cohen worked as a model in the fashion industry, trained as a clown in Paris under Philippe Gaulier and started his own comedy club. Cohen often gives interviews under the guise of one of his characters, making it difficult to know precisely what role his degree played in his choice of career and whether it has had an impact on his comedic work.
5. Conan O’Brien
Talk show host and comedian Conan O’Brien studied at Harvard University. An avid writer, he became president of humorous school magazine the Harvard Lampoon. In 1985, O’Brien graduated magma cum laude with a degree in History and Literature. Then from early 1988 he spent several years as a writer for Saturday Night Live, and later he wrote for The Simpsons.
In 1993, his career took a major shift when he auditioned to replace David Letterman as host of Late Night. O’Brien says he has had a lot of ups and downs since he left college. In a speech to the Harvard Class of 2000, he said, “Every failure was freeing, and today I’m as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good. So that’s what I wish for all of you – the bad as well as the good. Fall down. Make a mess. Break something occasionally. Know that your mistakes are your own unique way of getting to where you need to be. And remember that the story is never over.”
4. Alfred “Weird Al” Yankovic
Comedian and musician Alfred “Weird Al” Yankovic planned to be an architect. In fact, he even got a degree in Architecture from California Polytechnic State University. “I thought I’d be an adult by now and have a grown-up job,” Yankovic joked during a 2010 interview with The Stool Pigeon. When his song “My Bologna” (a parody of The Knack’s “My Sharona”) became a hit on popular radio series The Dr. Demento Show, Yankovic decided to try his hand at comedy as a career. As Yankovic already had a degree, his parents weren’t too worried about him, and his dad said that as long as he was happy, he’d be successful. That’s one prophecy that has certainly come true. Yankovic has sold more than 12 million records and won three Grammy Awards.
3. John Cleese
Monty Python star John Cleese is also well known for his comedic work in British series Fawlty Towers and cult movie A Fish Called Wanda. And he’s also been in two James Bond movies, two Harry Potter movies and the three Shrek sequels. Cleese attended Downing College, Cambridge University, where he studied Law and enjoyed participating in theatrical club the Cambridge Footlights. This, perhaps more than anything, signaled what kind of career path Cleese would eventually take when he graduated in 1963.
Speaking of a Footlights performance, Cleese says, “I’d got behind on my studies and thought I wouldn’t do the show and then, at the last moment, I thought ‘what the hell’ and did it. And being in that show is the reason I finished up in show business – otherwise I’d have been a lawyer.” This arguably goes to show that extra-curricular activities offered by colleges can have enormous impact on students’ lives. On top of his comedy career, Cleese also speaks to audiences about harnessing creativity.
2. Rowan Atkinson
Rowan Atkinson may give the impression that he’s not very smart when he plays childlike fool Mr. Bean, but in real life he’s quite the opposite. In fact, Atkinson is a full-blown brainiac. He graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and continued his studies at Oxford, where he obtained a master’s in Electrical Engineering. While at Oxford, he also started appearing in comedy sketches.
Today, Atkinson is one of the most famous, rich and successful comedians in the world – and he even appeared in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games. Now that he’s in his late 50s, he expects to shift gears somewhat and says, “The stuff that has been most commercially successful for me – basically quite physical, quite childish – I increasingly feel I’m going to do a lot less of.” Perhaps roles like Edmund Blackadder are more to his taste. Atkinson describes Blackadder as a much more intellectual show, “full of English idiom and cynicism and irony and metaphors.”
1. Ricky Gervais
Comedian Ricky Gervais attended University College London from 1979 to 1983. He graduated with a degree in Philosophy and went on to try his hand at being both a pop star (with band Seona Dancing) and an events manager before moving into radio. Eventually, he made the leap into television and created, wrote, starred in and directed The Office. The series has since been revised for audiences around the globe, including in the US, Brazil, Sweden, France and Germany.
First broadcast in 2001, The Office “was the first thing I ever tried my hardest at. And I obviously reaped rewards,” says Gervais. “But I wouldn’t be any less proud of The Office if it hadn’t been successful all over the world and won BAFTAs and Emmys and Golden Globes. The real lesson I learned was that trying your hardest is the reward in itself.”
BONUS – Bill Cosby
Bill Cosby is proof that it’s never too late to go to college, as he returned to school after achieving fame. He dropped out of Germantown High School in Philadelphia after failing the 10th grade, but after a stint in the Navy he realized the importance of education. He earned his high school equivalency through correspondence, and in 1961 he won a track and field scholarship to Temple University in Philadelphia. While he was studying towards his degree in Physical Education, Cosby paid his bills by working at a local bar. His witty comments soon earned him extra tips, and Cosby realized he could have a future on stage, so he left Temple and decided to pursue a career in comedy. This eventually led him to The Bill Cosby Show, which ran from 1969 to 1971.
Cosby decided to return to education, studying at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He earned a master’s degree in Education in 1972 and went on to achieve his doctorate in 1977. He then saw success with The Cosby Show in the 1980s and early ‘90s. Education became integral to Cosby’s later comedic works – proving that despite his unconventional approach to studying (at least initially), he saw the true importance of learning.