The weekend begins on Friday for most college students. For some, this means meeting up with a friend or a chance to catch up on a book you’re reading for fun. For the cast and crew of Th’Undergrads, Fridays are a time to pitch a flurry of ideas, draft the best ones and film some sketch comedy.
Th’Undergrads is the University’s first televised sketch comedy group. Last summer, School of Music Theatre & Dance senior RJ Brown and some of his friends who act decided they wanted to do a sketch-comedy show. Brown approached LSA senior lecturer Terri Sarris, who connected him with two groups of students who had the same idea. In an interview, the show’s five producers gave their thoughts on the production process.
“Everyone had the pieces that everyone else’s group was missing,” said LSA junior Billy Finkenstaedt.
Students in the Th’Undergrads come from a wide variety of comedic backgrounds, including those who come from improv groups, others who are actors or stand-up comics, and even those who were not involved in these pursuits before Th’Undergrads. Because of this mix, LSA senior Joey Bergen believes that the group has a “wide range of different styles of humor and different approaches to humor.”
“I was really worried that we weren’t going to mesh,” added LSA senior Jacqueline Wilton.“But I think its been OK.”
The producers cite “Saturday Night Live” as the group’s biggest influence. Sketch-comedy shows that use many camera angles, such as “The State” and “Mr. Show,” also play a part in the group’s artistic decisions.
Unlike other sketch comedy groups on campus, Th’Undergrads films sketches and uploads them to YouTube. They don’t perform their comedy live … yet.
“That was the initial goal,” Finkenstaedt said. “It became a goal for the end of this semester.”
Part of the problem keeping Th’Undergrads from live audiences is their filming schedule. Th’Undergrads films in the basement of North Quad, and because the building is owned and operated by the University, the group has to conform to a restrictive film schedule.
“If we could film later on Fridays it would be easier to … secure an audience that could stay for the length of shooting,” Finkenstaedt said.
Though the Th’Undergrads film schedule is less than ideal, the group does feel as though it benefits from its relationship with the University.
“We get to use these awesome sets and these incredible cameras that are not usually afforded to people with our experience level,” Finkenstaedt added.
For now, fans of the show are able to watch the group’s antics online. The show releases a new, roughly 30-minute episode every month. In the first episode, sketches include a divorced game-show host whose cheating wife appears as a contestant on his show, and University President Mary Sue Coleman dressed as a dominatrix hosting a fireside chat.
They haven’t heard anything from the University about that one yet.
At the writers’ meeting this month, sketch ideas included an upbeat sitcom with the cast of “The Silence of the Lambs” and a lounge singer who forgets her song mid-verse and is forced to awkwardly improvise. All the writers were conscientious of keeping the sketches original. Some ideas were noted as too similar to a sketch in “SNL” or a scene in “Family Guy.”
Th’Undergrads hopes to have members of football team on the show in an upcoming episode.
“We’re not so closely tied with Michigan but … we are trying to represent (that) we are Michigan students and we put this together,” said LSA junior Nick Drew.
As students, the producers discussed how it has been difficult to juggle course work with involvement in Th’Undergrads. While a few individuals are receiving independent-study credit for the project, others have classes that don’t relate.
“We have to … stay up really late nights,” Brown said. “Th’Undergrads has now become a primary engagement.”
“Th’Undergrads is more important to me … a lot of my classes are just theory, and this is actual hands-on working with people,” Drew added.
Furthermore, the show’s producers have had to learn a lot from scratch because they’re a new student group.
“A lot of it is on-the-fly learning,” Drew said. “It can be a cluster-mess at times.”
“(For) the first episode, we shot eight sketches in one day,” Brown added. “We finished at 4 p.m. and had all eight sketches shot … we learned that this is a machine that is going to be oiled and it’s only going to get better.”
Students interested in becoming involved with Th’undergrads should look for them in the fall.
“Hopefully, next semester, auditions will be held, writers’ applications submitted and crew applications submitted,” Brown said. “We’re hoping to open this up now that our name is out there.”