By Bert Gambini
University at Buffalo
A guy walks into a major American research university and tells the English department he wants to study comedy as part of his major. The administrator listening to the student's enthusiastic suggestion delivered with an inimitable deadpan veneer sits silently for a moment before saying, "OK."
It's not a very funny joke, but it's not meant to be. It's history, not comedy. And the curious spin that University at Buffalo graduate Gary Vider (BA '06) put on his English degree could turn out to be a million-dollar idea.
Vider, a standup comic who Esquire magazine has already named "Comic to Watch," is among the 26 remaining contestants vying for the seven-figure cash prize that will be awarded to the winner of "America's Got Talent."
The show's quarterfinal round featuring Vider airs nationally beginning at 8 p.m. tonight on NBC. Viewers can vote for their favorite performer beginning at 10 p.m., when the show ends, until noon on Wednesday.
UB's College of Arts and Sciences will be live Tweeting @UBCAS. Join the Twitter conversation by using @GaryVider.
Vider wanted to be a standup comic from the time he entered UB.
"The department always supported what I was doing," he said. "They pointed me to the right classes and to the things that were going on outside of my classes."
He said UB's rich student life gave him opportunities to hear comics such as Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle and Conan O'Brien, all of whom visited campus during Vider's undergraduate years.
"I eventually performed on Conan's show," Vider said. "I can't help but think about that and how my experience came full circle, from a student in the audience to actually being on his show."
Watch video of Vider's performance on "Conan" here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ogQfXXvOu-0
Undergraduate English degrees tend to bring timeless literary works to mind long before anyone thinks of the groundbreaking stand-up acts that began in ramshackle comedy clubs before moving to major television networks and national tours, but that's the wonderful thing about the English major at UB, said Andrew Stott, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education and a former standup comic.
"The English degree at UB is extremely varied in the kinds of things we do," he said. "We write and theorize about avant-garde poetry; we have documentarians, science fiction writers, experimental fiction writers and host of literary and cultural critics."
Stott's background and interests meshed perfectly with Vider's ambitions.
In addition to Stott's experience as a comic, he is a noted scholar who has written a book on theoretical methodologies of comedy, now in its second edition, and is currently editing a six-volume history of comedy.
"When I get a student who wants to do something so interesting, then I say 'Why not?' " Stott said. "These are the opportunities available in a major like this. The curriculum is not constrained. It's as free as a student's inventiveness."
Stott led Vider's senior year independent study, teaching joke-writing methods from an academic perspective sharpened by experience as a touring comic in London. Stott also helped Vider with a spec-script for "The Office," the television comedy series that ran from 2005-13.
Spec-scripts give writers not affiliated with a program an opportunity to use a show's premise and characters as a vehicle for a possible episode.
"Professor Stott guided me through that whole process," Vider said. "Finishing the project gave me so much confidence. I never would have been able to do that on my own."
Yet Vider's career puts him precariously "on his own," a state that succinctly describes the world of standup comics, sole performers working to win over an audience that isn't invested in their success.
It's an arduous life, Stott said. But it's a life that still has appeal.
"If this vice-provost thing doesn't work out, I might go back to it," Stott said.
Vider, meanwhile, said being "on his own" sounds good to him.
"My roommate is the worst," he said with a nearly audible smile that fleetingly betrays his customary expressionless delivery. "If I win, I'll use the winnings to first move out of the apartment we share."
Stott and Vider have stayed in touch over the years, but the upcoming performance has reconnected student and teacher.
"Face forward and be funny," Stott offered to his former student.
"I'll take that advice," Vider said. "I hope to make the UB community proud and hopefully everything will go well."