Former SNL writer discusses his comedy career

By RUDY MALCOM | December 6, 2018

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Courtesy of Rudy Malcom Comedian Zack Bornstein gave students tips on getting a career in comedy.

Former Saturday Night Live (SNL) writer Zack Bornstein gave a talk about comedy writing for television in Hodson Hall on Friday, Nov. 30. The prolific writer, actor, director and stand-up comedian shared his industry experience, knowledge and advice as part of the University’s Film and Media Studies program’s ongoing 2018-19 Visiting Artists Series. 

Depending on the angle from which you look at him, Bornstein resembles either Shane Dawson and Joey Graceffa’s hypothetical love child or, interestingly enough, a cross between Chaz Firestone (an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Hopkins) and Daniel Radcliffe.

But, his evocative appearance aside, Bornstein, though he may not have won the Emmy Award for which he was nominated in 2017, won the audience’s hearts with his wit and eloquence as he recounted the highlights and journey of his career.

Bornstein, who’s currently pitching four TV shows, first got involved with sketch comedy when, having nothing better to do one night during the first or second week of his freshman year at Brown University, accompanied his friend, who didn’t want to go alone, to an audition for the on-campus sketch comedy group. Naturally, a member of the group assumed that Bornstein was there to audition. He went along with it and got into the club. (His friend, the purported “funny one” of their group, did not.) 

College is the ideal time to do sketch, Bornstein advised, because the stakes are low; it’s maximally fun because you don’t have to worry about pleasing producers, directors and agents. Plus, the field has a low barrier to entry; although technical skills like being able to edit videos are helpful and important, a funny skit taken on your smart phone can get you viral. And if it doesn’t, that’s ok, because your five-minute-long failures are fleeting. 

“But so are your successes,” he added.

After college, he created Garlic Jackson Comedy, an award-winning group comprised of “some of the city’s best writers and performers,” according to the New York Times. A blurb written about them provided traction that not only helped him get a job writing for a short-lived reality show about eel fishing, but also inspired an impressed Jimmy Kimmel to slide into his DMs. 

“Be super reachable on social media,” Bornstein said. (He also recommended members of the audience follow up on potential employers and connections, write personal emails to Hopkins alumni, and be nice to everyone; the comedy world is a small one.)

Bornstein kept “pestering” the late-night talk show host until finally, while he was sitting in a café on 10th Street in Manhattan, Jimmy Kimmel Live! Executive Producer Jill Leiderman called him to let him know he would be getting a trial period at the show. 

“I just started crying in the cafe,” he said. “And then I hung up, and there was this nice old woman sitting next to me and she goes, ‘Are you ok?’ I said, ‘I think I just got my dream job.’”

And so he moved across the country to a hotel in Los Angeles, where he lived for four months after his week-long trial period continued to get extended every Friday, until he finally was made the show’s segment director. 

Bornstein has since accumulated a litany of credits but has remained humble; he said (perhaps half-jokingly) that he suffers from impostor syndrome — “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary,” according to Scientific American — and is still sensitive to rejections. 

“It’s this constant stream of rejection, and you just have to go, ‘I know I’m good. I know I can do it. I know I have some value.’ And then sometimes you go, ‘Ok, maybe I don’t,’ and then you go, ‘Wait, I do have value. Oh no, I’m a piece of shit! Oh my God, I’m a fraud; I shouldn’t be doing this. Oh my God, I’m a god,’” he said. “And it just goes back and forth forever, and you never know who you are, and it’s been five years, and you have a few credits and people smile at you, I don’t know.”

He added, however, that he loves the process and having the opportunity to do new work every day. That said, he sometimes wonders what would have happened if he — a former Rhodes Scholar finalist — had pursued the career in science he gave up, deciding that he’d regret being a mediocre comedian less than being a mediocre scientist. 

When he revealed to the audience that he had studied Neuroscience and worked at a sleeping lab at Brown, someone let out a wolf whistle.

“I’ve never been catcalled for brain science,” he said. Only at Hopkins!

Any Arts & Entertainment article published this week would be remiss, of course, if it didn’t mention the iconic music video that dropped mere hours before Bornstein’s event: that of Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next,” in which ex-beau Pete Davidson’s penis is repeatedly referenced.

But forget about the so-called big dick energy of Bornstein’s former collaborator. While using the board to explain the formulas and theory of sketch comedy, he drew an arrow that ended up looking like a fish and then, after he tried fixing it, a penis.

“My penis is finned,” he said. You heard it first from The News-Letter.

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