IOWA Alumni Magazine | October 2015
Funny Ha-Hawks
Wherever the stage, these Iowa comics earn big laughs.


warm smile and a chuckle can brighten any day.

Throughout history, laughter has been central to the human experience. Whether found in the political satire of ancient Greece, the wordplay and slapstick of Shakespeare, or the fake news anchors of today who spin headlines with humor, comedy provides a forum for people to cope with and understand their world.

While laughter may not always be the best medicine, it's repeatedly been shown in scientific studies to help lower blood pressure and lift mood. Most comics find it downright therapeutic to turn their hardships into hilarity. As Carol Burnett once said, "Comedy is tragedy plus time."

Whether offering a sophisticated, intellectual commentary on a social issue or a visceral belly laugh after a long day at work, comedy enriches our everyday lives. Aristotle once argued that happiness is one of the chief pursuits of humanity. From the stage of Saturday Night Live to the writers' room of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, here are some Hawkeyes who have made that their life's work.

Duck´s Breath Mystery Theatre

In 1975, a group of UI theater grad students formed a comedy troupe called Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre, exchanging laughs for free beers at Gabe 'n' Walker's Saloon. Soon, they skyrocketed to fame by performing sketches on National Public Radio's All Things Considered and touring the country in the '70s and '80s.

Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre took its final bow in Berkeley, California, earlier this fall after four decades of screwball comedy. At its grand finale show, the group known as the "American Monty Python" tried to sell a used car by singing opera, performed what it described as "death-defying marshmallow tricks," and posed as famous works of art ranging from Sandro Boticelli's The Birth of Venus to Edvard Munch's The Scream.

The comedy team—made up of Bill Allard, 75MFA, Dan Coffey, 75MFA, Merle Kessler, 73MFA, 74MFA, Leon Martell, 75MFA, and Jim Turner—also brought back memorable characters from previous shows, including humorous pundit Ian Shoales (often performed by Kessler on Nightline with Ted Koppel) and hippie-turned-presidential candidate Randee of the Redwoods (as seen played on MTV by Turner). Dr. Science, a pompous know-it-all (played by Coffey) who dispenses his not-so-scholarly wisdom for laughs on NPR, also emerged from his "Fortress of Arrogance" to answer audience questions.

Following the release of their film, Zadar! Cow from Hell, at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival, Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre members largely stopped touring together and began pursuing independent projects. Coffey's favorite has been the Ask Dr. Science radio show. Fox turned the segment into a TV series in 1987, and the skit also helped launch the popular NPR quiz show, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me.

Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre may be through, but its members haven't yet delivered their last laughs. Coffey says that while comedy can be a difficult way to make a living, "the alternative is even worse: work!"

COMEDY INFLUENCES: Firesign Theatre and Monty Python´s Flying Circus

Megan Gogerty

Stand-up comedian and playwright

Megan Gogerty has learned to turn her personal frustrations into universal laughs.

With humor that's largely drawn from her experiences, the Iowa City-area playwright brings stand-up comedy to the theatre in her one-woman shows. Hillary Clinton Got Me Pregnant tracks Gogerty's journey into motherhood against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential election, while Save Me, Dolly Parton tackles parenting, politics, and her obsession with the country music idol. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution named Hillary Clinton Got Me Pregnant as one of the top ten plays of 2009.

Gogerty's most recent production, Housebroken, explores the trials of buying and selling a home—from grating counter-offers to granite countertops. "Everyone knows 'charming' means 'small,' but there's more to it," she explains as she deciphers real estate ads in Housebroken. "'Well-maintained' means it's old, but not awful. A 'good opportunity' means it's a dump. 'A fine investment' means it's a dump where someone has stolen the toilet."

In addition to performing, Gogerty, 97BA, teaches the UI course "Comedy and Society," which compares the humor of such comics as Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Phyllis Diller, and Roseanne Barr to give a history of gender, race, and class in America. She also leads a UI stand-up comedy practicum in the spring that includes open mic practice and a final community showcase.

After parenting a two-year-old, Gogerty considers mastering the timing and delivery of stand-up comedy as the hardest thing she's ever done. Advising aspiring comics in her class, Gogerty encourages them to be ready to adapt their routine to the room and the moment. "Good comedy is rooted in truth," she says. "It doesn't mean it has to be factual, but the audience has to recognize that what you say is true for you."

WHERE SHE FINDS HUMOR: In incongruity, absurdity, hypocrisy, ridiculousness, and in taking shallow topics seriously and deep topics frivolously.

Toby Huss

Hollywood actor and voiceover artist


Artie the Strongest Man in the World can skip stones on Neptune, move an entire house by an inch, and hit a golf ball 300,003 yards.

But for Hollywood actor Toby Huss, Artie—the lovable, scrawny superhero from the '90s Nickelodeon children's show, The Adventures of Pete & Pete—also had the power to launch a rewarding career in TV and film.

As a UI student in the early '80s, Huss began performing at Midnight Madness, a forerunner to No Shame Theatre in which student playwrights wrote humorous sketches for undergraduate actors to perform. "We thought it was a fun time to have a few beers and work out some scenes," says Huss. "We only realized later that it was a great learning tool."

Huss then created the character of Artie to perform at No Shame Theatre in Iowa City and New York City. "I got some red long johns from my mother for Christmas that had an enormous crotch area, so I pulled them up to my chest and declared myself 'the strongest man in the world' to try to entertain myself and perhaps [my girlfriend]," says the Marshalltown, Iowa, native. "I thought it was ironic, because I'm a skinny dude."

Developers of The Adventures of Pete & Pete saw Huss's New York performance and hired him to incorporate the character into the show. Playing a wide range of roles since then, Huss has either appeared in or lent his voice to shows such as Jerry Maguire, Beavis and Butthead Do America, King of the Hill, 42, Reno 911!, 30 Rock, Bob's Burgers, CSI, and Key & Peele. But Huss says most fans recognize him either as Elaine's boyfriend "The Wiz" from "The Junk Mail" episode of Seinfeld or from his current dramatic role in the AMC period drama Halt and Catch Fire.

No matter the role, Huss says his comedy comes from observing people, including their accents, posture, and body movements. "It's a hard line to walk to make a part both funny and honest, but when it does work, it's transcendent," says Huss, who will portray a cop in the new Ghostbusters movie of summer 2016. "A character has to be rooted in something real."

WHO MAKES YOU LAUGH: "Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones from Ghostbusters. They are sly, smart people who know how to be funny without trying."

Sarah Heyward

Writer and producer, Girls

Sarah Heyward refers to her time at the Iowa Writers' Workshop as "the best two years of my life." Yet the writer and producer for the HBO series Girls recently had to pull upon her UI experience to create a drastically different outcome for the lead character, portrayed by show creator Lena Dunham.

Iowa was where Heyward, 09MFA, first discovered her talent for screenwriting. Then-visiting IWW faculty member Jonathan Ames recognized her knack for writing dialogue and put her in touch with a Hollywood agent. Following graduation, Heyward moved to Los Angeles, where she became a personal assistant to Jenni Konner, a writer and executive producer working on the TV pilot for Girls. When Dunham happened across Heyward's short stories about young adult friendships and relationships, she hired the New York native to write for Girls.

The critically acclaimed comedy about a group of 20-something friends took protagonist Hannah Horvath to Iowa City for graduate school last season, where she becomes familiar with the rivalry between Iowa poets and fiction writers, goes to a bizarre poet party, and wards off a bat in her old rental house. But while Heyward's IWW experience helped her to "see all the different ways there are to be talented at writing" and meet her best friends, Horvath didn't feel like she belonged. Ultimately, she quit the program and headed back to New York.

One of Heyward's favorite comedic moments in the IWW plotline came when Horvath hitched a horse-and-buggy ride with a Mennonite after a party. With Girls returning to HBO this January, Heyward says the veteran writing staff has more room than ever to experiment for a "cool and weird" fifth season. "Writing comedy is such a hard thing, because it relies on instinct," she says. "A lot of the humor in the show comes from how seriously the characters take themselves."

COMEDY INSPIRATION: "I feel like my sense of humor was created by watching Seinfeld at six years old."

Alex Karras

Former Hawkeye all-American, Actor, Blazing Saddles and Webster

"Mongo only pawn in game of life." A Great Moment in Hawkeye Humor History from Blazing Saddles

Dan Opsal


Sketch writer, segment director, and producer, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

Creating sketches, parodies, and celebrity games for Late Night and now for The Tonight Show, Dan Opsal has helped propel Jimmy Fallon to the top of the late-night ratings.

Opsal's path into comedy began when he joined Student Video Productions at the UI. There, the Grinnell, Iowa, native launched a late-night comedy show on UITV called Iowa Desk and Couch that continues today. "[Former UITV director] Michael McBride [07MBA] encouraged me to run free with the equipment, mess around, and be creative," says Opsal, 05BA. "That's probably the best thing you can do for a young person."

In 2011, Opsal was hired as a writer for Late Night and followed host Fallon to The Tonight Show in February 2014. He describes his job as "working in a very tiny, smelly room with the other sketch writers, some of my absolute favorite people in the world."

Over the last two years, Opsal has produced, written, and directed dozens of Tonight Show segments that parody popular TV programs. None has been more memorable for Opsal than "Joking Bad" (, his fan tribute to Breaking Bad that included a cameo by actor Bryan Cranston. "I knocked on [Cranston's] dressing room door and he answered wearing a dress shirt and tighty whitey underwear," says Opsal. "It was the perfect way to meet Walter White."

WHAT MAKES HIM LAUGH: "Naked Gun, Airplane, and movies that are unintentionally funny like The Room or Troll 2. But, honestly, the show that still makes me laugh the hardest is America's Funniest Home Videos."

Patrick Vint

Managing editor, Black Heart Gold Pants

Born a Hawkeye, Patrick Vint used to recite the entire roster of the 1985-86 basketball team for his grandma as a child. Now the Des Moines attorney is a bigger fan than ever, scouring UI Athletics news for potential humor in the headlines as managing editor of Black Heart Gold Pants.

In 2007, Vint, 03BBA, 06JD, and UI student Adam Jacobi co-founded the Hawkeye humor blog as a creative outlet, which has since become part of the SB Nation network. Most popular during football season (and especially after losses when fans want to commiserate), the site receives up to 800,000 views per month and has spawned numerous Hawkeye memes and inside jokes.

Vint says he finds comedy by picking up on patterns in what UI players and coaches say, to the point that he could write a press conference before it happens. When a string of running backs left Iowa several years ago, Black Heart Gold Pants introduced the "Angry Iowa Running Back-Hating God" to blame for the series of injuries and transfers that affected the program. Since then, the joke has been picked up by ESPN and the blog has hosted two AIRBHGAPALOOZAs in Iowa City, featuring an appearance by former running back Paki O'Meara, 10BA, and an AIRBHG pińata to ward off the Hawkeyes' bad luck.

HIS COMEDY INSPIRATION: Daily Show, the Onion, and Norm MacDonald. "In first grade, I got in trouble with my teacher when I said my favorite TV show was Saturday Night Live."

Brooks Wheelan


Stand-up comic and former cast member, Saturday Night Live

One year after ending his run on the iconic show that's helped launch the careers of countless comedians, Brooks Wheelan proves that there's life after Saturday Night Live.

Growing up watching Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, and David Spade on SNL, Wheelan dreamed of becoming a stand-up comedian from a young age. While earning his biomechanical engineering degree at Iowa, Wheelan, 09BSE, simultaneously pursued his love for the stage, hosting comedy nights at the Summit bar, working at Penguin's Comedy Club in Cedar Rapids, and driving to larger Midwestern cities to perform.

After his UI graduation, the native eastern Iowan moved to Los Angeles, where he continued his double-lifestyle of biomedical test engineer and stand-up comic. He performed regularly at the Hollywood Improv Club and with Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, but his big breaks came when Comedy Central named him one of the 2012 "10 Comics to Watch" and he performed at the 2013 Montreal Just for Laughs Festival. Later that year, producer Lorne Michaels hired Wheelan to be one of six fresh faces for SNL.

Wheelan followed in his idol Sandler's footsteps, appearing on "Weekend Update" and writing 20 sketches for every one that appeared on the air. Then, at the end of the season, Wheelan shocked the entertainment world with a simple tweet, "Had a blast and loved every second of it. I'm honored to make this next joke...FIRED FROM NEW YORK IT'S SATURDAY NIGHT!"

"I thought I'd do great, but I only did one season," says Wheelan, who quickly turned his laments into laughs by launching the "Brooks Wheelan Falls Back on Standup Comedy (Sorta) Tour."

Although Wheelan now splits his time mostly between Los Angeles and New York, his home state continues to be an inspiration. The Dubuque Hempstead High School graduate's stand-up routine is largely based on his childhood in Manchester—and he recently seized the opportunity to play an Iowan on a recent episode of Girls (see the profile on Sarah Heyward).

FAVORITE COMEDIANS: Kyle Kinane, T.J. Miller, Rory Scovel, and Pete Holmes

Watch Whelan share his most memorable moments from SNL season 39

Gene Wilder

Actor, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory


"Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple."
Gene Wilder, 55BA, in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Read Wilder's UIAA Distinguished Alumni Award bio

Watch Young Frankenstein director Mel Brooks talk about writing with Wilder

Create your own Willy Wonka meme

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