Emma Rosenthal started performing stand-up comedy in high school right around the time her father passed away.
She remembers feeling especially sad one night and stumbling upon some comedians on television.
“It was in that moment that I forgot everything going on in my life, and I was able to just laugh,” Rosenthal, 24, remembers. “It was kind of like, ‘Oh, if I could do that for somebody else, what these comedians had done for me, that would be huge.’”
Next month, she’ll be one of nine students in the first graduating class of DePaul University’s screenwriting master’s program with a concentration in comedy. It’s a partnership with The Second City, the renowned comedy institution, where students can take classes while they earn their graduate degree. It’s considered the first program of its kind worldwide.
Rosenthal and fellow graduate and comedy collaborator Courtney Hull will be looking to make their fellow classmates laugh as they deliver a speech during another difficult time: a virtual commencement during a worldwide pandemic.
They can’t share the speech ahead of time, but say they plan to put a humorous spin on graduating during a pandemic and share what they learned at DePaul.
“The best thing we got from DePaul is each other,” said Hull, also 24. “We … based our whole speech around that idea. College is about education and all of that stuff and what you learn, but it’s really about the people we meet and connections we make.”
Hull and Rosenthal became friends because they both shared that experience of losing a loved one. Hull’s older brother died four years ago. He was pursuing a career in comedy at the time.
“I was really not focused on comedy or doing anything with it. And after he died, I was like ‘I need to,’” Hull said. “Emma’s kind of been a mentor in helping me through that and using comedy as a way to cope.”
Both of them incorporated grief and death into their master’s thesis projects. Rosenthal wrote a television comedy series set at a children’s grief camp. Hull wrote a movie script about a girl whose brother passed away and appears to her as a ghost pushing her to finish his novel.
“It’s a buddy comedy where one of the buddies is dead,” Hull said.
They’re in a comedy group called Ideal Threesome together with a third classmate. They performed one show at The Second City before events were shut down to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“It was called ‘The Farewell Tour’ because it was supposed to be farewell, like moving to LA,” Hull said. “But it ended up being a farewell to everything.”
Hull and Rosenthal were supposed to head to Los Angeles for the spring term. Students in the program take classes and intern there to end their program. They were planning to stay permanently and try to find jobs in a writers room for a TV show.
Instead, they moved back home to their families in Pennsylvania. They’re interning remotely at a production company, reading television scripts from their homes. As they graduate into an uncertain world, Rosenthal said they’re keeping the positive outlook they’ve cultivated after years of working through grief.
“It’s almost nice the entire world is in it together,” she said. “It’s not just us as graduates being like, ‘What’s going on?’ Because the entire world is in a ‘What’s going on?’ phase. We’re still working every day and building portfolios for when we can go out to LA and can really get started.”
It’s unclear when that might be, but they said they can’t wait to be a part of it.