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Teaching as a laughing matter

The tiny 12-by-12 foot stage at ComedySportz Philadelphia improvisational theater fits well with the theater size, which holds just over 100 people.

Before the show on this warm night in May the audio system plays bubble gum music for the 21st Century: "Poised and Ready" by Brendan Benson, "17 years" by Ratatat, "Here Comes Summer" by the Fiery Furnaces.

As the lights dim a referee emerges and explains the evening's simple rules: audience members make suggestions for skit contents, there are penalties for the improv comics such as "groaner" fouls, and "brown bag" fouls for lewd content. He then introduces the two teams - the New Jersey Turnpikes and the Philadelphia Amish, who enter to NBA-pregame-style music and audience cheers.

A member of the Philadelphia Amish is well-known to Annenberg and students in the COMM 245: Mass Communication and Culture class at the University of Delaware. She is Dannagal Young Ph.D. (Gr '07), but on this night she is not Prof. Young. She is Danna, in a purple beret and singing rap style to names and phrases shouted out by the audience. Later, in a variation on the game Charades, she deciphers her teammates suggestions - delivered in a gibberish-style of speaking (nonsense words) to figure out they are describing "playing piano on Pegasus while sitting on a porcupine."

Danna Young - first row, center - and her ComedySportz cast mates

A college professor who does comedy? Indeed, on this night there stood (or bounced about) Young effortlessly being funny at the drop of a phrase. "Growing up I wasn't a class clown but I was always the one who could use humor to solve a problem, create an understanding, or relieve an awkward moment," she says.

Humor is an integral part of her academic life. Her master's thesis, titled "The Stiff Guy and the Dumb Guy: Priming candidate caricatures in late-night comedy programs, and the moderating effect of political knowledge" shows she takes comedy seriously. Young coded comedy by Leno, Letterman, and others in the months leading up to the 2000 Presidential election. "I looked at whether people who watch late night comedy change their opinions about candidates," she says, "and sure enough, they did. Most importantly, though, is that the opinion of the candidates did not change for everyone, just for those with the least amount of political knowledge."

Young finds improvisational comedy "an adrenaline rush. You get really scared at first and I'm like a junkie. You don't know what the audience suggestion will be but I look forward to it always."

Danna Young, Ph.D. (Gr '07) in a more academic moment

In the intro to her master's thesis Young thanks Jeff Love, her first improv director while she was an undergraduate student in New Hampshire. When she arrived at Annenberg in August 1999, she auditioned for ComedySportz Philadelphia where she met her first husband, Mike Young (BA from UPenn 1989), who was one of its founders in 1993. (Yes, this year ComedySportz Philadelphia celebrates its 20th anniversary).

During the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Danna recalls a memorable stint working as a Production Assistant for the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

"The Daily Show wasn't [as big a deal then as it is now] so I was helping with everything from picking up Mo Rocca's dry cleaning to sitting in on story meetings, and fetching Panini's for lunch," she said, recalling one unforgettable contribution: Stewart and the writers were trying to come up with a funny analogy to wrestling and politics. "They were trying to say 'wrestling and politics' go together like Peanut butter and ... something," she recalls. "So I just blurted out 'milk and cookies' and that suggestion became 'Politics and wrestling go together like cookies and ass', and that's the line that made it into the show."

Her comedic streak finds its way into the classroom. "[S]he is the kind of educator everyone can learn from," says Alexander Waad, one of her University of Delaware students. "Not once in her class did I look at the clock to see when it was over. Dr. Young ... makes coming to class enjoyable."

An improvisational comic himself (a member of the comedy troupe "The Rubber Chickens" at UDel) Waad said he was floored when he learned Young does improv comedy. "I turned to my friend next to me, mouth agape, and said 'She's a communications professor AND does improv?! She's a goddess ... Danna Young is a goddess.'"

So what makes the funny lady laugh? "I find the most humor in irony ... what I've learned through improv is that the funniest things are those that play realistically. To be funny means you are coming from a place of honesty."

Young has remarried since her husband Mike passed away in 2006. She and current husband, P.J., and their children (Baxter and Edie) live in South Jersey and regularly visit ComedySportz as a family.

Editor's Note: Dr. Young wrote the cover story for the July 1 edition of the Columbia Journalism Review, titled: "Lighten Up: How satire will make American politics relevant again."

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