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A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Archives

With so many comedy alumni depositing their papers here, the Libraries have become one big joke

storyboard sketch
Storyboard sketch from the making of Pretty Woman.

If walls could talk, University Archives would probably try stand-up comedy. Among its seemingly endless shelves of boxes, papers, and memorabilia are archives from some of the University’s most famously funny alumni.

“The fact that so many howlingly funny people attended Northwestern is a point of pride for us,” said University archivist Kevin Leonard. “It’s an even bigger point of pride that so many of those alumni have trusted us to care for their papers.”

Leonard is particularly proud of receiving the archives of screenwriter, director, and producer Garry Marshall ’56 last year. The creative force behind such hits as the film The Princess Diaries and the TV series Happy Days, Marshall remained fiercely loyal to his alma mater throughout his life. He began his writing career at the Daily Northwestern before moving on to gigs with The Tonight Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Years before his death in 2016, Marshall had entrusted Leonard with a small sampling of his directorial record—notably including a binder of penciled storyboards for his 1990 megahit Pretty Woman. In 2022 his wife, Barbara Marshall, donated a major portion of his additional archives, including original screenplays, director’s chairs, behind-the-scenes photos, and notes documenting the evolution of standup jokes.

“His charm and wit live on in the entertainment he created,” Leonard said. “His legacy also continues here for future scholars who come to study his career and creative process as revealed by these materials.”

Marshall’s archive was processed this summer and will soon be ready for researchers. Meanwhile, many other funny alumni can be found among University Archives’ meticulously organized boxes and folders.

Clara, Lu, and Em

Promotional flyer for the Clara, Lu, and Em radio show.

Some of the earliest Northwestern alumni to achieve entertainment fame were Louise Starkey ’27, Isobel Carothers ’26, and Helen King ’26. The trio were better known as Clara, Lu, and Em, the title characters of a hit radio comedy about three gossipy small-town housewives. With press releases trumpeting their zany act as “three chatterbox gals, those neighborhood nitwits, queens of the washtub,” the show became the first nationally broadcast radio soap opera in 1930.

The Clara, Lu, and Em archive holds eight years of scripts (all written by the three stars themselves), newspaper clippings, promotional materials, and even broadcast transcription discs, which have now been digitized.

Sitcom Stars

Among the many well-known Northwestern-trained actors represented in the Archives are several who are best known for an iconic role in a popular TV sitcom.

Tony Randall ’41, ’02 H played the fastidious Felix Unger on the Garry Marshall–developed The Odd Couple in the early 1970s. His papers feature doodle-covered Northwestern class notes, his own published writings, and clippings and reviews from his lengthy acting career.

Garry Marshall wrote jokes for many famous
comedians, including Jack Benny, right.

Charlotte Rae ’48 earned a 1982 Emmy nomination for playing Mrs. Garrett, the kindly housemother of a girls’ boarding school in The Facts of Life—a character spun off from the equally popular Diff’rent Strokes. Rae’s archive includes headshots, newspaper clippings, original scripts from both sitcoms, and drafts of her one-woman show.

McLean Stevenson ’52 portrayed the hapless Lt. Col. Henry Blake on M*A*S*H, winning a Golden Globe for the role in 1974. His papers include handwritten lyrics and music scores he used when filling in for Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show.

Daphne Maxwell Reid ’70 played Aunt Viv on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air from 1993 to 1996. Reid’s voluminous archive spans more than 65 years of material reflecting her childhood, Northwestern experiences, and long career as an actor, model, and fashion designer.

Practical Theatre Company

The Practical Theatre Company was founded in 1979 by four Northwestern students as an independent improv group. At the peak of its nine-year run, it operated theater spaces in both Evanston and Chicago, briefly rivaling Chicago’s Second City in its ambitious programming. Several cast members from Practical’s 1982 improv comedy revue, The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee, were almost immediately hired by Saturday Night Live: Julia Louis-Dreyfus ’83, ’07H (Seinfeld, Veep), Brad Hall ’80, Gary Kroeger ’81, and Paul Barrosse ’80. The Practical Theatre Company archive includes a variety of skits, jokes, lyrics, promotional material, and photographs. Practical Theatre alumni included Megan Mullally ’81 (Will & Grace), influential stage director Frank Galati ’65, ’67 MA, ’71 PhD, and actor Richard Kind ’79, whose distinctive voice and irrepressible energy subsequently won him fame in such sitcoms as Curb Your Enthusiasm and Mad About You. Last year Kind donated many of his papers to Northwestern. The extensive collection includes school records, film and play scripts, playbills, and clippings about his performances.

Cast photo of the Practical Theatre Company 1983
Cast photo of the Practical Theatre Company's 1983 revue, Megafun, at Piper's Alley; Richard Kind, center rear.

Natalia Gonzalez Blanco Serrano is a senior in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

Just Kitten Around with The Mee-Ow Show

Mee-ow show poster.Fifty years ago, a pair of undergraduates decided Northwestern needed an alternative to the mainstream Waa-Mu Show, the student-written musical theater production staged annually since 1929.

So junior Josh Lazar and sophomore Paul Warshauer launched the Mee-Ow Show, an irreverent salvo of counterprogramming that spawned its own annual tradition of skits, improv, and music. Cementing Mee-Ow’s humor bona fides is its long list of alumni who have enjoyed notable comedy careers, including Julia Louis-Dreyfus ’83, ’07H, Seth Meyers ’96, and Kristen Schaal ’00. Many cast members have gone on to appear with such comedy institutions as the Second City, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, the Groundlings, and Whose Line Is It Anyway?

In honor of the anniversary, archival processing specialist Yvonne Spura has curated Then & Mee-Ow: 50 Years of Student Comedy, an exhibition of posters, photos, and flyers on display in Deering Library through fall quarter.