In the latest installment of TA interviews, Bwog oldtimer, Carolyn Ruvkun, returned from
the dead retirement to chat with with Upright Citizens Brigade Artistic Director, Reddit meme, and Columbia sociology PhD candidate Nate Dern. Also, we may have Google stalked him and found his hilarious Tumblr.
Bwog: How’d you end up here as a PhD sociology student?
Nate: Over the last ten years of my life, my main goal has been not to have a 9-5 job. And I thought, “Aw man, if you’re an academic, you get to think about social science questions all the time.”
Bwog: What are you researching?
Nate: How people cooperate, specifically new media technology to facilitate group collaboration like crowd-sourcing. And I’m also making a documentary film about the New York City improv comedy community, of which I’m also a part. And that’s kind of my other double life that I lead when I’m out of Columbia. I’m based out of the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre.
Bwog: That’s awesome, how’d you end up at UCB?
Nate: It is! I’m very honored to be part of the community. So I took classes there, and after a year I was lucky enough to get placed on an improv team, and I work there now as Artistic Director.
Bwog: Sounds important.
Nate: In our little world, yeah. I choose our schedule basically, I run our auditions, and I’m our industry lisason, so if CBS wants to cast someone for the Louis CK pilot, they’ll send me an email.
Bwog: Do you have a signature bit?
Nate: I have a pretty good bodega man character. He’s just worried that people will try to buy his cat and he wants to make it very clear that the cat is not for sale.
Bwog: And you’re a Reddit meme? I love Reddit, and that’s a form of internet collaboration!
Nate: Exactly, a successful one. It proves that cooperation is more successful than an expert-based model. Anyways, so because of doing comedy with UCB I get to go on auditions sometimes. And after years of auditioning, I booked one. I say one line in an AT&T commercial. I posted it to Reddit. Basically I though it was funny that after three years, the one thing I finally get is just a single word, “huh”— barely a word. And that post went viral on Reddit and then became a meme.
Bwog: What’s it like being a meme?
Nate: It’s interesting…. So I was on a reality TV show. They kind of feel similar, like something outside of your control taking your image and presenting it in a way that you don’t have final say over.
Bwog: Whoa, reality TV!
Nate: I was on a reality show called Beauty and the Geek. It was on the WB for two years.
Bwog: The WB— blast from the past.
Nate: I was the runner-up, so I didn’t win any money or anything. So how it works: it’s not a dating show— they pair a beauty and a geek together and they compete against the other beauties and geeks each week in challenges. And supposedly the team that has learned the most from each other will win the money in the end.
Bwog: Did you learn anything?
Nate: I learned that I wouldn’t want to be on a reality TV show again.
Bwog: So how’d you end up on a reality show?
Nate: I was at Harvard, where I was an undergrad, and I was handing out flyers for my improv comedy team. I was just being goofy, and these two Hollywood-looking types came up to me and my friends. I looked like a geek, I guess. My friend was smarter than me, and he said, “No way,” but I was so flattered. I went for an interview, and one thing led to another, and my junior year of college I was flown out to LA. It was just surreal. It kind of taints you; you’re forever a reality TV persona. Chuck Klosterman has this essay about it and he concludes, “It will forever be the most interesting thing about you.” And it’s true: I’d tell people, “I spent two weeks in Morocco—that was a pretty crazy time,” or “in high school I ran a 4:23 mile”— you know all these things I think are interesting, and people would just nod their heads. But then I tell people I was on a reality TV show and they’re like, “TV, Why didn’t you say so? Let’s talk about that!” So another life goal is to do something more interesting than a reality TV show.
Bwog: Well UCB sounds way more interesting. What’s the comedy world like?
Nate: It’s a lot of people who need approval. It’s an art form that’s very much about pleasing other people. You can be a painter that’s critically acclaimed but not popularly acclaimed. You can maybe be like Dane Cook, who is popularly acclaimed but not critically acclaimed, but there have to be at least enough people who would laugh at you. It’s also pretty cynical— that’s partially New York, and partially comics. I sometimes feel discouraged about that. I think there’s a time when comedians would have been really politically involved, but in New York, they’re so jaded. It’s good to question and not take things on face value, but the easiest stance to take is one of just being jaded. It’s riskier to be earnest. The safest stance is to only be ironic.
Bwog: So what would a sociological study of Columbia students yield?
Nate: I love Columbia. It feels like a little oasis. Also I applied to grad school for years and got rejected for years, so I feel very grateful to have gotten in finally, and I feel totally honored to be here.
Bwog: Is there anything you wish you could tell your college self now?
Nate: So I’m twenty… gosh how old am I? I think I’m 27, or 28. So I’m pretty nostalgic now for college. When I was in college, I was in a rush to get out, and I felt guilty for how privileged I felt, so I complained about college. “Aw man Harvard. Fuck this elitist shit!” And in retrospect, enjoy the heck out of it. College is GREAT. And you get to study anything you want and explore your interests. So I would tell myself to really enjoy it, cause the real world is so much worse… But I like my life.
Bwog: Best college memory?
Nate: Aw man, so many. I was in a Star Wars tribute band. We were called So Long Princess. We still have a MySpace page. That was one of the last things I did that was just for fun. We knew we weren’t going to be signed. It wasn’t to help any of our careers, and I think it’s important to make time for that.
Bwog: What do you wish you could tell your students that you wouldn’t tell them in person?
Nate: When I was an undergraduate I imagined I had an adversarial relationship with my professors, like they were looking for reasons to give me a bad grade and I had to trick them that I knew the material, or something like that. Rather than trying to write an essay you think the professor wants to read, write something that is interesting to you. It’ll be a better product that way.
Bwog: What’s something that has been on your mind lately?
Nate: I’m trying to be more positive lately. I have a friend, who instead of asking how you’re feeling, which is an invitation to complain—at least among my group of friends—he’ll ask “what’s new and good?” So, that’s a little nugget I like.