Barnet Kellman ’69: USC chair gets comedy a seat at the table

Autumn 2017
Barnet Kellman '69 with Lisa Kudrow, Peter Segal, and Robert Townsend.

Barnet Kellman ’69 (second from left) with (L to R) actress Lisa Kudrow, director Peter Segal, and actor/director Robert Townsend at the dedication of the Robin Williams Endowed Chair in Comedy. As the inaugural chair, Kellman served on a panel with these three, who reminisced about Williams and discussed the art of comedy. Photo by Dan Steinberg

After decades as a successful, Emmy-winning producer and director — with TV hits like Murphy Brown, Mad About You, Designing Women, and Felicity — Barnet Kellman ’69 changed career channels in 2008, becoming a professor at the University of Southern California (USC) and later cofounding its comedy program. Just recently, Kellman was named the inaugural Robin Williams Endowed Chair in Comedy (funded by the George Lucas Family Foundation), cementing USC’s program and Kellman’s role.

“[Teaching] became a terrific new profession for me at a surprising time in life,” he said. “This chair was the icing on the cake.”

Scene: Did you ever meet Robin Williams?
I was lucky enough to meet him one unforgettable time. I was directing the film Straight Talk (starring Dolly Parton, James Woods, and Griffin Dunne) in Chicago. Robin was in town, and he came to say hi to people he knew on the set. The place shut down. Let me tell you, movie crews are used to seeing celebrities, so they usually go on about their work. Not when Robin Williams came. Everything stopped — everybody just watched and listened as Robin went off on one of his fantastic rants and tirades. We laughed for a while; it was like a shot of energy toward the end of a long day, and it helped us finish our work with smiles on our faces.

Scene: What’s your favorite work by Robin Williams?
Good Morning, Vietnam and Aladdin. That genie, its whole way of being, and what it means to be a genie — that was a true Robin Williams creation.

Scene: Why is this chair meaningful?
The chair associates both USC and me with the incredibly illustrious example of Robin Williams. It’s an announcement to students all over the country, the academic community, and the profession at large that we take the practice and instruction of comedy very, very seriously at USC. Now that it’s an endowed chair, long after I’m gone, there will be someone at the table speaking up for comedy on our faculty and in our curriculum.

Scene: What drew you to teaching?
It was a seed that was planted at Colgate. I had a strong mentorship from Atlee Sproul, Don Berry, Jerry Balmuth, Warren Ramshaw, and other professors. I think they were behind my being awarded a Danforth graduate fellowship. The purpose was to encourage people to become college teachers. I took the fellowship, and I got my PhD [at the Union Institute]. I always felt I needed to live up to the trust that those guys put in me and get into college teaching. When I did, I knew they had done me a big favor by steering me in this direction. I just love it. I share their enjoyment of interacting with students. If I had any doubt that I made the right decision, being named as chair certainly says, “You’re doing the right thing!”

Scene: What are you currently working on?
Writing. I am taking my first sabbatical. I’ve cleared the decks, and I’m trying to execute a book I’ve been working on for a long time about the stuff that I teach. It’s about the practice of directing comedy as I’ve known it and as I do it.

Scene: Last words?
None of this would have happened had I not been so encouraged by professors at Colgate. The roots of this started in Hamilton.