Laughing Their Way to the Top: College Students Find Confidence in Comedy

Students involved in the extracurricular improvisational comedy troupe Scatterbomb develop the social prowess to excel both personally and professionally.

On a Sunday afternoon, shortly after beginning his freshman year at Manhattan, Mike Lepetit ’06 trekked downtown to watch his first improvisational (improv) comedy performance, held at the iconic Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) Theatre.

He enjoyed it so much that in the weeks following, Lepetit and his Jasper Hall floor-mates began to routinely attend the weekend show, which has become known throughout the years for often featuring famous faces – on one occasion, Lepetit can remember hearing the founder of UCB, renowned comedian Amy Poehler, call into the audience, “Raise your hand if you’ve been to more than 100 shows here!” (They had). Other times, they watched Mike Myers, Tina Fey, and Alec Baldwin perform onstage. During the long hours spent waiting in line to gain entrance to the venue commonly referred to as UCB Theatre, the College friends began considering a possibility: what if they created an opportunity on campus for students to practice sketch and improv comedy? Original members of Scatterbomb.

Their idea materialized later in the semester into what is now Scatterbomb.

Soon after its formation in early 2004, the mostly student-run organization participated in two comedy events: the now-defunct Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Theatre Festival and the National College Comedy Festival (ComFest, for short.). The latter is still held at Skidmore University and has since been attended by Manhattan teams for more than a decade. 

Thinking back to their first few shows performed in Jasper Lounge and in Thomas Hall’s Black Box Theater, Lepetit remembers: “We began to hear people talking about their plans for Friday night, as how they would revolve around our Scatterbomb performance. [The hype] was something we had done ourselves, and something that the College took a chance on and allowed us to do.”

Developing a Social and Professional Skillset 

Although a few things have changed since the mid-2000s, like the location of performances (now in Hayden 100), others have remained constant. The rapport that’s built during the execution of every comedy skit, bit, and sequence Scatterbomb-ers act out onstage is still distinct, infectious and a little off-kilter, much like the art form itself, which is largely unscripted and created spontaneously by performers. Shows are formatted to begin with the same prompt to the audience. “Give us a word to start with!” members say, and, based on the response, construct scenes around it.

Throughout each academic year, Scatterbomb hosts a range of four to five shows that have recently begun to include one “bit show” – consisting of a series of skits that surround a common theme. In April, use of this format resulted in a “10 Minute Movie” starring Will Lamparelli ’17, Kevin Donald ’19 and Madison Blecki ’18, who spent that time summarizing the plot of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and impersonating several of the film’s characters. 

At the end of the spring semester, the improv-ers also host Scatterprom, an end-of-year tradition that was begun by the group’s original members. (If you’re wondering whether the event features students donning formal wear on stage, as the name would suggest, you’d be correct.)

Together they remain a thriving cult community that affords students the opportunity to simultaneously fit in and stand out, laugh with abandon, and boost confidence and trust, two fundamental qualities for personal and professional growth. 

“I’m a musician [in the Manhattan College Jazz Band], and nowhere else is it so important that you trust the people you’re performing with to have your back. That’s what’s special about improv [comedy]. You immediately need to connect in that way,” says Donald, who joined Scatterbomb his freshman year.

At the time, he was looking to make friends, so his resident assistant in Chrysostom Hall, Sam Martin ’16, recommended that he audition. At the time, Martin was also a member.

Two years later, Donald remains actively involved in Scatterbomb and the Jazz Band, and has contributed to the College’s Summer Research Program. This past summer, he was recipient of a Branigan Scholars Grant, which helped to support a project he collaborated on with a faculty adviser that studied aspects of Japanese media.

Off campus, Donald travels downtown to perform with Buscemi, an improv team of College alumni that hosts a monthly show in Ridgewood, Queens. To rehearse, the group convenes each week at an agreed-upon space somewhere in Manhattan. 

In addition to Donald, Buscemi is comprised of Martin, Carolyn Egan, R.J. Liberto, and Drew Murphy, who all graduated in 2016, as well as Gavin Sass ’15 and Tom Englehart ’14. Each of them describe the mental release they feel through comedy, and the community they built during participation in Scatterbomb, as a tool that helped them fine-tune certain interpersonal skills. 

Sass for instance, a former English major at the College, currently serves as a digital strategist for the multimedia agency OMD Worldwide. He’s found improv to be a great exercise for improving communication. 

“A lot of times you talk to people, and the whole time they’re not listening because they’re thinking of ways they can talk about themselves,” he says. “Improv is a space where you can truly be present together with other people. It allows you to actually be heard.”

At this year’s Scatterprom, Buscemi hopped onstage with members of the College group for a special alumni jam that allowed the two groups to perform together as one. They also attended the campus event in a row specially reserved for alumni.

Careers in Comedy  

Egan transferred to Manhattan College from Stony Brook University her sophomore year, but she began laying the foundation for an eventual career in comedy before then. As a freshman, she would travel to New York City from Long Island to take Improv 101 classes at UCB, where she landed in the sales department as an intern during her senior year at the College. The former English major continues to work for the organization on Saturday evenings. This allows her to attend shows at the East Village venue for free, interface with the comedians, and see what goes on backstage.

Apart from her own performing role in Buscemi, Egan is also part of a team affiliated with The Tank, a theater in midtown.

And she isn’t the only one getting her feet wet in the entertainment industry. Recently graduated Scatterbomb-er Lamparelli was a general production intern last year at Late Night with Seth Meyers. There, he was on a team of 22 interns who learned about production by assisting with varying duties on set, about leadership, and how the social and academic knowledgebase he amassed in College could translate into professional success. 

Of the many skills he fine-tuned in college, Lamparelli points to confidence as being one that was particularly enhanced through improv comedy.

“It used to be nerve-wracking to go on stage in front of a room full of people, but now, when I enter a new situation onstage or in my daily life, I find that I am more relaxed than I used to be. Scatterbomb is a special thing, and it will be among my fondest memories of College,” he says.

… And in Classrooms of Their Own

Liberto, who began doing improv during his freshman year and now performs with Buscemi, began planting his roots in the Bronx after graduation, and has since incorporated William Shakespeare’s timeless phrase, “All the world’s a stage,” into his day job as a 7th-grade social studies teacher in the Co-op City section of the Bronx.

“I basically use improv every day in the classroom. Working with 12-year-olds, you never really know what you’re going to get, so it’s nice to be equipped to quickly deal with those sorts of challenges, while sticking to a lesson plan,” he says.

Liberto earned dual bachelor’s degrees in secondary education and history. He now lives in Morris Park, and teaches at Equality Charter School.

Englehart, a former education major at the College who works as a 9th-grade English teacher in Mineola, N.Y., said he never would have considered a career in the education field had he not been practicing comedy on a regular basis. There are numerous parallels between the two, he says. For one, his English classes usually contain 30-40 students, which roughly resembles a small audience. And two, he always needs to be prepared for the unexpected.

“Improvising trains you to be on your toes. In a similar way, a teacher must also be able to take advantage of unplanned opportunities as they happen,” he says.

More than a decade after graduating from the College with dual bachelor’s degrees in secondary education and English, Lepetit has continued to adapt the knowledge he gained through Scatterbomb and his classes seamlessly into his adult life. He is a teacher at the Riverdale Kingsbridge Academy (MS/HS 141), and has remained in close contact with many of his college friends, with whom he still performs in the Riverdale area – just not in the way of comedy. Together, Lepetit, Christopher McShane ’07, John Tiglias ’07, and Adam Wisnieski ’07 make up the nearby alternative rock band, the Lightning Crabs.

In this capacity and in his professional life, one aspect of Lepetit’s life has not changed since his Scatterbomb days: he’s still got an audience. 

“Today I was reading the book Walk Two Moons aloud to my students, and the kids were all laughing, and complimenting my ability to act out each scene and do the different voices. I thought to myself, ‘I still got it!’” he says.

In many ways, the go-with-the-flow nature described by members of the improv community is similar to the means in which people achieve different goals throughout their lives – you can plan for them, but only to an extent. The rest just kind of happens, and you have to go with it. In that regard, Scatterbomb succeeds in preparing students for the future. 

Rocco Marinaccio, Ph.D., an English professor at the College, has served as the faculty adviser for Scatterbomb since 2008. Since then, he’s watched members come and go but has continued to track their personal and professional accolades. 

“When I see the kinds of lives and careers the Scatterbomb-ers have led after graduating, it just confirms once again the virtues of the performing arts as part of a college education,” he says.

“In their way, they represent the best and brightest of Manhattan College students. They are creative thinkers, they are risk-takers, and they work tremendously well together. And they do so with tremendous passion.”