Ben Kronengold ’18 and Rebecca Shaw ’18 credited the Poorvu Center’s Ryan Wepler for honing the skills that led to their viral Yale Commencement speech, successful careers, and a new book.
In addition to teaching, Ryan Wepler is Director of The Graduate Writing Lab at the Poorvu Center.
The following story, “Ben & Rebecca” by Lizzie Conklin, was published in the Yale Daily News
On Thursday, Nov. 30, Ben Kronengold ’18 and Rebecca Shaw ’18 read short essays at the Poorvu Center from their first book, “Naked in the Rideshare,” which hit bookshelves on Nov. 14. They graduated from Yale in 2018, moving on to become the youngest comedy writers to write for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” but they left the show a few years ago to work in scripted television and film. Their work has since been featured in The New Yorker — most recently, a chapter from “Naked in the Rideshare” was excerpted by Shouts and Murmurs — and McSweeney’s.
They are also engaged.
When you find two things, it’s hard not to sort them. One should be salt and one should be pepper. Lennon or McCartney. William or Sonoma. Though Ben Kronengold and Rebecca Shaw come in a pair, they obfuscate categorization. They’re both simultaneously brains and brawn, forming a collective creative voice under one name, intellectually winding up knock-out punch lines to co-byline. When someone at Yale says “Ben & Rebecca,” you know who they’re talking about.
Their fates constellate. As kids, they always gravitated to humor, staying up late to watch “Saturday Night Live” and listening to their parents’ recordings of George Carlin and Joan Rivers. They are both from New York — their moms grew up together in Queens.
“We’re deeply lucky we’re not related to each other,” Shaw said.
They both directed their college comedy troupes — Shaw leading Red Hot Poker and Kronengold leading The Fifth Humor while performing in The Viola Question.
Both of them, however, studied discretely different fields, with Shaw majoring in psychology, and Kronengold majoring in political science and film.
“If there is a through line to be drawn, it is why people make the choices they make, and how deeply weird it is to be human,” said Shaw on choosing psychology. “I also think that’s me overanalyzing it. I had an awesome advisor.”
Despite being serious students, they found themselves drawn to the art of comedy writing, wanting to make each other laugh and push their comedy to the professional level if they could find a way.
“Comedy has so much head but also gut. You can intellectualize it and study it like a subject or a class, but at the end of the day, 10 more hours won’t give you 2 percent more on the exam. There’s an instinct to it that made it the coolest challenge to gravitate to,” said Kronengold.
They use each other as backboards, nurturing jokes together, gauging the quality by their partner’s reaction and calibrating their jokes to produce a laugh. Despite their proximity, they cannot read each other’s minds.
“I think we surprise each other a lot. Specifically when we surprise each other, we know we’re onto something. We use it as a tool or heuristic in our writing. I’ll be like ‘I thought Rebecca was gonna zig, but then she zagged,’” Kronengold said.
At Yale, both found themselves in “Writing Humor,” a creative writing seminar taught by Ryan Wepler, where they amassed a collection of written essays. Some made it into their book.
Wepler’s class simulates a writer’s room. Under constraints of time, subject and form, he asks students to churn out a high volume of jokes and humor essays over the spring semester, wringing the funny out of them until their humor is dry.
“In ‘Writing Humor,’ you’re forced to find your way to the joke. How can I still find my way to the funny on top of four to five classes? The class teaches you to make it second nature,” Kronengold said.
“[In a writer’s room] — most of the time — writing assignments aren’t totally open-ended. Sitting with a prompt and waiting until you start to make yourself giggle is something that class teaches you how to do … Ryan is such a great editor and has such an instinct for how to pull the funny out of something. He asks ‘What exactly does that joke mean? What’s the new observation that you’re making?’” Shaw said.
They have not yet tired. Since college, their comedic voice has grown with the scope of their reach. Since “The Tonight Show” reels in an average of 3.5 million live viewers every night, Kronengold and Shaw learned to cater their jokes to suit a wide audience of people who watch TV to feel good.
“I think we approached our college humor as wanting to say something subversive, biting and edgy. If I looked at it in retrospect, it probably skewed cynical. When we were hired on ‘The Tonight Show,’ the choice was joy and optimism. We’re not trying to take something down or make an audience member the butt of the joke. When you’re able to do something that has all the surprise and subversion we were attracted to, but is punching up and not down, it’s really worthwhile. We’ll always take that optimism into our projects,” Kronengold said.
Their elastic sensibilities have kept the duo in business. At their talk, they advised hungry students to have scripts — and backup scripts — ready for anyone who comes knocking. They encouraged students who want a job in “the biz” — they never used the term “the biz” — to write as much as possible and submit for publication wherever they can. They also told listeners to be good. And normal. And kind.
“Don’t get cynical. Just fall in love with a new direction on a project or sketch. You can either say, ‘I had a creative vision. How dare you impose your own?’ Or, ‘How can I write something I love as much — if not more — than the original version?’ It’s about finding your ins to be excitable instead of stopping getting excited. That really helps — deciding to continuously fall in love with what you’re doing and the new directions you have to go in and the new opportunities you’re given. You get to go instead of being pushed,” Shaw said.
“You’re so smart,” Kronengold replied.
Their next projects involve scripted television and film. And a wedding.