Megan Amram AB ‘10
(Author & Comedy Writer, Silicon Valley, Parks & Rec, Science… For Her!)
By D. Dona Le
Most classical musicians start taking lessons in early childhood. Olympic-level athletes often begin training as soon as they’ve learned to walk.
But contrary to what her meteoric career as a comedy writer would suggest, Megan Amram ‘10 didn’t sprout from her mother’s forehead, fully formed and armed with the mighty pen. In fact, Amram wasn’t even funny as a child, describing herself instead as a math and science nerd.
Her first foray into comedy writing happened shortly before college, when she took a comedy class offered at her high school. With the encouragement of her teacher, Amram considered a career in comedy writing as “something that maybe I could do” for the first time.
Maybe was quite the understatement. Five years after high school—about five months after Amram arrived in Los Angeles after graduating from Harvard—she landed her first writing job… for The Academy Awards.
College was an artistic haven for Amram, who hit the ground running as soon as she arrived at Harvard. On her first day, before classes even started, she met a fellow writer, playwright-author Alexandra Petri ‘10 (Washington Post, A Field Guide to Awkward Silences), through the Freshman Arts Program. The two collaborated extensively as undergraduates, writing their freshman musical and then two Hasty Pudding shows together.
“Harvard is a very interesting place where you immediately have to realize that everybody is super-talented,” notes Amram. “I got to Harvard and immediately thought, ‘Everyone is so awesome and I want to work with them because of that.’ I think it was very fortunate that Alexandra and I were able to meet.”
Harvard was fortunate to be Amram’s college of choice as well. Having never been to the east coast when she applied, Amram had to be convinced not to stay in her hometown of Portland for college.
“My mom said, ‘Please just go to Harvard for a day. If you want to drop out after a day, you can come home. I will not be upset.’”
Participating in the Freshman Arts Program made her fall in love with Harvard, where she plunged into the world of musical theater and writing. Amram also took many poetry classes, although her desire to “take the opportunity to study something I didn’t know very much about but was amateur-ly interested in” led her to select Psychology as her concentration.
“I never wanted to become a therapist or a research psychologist,” Amram says, “but I thought that it can’t hurt as a writer to take classes on how the human mind works.”
Amram’s keen perspective of human behavior is probably a factor that makes her one of the most talented and versatile comedy writers on television and Twitter today. In the five years since her college graduation, Amram has written for The Oscars, Adult Swim’s Childrens Hospital, NBC’s Parks and Rec, and Comedy Central’s The Kroll Show.
When Amram moved to Los Angeles to become a comedy writer, she was “totally convinced I could do this, even though in retrospect, there’s no reason I should have had that confidence.”
She had never written a TV spec script or taken a screenwriting course. Before she left home, her mother gently asked, “Megan, I don’t mean this as an insult, but can you do this?”
“I got very defensive,” laughs Amram. “I said, ‘Of course! Why would you ask me that?’ But in my head, I thought, ‘No, that’s a very rational question.’”
Amram describes her mother as “the best person in the world” who has fully supported both her children in their career aspirations. “She’s a doctor and raised my twin brother and me saying, ‘I do this job where I can support you, but because of that, I want you to do whatever you want.’ It’s the best thing a parent can tell their kid.”
Shortly after moving to Los Angeles, while writing and performing stand-up comedy, Amram also began tweeting several jokes a day. She quickly amassed a following that now stands at nearly 475,000 Twitter users.
“The Internet is an amazing thing for writing. Yes, it’s often for free,” Amram concedes, “and you’re not getting paid to do a lot of work, but the immediacy with which you get to reach thousands of people, or even millions, is awesome.”
Amram’s time spent composing her trademark irreverent, incisive tweets quickly paid off. In lieu of a resume or a spec script, her Twitter success paved the way to her first industry gig as a writer for the 83rd Academy Awards® in 2011.
“I didn’t truly believe it was real until The Oscars aired and my name was on the credits,” Amram shares. “So many forces all came together and I was just the luckiest person in the world.”
Luck doesn’t explain the solid upward trajectory of Amram’s career since then, which is solely due to her prolific writing talent (she’s also a poet and author), unique and often dark sense of humor, and willingness to engage the world around her, even if—or especially when—that means expressing her opinions frankly on polarizing political and social issues.
“I do write jokes that probably offend people, but they’re very optimistic or the satire is making fun of bad people,” Amram explains. “I choose topics that are edgy, but I try to think through who might be offended because I might be making fun of them. I’d never make fun of a victim of assault—I’d make fun of assault itself.”
This comedic sensibility defines her first book, Science… For Her!, a subversively feminist science textbook written in the “BFF”-voice typical of women’s magazines such as Cosmo and Marie Claire. Through the satirical persona that narrates the textbook, Amram makes readers laugh even when addressing very real and very serious topics such as date rape.
“[Satire] is an easy way to guard yourself from being labeled as preachy or angry, which is something that a lot of feminists are called,” Amram says. “My first and foremost goal was to write a funny book and then to make it mean something.”
That’s another important aspect of comedy to Amram: meaning.
“There’s a big streak in me that’s extremely serious. That’s not to mean there isn’t levity to that,” Amram clarifies. “But when I see comedy writers I love write things that they really care about—even if they have jokes—it’s real and it comes from a really serious place; I love that.”
Her favorite examples of shows that embody this type of comedy, that have “real moments,” are Parks & Rec (“a very unbiased opinion!” she insists with a chuckle) and Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback on HBO, also home to Amram’s current show, Silicon Valley. She was recently hired as Co-Producer on the show, which HBO has renewed for a third season.
Remarking upon the transition from network to premium cable TV, Amram jokes, “It’s so amazing to swear and have nudity because your life is rated R.”
But she credits her experience writing for Parks and Rec and A.N.T. Farm for challenging her creativity and exercising her writing chops. “It can be really good to put constraints on yourself like children’s shows and even network shows. What are more creative types of jokes that are cleaner but still funny? You can’t just rely on swearing and nudity as the punch line for everything.”
Amram also raves about her current work on Silicon Valley, where she has learned about start-up life and the tech industry. Although she’s found success as a Twitter celeb, an author, and a poet, she is most at home in a writers’ room.
“I like writing for sitcoms because it’s so satisfying when you develop characters so that they can have emotional or comedic payoffs after years of working for them,” she says. “I think better writing always comes from groups of people, so TV is really great for that. You can also be reflective of what’s going on in the world.”
And Amram’s “serious streak” keeps her continually reflecting upon the world—not just as a feminist, but simply as a thoughtful human being who strives to include and support all voices.
“I feel so strongly about every cause that is anti-discrimination,” Amram states. “I could not be more liberal on every issue. I can’t speak as a black woman, a trans woman, or a homosexual woman, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t remember they exist and have a very different experience from me.”
She continues, “I think it’s really important to realize that you can’t speak for groups you aren’t part of. But that doesn’t mean you can’t support them, open a dialogue, learn about them, and be an ally.”
The impressive breadth of Amram’s work thus far—ranging from daily snarky one-liners and satirical social commentary to memorable jokes uttered by iconic TV characters—leaves no doubt that her career will be just as explosively successful as her Twitter account. She advises aspiring writers: “Maintain your own compass of what you think is funny, what you think is good, and the types of people you think are good in the world. If you develop a really clear personal view, your writing will be better because you’ll be able to see what is working, what is not, and you’ll also see what is worth writing about.”
Given the powerful combination of her worldview, enormous sense of compassion, and wicked humor, Amram is exactly the type of writer we need to shape the stories and characters we see on television. Then hold out hope that life imitates art—as long as Amram is the one wielding the pen.