Emmy Award-winning Writer and Producer (Saturday Night Live, In Living Color)
By Terence O'Toole Murnin
As the world rings in 2019, John Bowman AB ’80, MBA ’85 makes a bold New Year’s prediction: “I think we’ll be hearing a lot about Trump,” he says wryly.
Another certainty is that this Emmy award-winning writer and producer will continue to explore the boundaries of sketch comedy, as he's done brilliantly for more than 25 years. If sustained buzz is the toughest thing to accomplish in any creative endeavor, this comedic master’s resume rivals that of James Brown, “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business!” Bowman's IMDB profile also reads like the evolution of TV comedy: Saturday Night Live, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, In Living Color, Martin, Murphy Brown, and Frank TV, to name just a few. In fact, if James Brown were still alive today, this would be a mic drop moment—and he’d be covered in capes.
Bowman was raised in Wisconsin, and his suburban American upbringing was imbued with pop culture. Having watched plenty of TV as a teenager, he noted when comedic stalwarts like Alan King and Johnny Carson were getting a run for their money by a hipper and younger brand of comedy.
“[The work of Jim Downey AB '74] at SNL was obviously a game-changer, and it opened the doors for a ton of Harvard writers," Bowman notes, "especially talented folks from The Harvard Lampoon.”
In fact, Bowman was one of the brilliant students who comped The Lampoon, and after graduating from Harvard, he witnessed firsthand a comedy revolution, marked by SNL’s influence, in which new stand-up comedians were suddenly breaking nationwide. Still, Bowman did not yet see a future in comedy writing. He enrolled in Harvard Business School, got married, and began a career in publishing.
Then in 1988, fortunately for comedy lovers and the history of pop culture, Downey hired a woman named Shannon Gaughan to write for SNL.
“It was like, 'WOW, Shannon got a lot of her stuff on air, and she also happened to be my wife!'” Bowman says with a laugh.
Soon after, Bowman followed his wife to SNL, and The Harvard Lampoon pipeline was suddenly open like a firehose. Bowman's second entertainment gig was working on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and In Living Color was next.
“In my world, we all knew each other, liked each other, and hired each other—and I worked relentlessly. I’m really good, but I’m also extremely lucky,” states Bowman modestly.
At that point in his career, Bowman made sure to work consistently because he is a family man with five children, a responsibility he happily took on. Instead of inoculating himself against the pressures of comedy writing with drugs and alcohol, he took solace in his home life, a place that housed lots of love, happiness, and LOUD laughter.
“I refused to work on the weekends, so I could experience a real life with my family,” says Bowman, “and nowadays, with only one kid left in the roost, it is way too quiet. There’s not enough mayhem for my liking!”
Along the way, Bowman created Fox sitcom Martin, for which he received two NAACP Awards and a People’s Choice Award. In 2008, he received a PEN USA First Amendment Award for his leadership during the 2008 writers' strike in Hollywood.
Three of Bowman’s children have followed in his footsteps to Harvard—and two joined The Lampoon as well—and Bowman now finds himself at a point in his career where the typical 60- to 80-hour production weeks in television are not appealing. He is a part-time lecturer at the University of Southern California, where he advises his students to be patient if they’re looking to break in to the entertainment industry.
“There’s a lot of rejection, and Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule applies to this art form,” explains Bowman. “At The Lampoon, we were probably seven or eight years ahead of a lot of folks. We wrote and thought a lot about comedy, and we studied things like Buster Keaton movies to really master the form, particularly physical humor, which I still adore.”
As Bowman teaches the next generation of comedy writers, he believes the genre is undergoing an exciting phase of change and growth. In particular, Bowman credits the work of Alec Berg AB '91 and Bill Hader on HBO series Barry as the new blueprint for comedic writing moving forward. He is also a huge fan of John Mulaney, but just as importantly, Bowman finds himself energized by the diversity of his students at USC. They bring a broad array of experiences and perspectives to the writers' room, where women are no longer an anomaly!
“Tina Fey broke down the door, and women like Lena Dunham have pushed the envelope, opening the way for series like Broad City,” Bowman comments.
Bowman hopes to continue to inspire the next generation of comedy writers in an era when the entertainment biz seems to offer myriad opportunities, yet remains incredibly competitive. Part of this heightened competition is because a current series may consist of only six to 10 installments in a season, instead of 24 episodes, as in days of yore.
“The game has changed, but rejection still remains the same, and it hurts like hell,” Bowman admits. “The important thing is that [rejection] does not stop you. The situation or group may have not been right.”
Comedy maestro Bowman is currently a trustee of The Harvard Lampoon, and his message of hope to aspiring writers is beautifully eloquent in its simplicity, spoken from the heart of a Wisconsin boy who used to dream of making it big while watching TV: “Brace yourself: it can be done!”