The Ivory Tower as Comedy Gold Mine

A Web video series created at Juniata College parodies academic life

Jay Hosler

Jay Hosler, a Juniata College biology professor and science cartoonist, drew the storyboards for the Web comedy series "Office Hours." Mr. Hosler also plays the nerdish history lecturer, Mark Deacon, on the show.
January 02, 2011


What it is: a Web-based sitcom that parodies academic life.
What it's like: The Office, 30 Rock, Dilbert.
Who created it: a group of Juniata College employees, alums, and students.
How long it lasts: Five episodes are already online, and each one is four to five minutes long. The sixth and­—for now—final episode goes live on January 10.
Where you can find it: http://junipercollege.gloriousrobot.com

Huntingdon, Pa.

No Nielsen-savvy sitcom writer would drop the phrase "curricular glut" into a script aimed at America's sought-after 18-to-49 age demographic.

But when viewers of Episode 2 of the Web comedy series Office Hours hear a character use the phrase, most are at least familiar with it, and some even grasp it like a secret handshake. That is because this parody of academic life is aimed at a narrow slice of humanity, the kind of people who read publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education, people just like you.

Nathan Wagoner, who produces the series, is director of new-media communications at Juniata College. He is a faculty brat, son of an emeritus philosophy professor at Juniata, and has long known that academe is a uniquely absurd place. It has its own vocabulary, its own customs, and quite possibly the funniest-looking hats not sold in novelty stores.

"If you're around academia at all, you know that there are things that we talk about­—cultural touchstones that we have that no one else understands," Mr. Wagoner says. "Some of that is pretty funny, or can be."

"Dilbert set in a university" is the vision Mr. Wagoner became attached to when he began exploring how to share the humor with a broader audience. Along the way, how­ever, changes in technology led him to reconceive the comic strip as a video series: The cost of high-definition cameras plunged, and widespread access to the Internet eased the distribution of videos on the Web (see YouTube) and the marketing of creative products to niche audiences (check your e-mail).

Perhaps most important, Mr. Wagoner had an epiphany about the creative potential of the Juniata diaspora. Many graduates had gone on to successful careers in writing, acting, videography, and other film-industry professions. He decided to try to assemble a dream team of Juniata alums, employees, and students to create a sharply written ensemble comedy about academe, and then make it available on the Web.

It wasn't Mickey Rooney or Judy Garland crying out: "Hey, my dad has a barn! Let's put on a show!" But it wasn't far from that, either. Juniata graciously allowed the use of its camera and sound equipment.

No one would be paid, and no one would get course credit. The only thing Mr. Wagoner could promise was a creative outlet and a line on the résumé. And yet, when he began moving Office Hours from concept to project, he found no shortage of volunteers.

For a writer, he turned to Kevin Ott, a screenwriter and 1997 graduate who taught at the college as an adjunct five years ago after getting his M.F.A. in film at Boston University. Mr. Wagoner fed some of his ideas to Mr. Ott and took the resulting scripts to Jay Hosler, an associate professor of biology who draws and publishes science cartoons and graphic novels.

Within a few weeks, Mr. Hosler had used the scripts to draw storyboards, which Mr. Wagoner says were useful both in production and as a tool for recruiting cast and crew members. Mr. Hosler also won the role of Mark Deacon, a nerdy lecturer in history at the fictional Juniper College who is keen to get a date with Jenny Clancy, a new adjunct and the lead character of Office Hours.

Marci Chamberlain, a May graduate who was recently hired as an admissions counselor, portrays Jenny in the mold of a Mary Tyler Moore or (more recently and perhaps more apt) a Tina Fey as 30 Rock's Liz Lemon. As the series nears its end, questions linger over whether Jenny will lose her job because of enrollment shortages and curricular glut.

Mr. Wagoner found his director in Ryan Wetzel, a multi­media specialist at nearby Pennsylvania State University at University Park. Mr. Wetzel graduated from Juniata in 2006 and stayed on for a year to create videos in the college's office of new-media communications. During the production of Office Hours, the two men hashed out script disagreements in respectful but occasionally contentious debates that Mr. Wagoner says gave student volunteers a front-row look at how the collaborative process works.

Students have been key to the success of the series, he says, which is not to say that their work has always gone smoothly. Kelsey Swiger, a student who recorded audio, describes having to deal with a squeaky sound cart and an insufficiently long microphone cable during a tracking shot of Mark and Jenny at the beginning of Episode 3.

"We're all in our socks so that we wouldn't make any noise, and we're carrying this sound cart backwards down the hallway," Ms. Swiger says, laughing as she recalls the scene.

"It was nine takes before we got the shot," Mr. Wetzel adds.

Fortunately, most shots were easier. Shooting has wrapped up, and a January 10 release date has been set for the sixth episode, in which we will learn whether or not Jenny keeps her job. No one who was interviewed would say, and Mr. Wagoner indicates that even Juniata's top administrators are being kept in the dark.

But that is only one of the cliffhangers. The other involves the future of Office Hours itself. Mr. Wagoner says the next few months will be spent drumming up publicity. Beyond that, plans are few.

"I would be pretty proud of it if it ended here," says Mr. Wagoner. He gets cagey when asked to reveal his hopes for the series, which he emphasizes was time-consuming, labor-intensive, and paid nothing.

He and Mr. Wetzel lay out the possibilities: The college offers students course credit to turn Office Hours into a continuing project. A production company sees the series, likes it, and throws a bunch of money at it. Education organizations decide to support new episodes to be shown at conferences. Or it simply goes away.

"Should there be a Season 2," Mr. Wetzel confides, "we know roughly what the beginning of that would look like."

But no one, not even the actor who plays her, will say what becomes of Jenny. For that, we'll just have to watch Episode 6.—Don Troop