Alums of comedy group at GW hit the real world

Before he stepped on stage to audition for NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” Herschel Bleefeld thought about some of the same things that used to go through his mind when he was a member of GW’s comedy group Recess.

“You either have it or you don’t, and if you don’t, you don’t deserve to be out there. I think about that every time I perform to this day,” Bleefeld said.

Though he didn’t land a spot on “Saturday Night Live,” Bleefeld said he felt proud to have had the honor of auditioning for the show.

“They test maybe 25 people a year…to go to New York and perform on the ‘SNL’ stage directly for Lorne Michaels and the other producers,” Bleefeld wrote in an e-mail. “I actually got to sign a contract for SNL and it had my name on it … it didn’t matter (to me) whether I got the job or not.”

Some of the former members of Recess, GW’s sketch, improvisational and video comedy group, have pursued successful careers in the entertainment industry. Bleefeld is no exception. He’s acted in productions including “Bruce Almighty,” “A Lot Like Love” and “Six Feet Under.”

“In ‘Bruce Almighty’ I worked for the whole day with Jennifer Aniston and she was totally sweet to everyone and chatted, but I was way too intimidated to even say a word to her. At the end of the day … she said to me, ‘Even though we didn’t really get to talk, it was so nice to meet you.’ I left the set on cloud nine,” Bleefeld said.

Another successful Recess alumnus is Ptolemy Slocum, who said that his experience in the group prepared him for the entertainment industry better than any class or program he’s ever taken.

Slocum, a 1998 GW graduate, teaches classes at The People’s Improv Theater in New York, a studio that New York Magazine ranked as having the best improv lessons in the city. He can now be seen in commercials for both FedEx and Pontiac, and will appear on the upcoming season of HBO’s “The Sopranos.”

Like his other Recess colleagues, Slocum has plenty of fond and somewhat disturbing memories of his days as a member of the group. He described the story of Learney the gerbil, who had passed away years before he became a Recess mascot that was kept in a freezer back when the group had a house on campus.

“I came back from vacation and Learney was dead. It was winter-time, and I think the windows were left open. I had assumed the gerbil had just died when I found him, so I attempted to give the gerbil CPR,” said Slocum, who ended up putting dead Learney in the freezer for years of keeping.

Despite the gang’s shenanigans, or possibly because of them, Slocum said that he learned everything he knows about comedy and performance from is time in Recess.

“There is no better education,” Slocum said.

Having done commercials and acting for five years now, Slocum dubbed himself the second most-successful former Recess member.

“Hilary Winston is probably doing the best of all of us,” Slocum said.

Winston said she enjoys her job as a writer for a hit NBC show.

“I have the best job in the world and I know I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t done Recess,” said the 1998 graduate who now works as a writer for the hit NBC show “My name is Earl.”

After working for NPR, NBC, FX, Warner Brothers and various television programs, Winston landed her dream job writing for the comedy sitcom.

“It was my favorite pilot script that I had read, ever. I knew I wanted to write for that show,” she said. “I got really lucky that the first show I got on was so successful. I’m lucky our writing staff is a family, and that’s what Recess was.”

Winston started work on the “My Name is Earl,” which is in its third season, as a story editor and now does both behind-the-scenes writing and on-set work during the episode shooting process.

“Everything goes back to Recess,” Winston said. “It was such a creative thing. In our heyday we rehearsed from 10 to 12 every night, and had a brand new show every Friday. It really became our lives.”

Coming in as Slocum’s pick for third most-successful Recess graduate, TJ Miller moved to Chicago to do improv comedy after graduation. After touring with The Second City comedy troupe for two years, becoming one of the advertising faces for Quaker Oats and making a career out of stand-up comedy, Miller caught his big break in Aspen at HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.

It was here, Miller said, that he “scored sweet management” with 3 Arts Entertainment, the company that also represents Tina Fey.

“The HBO Aspen Comedy Festival – they look at thousands of comedians and accept about 20. Really, nobody has gone out of Chicago to the festival, but this year four people got callbacks. I was the only one to make it into the festival,” Miller said.

Miller will be in the area in April for the D.C. Comedy Festival, which he participates in every year. For this organization, like Learney the gerbil, the success of Recess alumni is a long-standing tradition.

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