March 13, 2006

Arroyo '87 Talks Comedy

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Want to make it as a television writer? “Have faith in yourself,” said Jose C. Arroyo ’87, staff writer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Arroyo, an Emmy and Writers Guild Award winner, spoke on the rough journey of making it as a television writer with his Friday lecture in Kaufmann Auditorium, “All Jokes Aside: What to Do With an English Major.”

Arroyo himself is no stranger to the ups and downs of pursing one’s dream job.

After ten years of struggling as a comedic performer and writer, Arroyo persevered to join the staffs of late-night shows, such as Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, Dennis Miller Live and now Conan O’Brien.

When he first attended Cornell, Arroyo had his sights set on pursuing medicine. His dream of having a medical career ended, however, when he was forced to take a semester off because of poor performance in his pre-med classes.

“I was so embarrassed I had to leave school,” Arroyo said, as his family is deeply connected to Cornell. His father, Ciriaco M. Arroyo, was the E. Hinchliff Professor of Spanish Literature, and five brothers all graduated from the University.

Arroyo then moved to Washington D.C., where he worked part-time washing dishes and began performing gigs at comedy clubs. After a couple of stand-up comedy shows, “I got hooked,” he said.

After his semester off, Arroyo returned to Cornell with a new career in mind. He decided to dedicate himself to comedy, spending hours in Olin Library immersed in the works of writers such as Woody Allen.

“I felt guilty wanting to do something that did not have a real career path,” Arroyo said, who felt he had the opportunity of a lifetime studying at Cornell. He tried his best to take his pursuit of comedy seriously, but “[at] Cornell [it] was looked at as goofing off,” he said.

Nonetheless, he continued his studies by majoring in English and continuing to participate in theatre. After graduating from Cornell, he moved back to Washington D.C. to continue his stand-up comedy shows.

“The logical move for me to do was to move to New York City,” which he did not do out of fear of the big city, he said.

No matter how hard he worked, though, Arroyo felt he was not going anywhere with his routines. He explained that in comedy there is no success ladder for one to climb. “It takes as long as it takes,” he said.

Arroyo finally moved to New York City, where he met his future wife and found a new job writing comedic answers to an online quiz game.

An opportunity to expose Arroyo’s comedy to a wide audience arose when Jay Leno joined the Tonight Show and allowed freelancers to fax monologue jokes to the show. Arroyo soon had some of his material performed by Leno for $50 a piece. He continued to send in material for five years although it was rarely used because “the thrill [of sending material] was like holding a lottery ticket,” he said.

But when Arroyo’s wife received a teaching fellowship in Minnesota, the couple had to leave New York City. He continued to send in jokes to the Tonight Show and began to write a teen novel series for Bantam Classics. The novels flopped, though, and his wife received another teaching fellowship in Charlotte, N.C.

Having to start all over in a new city once again made Arroyo want to give up. It was eight years after Cornell, and he still had not gone anywhere with his comedy. He said that his stand-up comedy was “like a relationship that went on too long.”

Arroyo decided to give up stand-up and began writing skits for a local performance group.

One day a representative for Dennis Miller Live saw one of Arroyo’s shows and asked the writer to try out for the late-night HBO show.

Arroyo decided to move back to New York City and became part of the Dennis Miller Live writing staff.

“That was the start I worked ten years to attain,” Arroyo said.

Arroyo would later go on to win an Emmy in 1998 and received his current position as a member of the Conan O’Brien writing staff in 2002.

Irene Komor, student services associate and organizer of the lecture, said, “I think [Arroyo’s story] is quiet inspirational.” She praised him for not giving up on his dreams and said “[Arroyo] does not know how special he is because he’s living his own life.”

The lecture was part of the Munschauer Arts and Sciences Alumni Career Series.

Archived article by Ariel Estévez
Sun Contributor