Any Cornellian who watches the show Greek has probably noticed a few similarities to life on the hill that seem like more than just coincidences. From an alma mater that begins with “Far above … ”, to mention of a historic clock tower, it turns out these references are very much intentional thanks to Jessica O’Toole ’94. O’Toole is a writer and co-producer of ABC Family’s Greek. The Sun spoke with the former Daily Sun writer about her time at Cornell, the ties between Greek and the Big Red and what viewers can look forward to in the upcoming season.
The third season of Greek premieres next Monday, Aug. 31 at 9 p.m. on ABC Family.
Sun: Before becoming a writer and co-producer on Greek you were an undergrad at Cornell. What did you study during your time on the hill?
Jessica O’Toole: I was an English major.
Sun: What activities were you involved with on and off campus?
J.O.: I was on the Cornell Daily Sun and I wrote in the Entertainment section. And do they still have the Cornell Concert Commission?
Sun: They do!
J.O.: I did that too. And I did one play while I was there. I did that play Equus which is probably most well known as the one Daniel Radcliff was naked in on Broadway.
Sun: Were you involved in Greek life at Cornell?
J.O.: You know, I actually wasn’t in a sorority when I was there. Well, I have a writing partner who I write with, and she went to UVA and she was in a sorority there. So, that’s where we get the more specific sorority information when the two of us are writing. But of course I had friends in sororities and I went to plenty of fraternity parties so she has the insider’s knowledge and I have the outsider’s knowledge.
Sun: Are any of the fraternities or sororities on the show based on houses from real campuses anywhere?
J.O.: Not specifically. We have people on the staff who were Greek, so obviously their experiences come into the show. Obviously the Omega Chi house would be any of the more elite houses. The Kappa Tau house would be like the scruffy partiers. And the ZBZ’s are the most elite house on campus. So there are obviously going to be similarities just from that. I remember it being on a lot of campuses that Kappa Kappa Gamma is a big house. But no, not specifically. They’re just the type of house. And I guess I think the fun thing on the show is that you start out with these three houses that fit comfortably into genres. Then we’ve gotten more into the characters below the surface.
Sun: What about the college on the show –– Cyprus Rhodes University, is that based on anywhere specific?
J.O.: No. Well Sean [the creator] I believe actually thought of it as a southern school. He’s from Texas, but it’s not a Texas school. I think that being somewhere in Ohio, kind of like a Mid-West place, allows everyone to project it to feel like their campus. It’s sort kind of like an “every” campus. I don’t think we’ve ever actually specified if it’s a public or private campus. And it turns out that everyone on the staff envisions it as private if they went to a private school and public if they went to a public school.
Sun: That’s funny because Cornell’s a little bit of both. It seems you haven’t lost your Cornell roots as there are some clear ties to Cornell in the show, like the alma mater. So are any of these are actually drawn from Cornell?
J.O.: Yes, because we wrote the lyrics to that song. And yes, of course I still remember the Cornell alma mater. Well, I remember the first couple of lines and the tune of it. But yeah, that’s totally true.
Sun: Are there other subtle Cornell references that you’ve put in there?
J.O.: Of course things that I remember always come into the show. We have the Amphor Society, which is the secret society, and I remember that one from Cornell. I’m scared to even talk about it because I know it’s a secret society.
Sun: Well, is there anything else you can think of related to the Big Red?
J.O.: Oh, here’s one! It’s not a campus wide thing, but you know how Evan’s nickname is Bing? And that’s kind of been a plot point. That was actually based on a guy I went to Cornell with. A friend of mine who was nicknamed Bing for the exact same reasons, because they couldn’t decide if they should give him a bid or ding him.
Sun: What a great nickname!
J.O.: And it ended up being a great thing. It was one of the early hints that Cappie and Evan had a past and they use it against him as kind of a sore spot. And even my husband was in a fraternity when we went [to Cornell]. He was in Seal and Serpent. I don’t know what they’re like now, but in my time they were kind of artsy and there were a lot of gay brothers. Obviously we’re doing a lot of stuff with that: There’s Calvin [in the show] and now that he’s got a boyfriend, how it affects the house. […] [Seal and Serpent] never defined themselves that way and it was never an issue, but it was interesting because it was a fraternity and it was no big deal that there were a lot of gay guys in the house. And they co-existed nicely. I mean I have no idea what it’s like now.
Sun: I’ve never heard that associated with the house. Goes to show how much things can change.
J.O.: This also goes to show how every school is different. I mean that’s certainly something we’ve dealt with on the show. Like, what would it be like? Cause you know, there’s that certain frat guy stereotype, but we always try to think past that.
Sun: So in comparison to what you know of Cornell and what you’ve learned and seen in the rest of the country, how does Cornell measure up?
J.O.: I don’t feel like the Greek life at Cornell ever seemed like what the stereotype was. It was never homogenous or really white or snobby. But obviously I didn’t rush or anything like that. But how much do I think Cornell is similar to other places? Well, there are definitely a lot of other places that take it more seriously than that. I remember before the show aired there was a lot of concern from the Greek community that the previous portrayals of Greek life were negative or really stereotypical and that was their big concern: that this was going to be another rehearsing of those stereotypes. Obviously we haven’t done that and I would say the Cornell way of doing things is probably more accurate.
Sun: More accurate in what sense?
J.O.: Well, than the stereotypes. There’s the stereotype of sororities having lots of cat fighting and there’s the tired one that they have pillow fights in their underwear. And then, that the frat guys are all meatheads and that stuff.
Sun: Well it’s good to know Cornell stands above that! So what if you were to talk to an incoming freshman. Would you recommend them to go Greek, even though you didn’t back in the day?
J.O.: That’s so funny. Thinking back, I don’t regret that I didn’t because I had lot of friends and I definitely had enough of a social life. But, I might be more curious about it. One thing [is that] I did stereotype it a little bit myself, to tell you the truth. I kind of dismissed it as silly or something like that. But I might now be a little more open to it. And it depends. When I was a freshman, I met a bunch of friends in my dorm right off the bat. I never felt like I needed it. At Cornell too, there’s so much diversity in the Greek system; there’s so many different types of houses and I would certainly recommend exploring that option.
Sun: Well, I’ve made you look back on Greek a little bit, but what can viewers look forward to in this third season?
J.O.: Oh, so much!
Sun: Is there anything you can give away?
J.O.: Let’s see. Well we left off with the “End of the World” party and I think almost all of the characters have major changes that result from that and all their paths are setting out in new directions –– the things that make them uncomfortable and things that disappoint them and things that make them feel different. We’re really going to see the fall out of what happens there and all the questions being answered. Yeah, you’re going to have all your questions answered! It’s not going to be like Lost where we keep introducing new ones. And new college events –– we’re always trying to look for the big, fun stuff. I don’t remember having this at Cornell, but we have a “gotcha” game, which is basically this “assassins” campus wide game.
Sun: How many episodes are in this season?
J.O.: There are going to be ten starting Aug. 31! I’m really proud of this season. I think it’s really, really funny and there’s lots of romance stuff.
Sun: Cappie and Casey?! Maybe … ?
J.O.: Of course we’re going to address the relationship one way or the other …