You’re probably not very funny. 

Don’t despair, dear reader. Humor is a skill—nay, a fine art—harvested with time and attention. It can’t be honed in the ways we typically practice it: a passing quip to a coworker, a relatable groan about a grade, or the number of days we stand from Friday. 

At least, that’s what Shaun Eli (W ‘83), professional stand–up comedian, and founder of the Ivy League of Comedy, seems to believe.

Eli has attracted a great deal of attention from the press for his rather unorthodox life tale: originally a Wall Street banker for two decades, he quit his day job to be a full–time comedian.

“I was on a date, and she said she had just taken this [comedy] class. I saw people from the class performing and they were funnier than I thought they'd be. And I said, ‘okay, I'm gonna give it a try,” Eli says.

He never looked back.

Eli wastes no time getting into jokes. “I go by he/him/his, but if you want to note that I went to Wharton, me/mine/all mine/everything belongs to me,” he deadpans less than a minute into our phone call. It becomes evident that Eli’s sarcasm is an intrinsic part of his character, and he concurs, to an extent. 

“I think a lot of kids are funny, and it fades as they grow up. But I think sometimes their desire to express themselves gets quashed, because people tell them, ‘stop interrupting with funny jokes.’ I never grew out of that stage,” he says.

The rapidity with which witticisms fall out of his head and onto my lap seems almost to compensate for being late to the game. He even worries, in his half–joking way, at the end of our conversation that he hasn’t been funny enough, permitting me to incorporate any of his existing material into my piece. It may very well be that. At 61 years of age, Eli has been a professional comedian for less than a quarter of them, and if making up for lost time is possible, he’s succeeded thus far.

Eli has built his passion into a business of its own. He’s sold jokes to Jay Leno on The Tonight Show and performed in the same show lineups as other renowned comedians (does Jerry Seinfeld ring a bell?). He employs a brand of “clean corporate”, a distinct marketability tactic, built on telling mostly true stories in dramatized fashions that strip away the dirty details and betray an Ivy League intelligence. 

“People say that it's smart comedy, and I would say, it's not dumb comedy. It's the absence of dumb,” Eli explains.

Eli seeks out comedians for his “boutique entertainment company” with this same mentality. Although it’s called the Ivy League of Comedy, the comedians—of which there are at least 35—don’t all come from Ivy League backgrounds or degrees.

“When I started, I wanted it to be all Ivy League comedians, and I realized there were like, six of us, and it really wouldn't work.” After an emcee in D.C. issued them the misnomer, “Ivy League of Comedy”, Eli ran with it, as the name better represented the growing company than his original pick.

The Ivy League of Comedy’s front page presents a wide variety of these corporate venues, from “virtual comedy to liven up meetings” to golf, yacht & country clubs, and even the occasional synagogue single’s event.

“I thought if I set up an organization where I could work with better comics, I would basically be selling their resumes to get a comedy show together. I wanted something that sounded smart and sophisticated, and hopefully to do more corporate comedy shows.”

Eli doesn’t speak of his Penn career with a distinct fondness. He was shocked to discover that he didn’t reach the pinnacle of success as an 18–year–old Ivy admit, and instead found his peers studying night after night. “I would think, ‘why are you studying? You've already succeeded, you're at an Ivy League school, you're done, you've made it, you're gonna get a job.’ And I realized, it doesn't work that way; it’s a rat race I never really wanted to be a part of,” he says.

Two years into his time as a College student, Eli transferred into Wharton, for a largely inexplicable reason. “Pretty much everybody went into finance or advertising, but I wanted to go into marketing, and I wanted to be a product manager. There really didn’t seem to be companies recruiting on campus for that, so that's why I just ended up taking the job that came along.” 

So there Eli was, post–graduation, in an ill–fitting job and a well–fitting suit. “I didn't hate banking. I just didn't love it. I never woke up in the morning and said, ‘cool, I get to go to work today, [...] had I worked for nicer people, I would have been maybe more inclined to stick with it.”

Notably absent from his description of college life, until some prodding on my end, was an involvement with any kind of comedic scene. There were several factors cited for this, none being a dwindling interest in the subject itself. For one, it was a lack of reinforcement that comes with the daily woes of being a student occupied by matters of the then–present. As he put it, “Everything changes when you get to college.” 

Eli’s undergraduate career was demarcated by a handful of familiar humanistic interests, namely, excelling in his sport of choice, crew, and getting girls, an endeavor in which he claims to have seen little success. Another was a lack of options. “When I was at Penn, there was Bloomers and Mask and Wig and that sketch comedy," he explains. “There really wasn't stand–up comedy on campus.”

Eli, of course, refers to the ever–popular sketch–comedy groups that dominate campus comedy culture. The Mask and Wig Club, who just finished touring their 135th annual production, has never declined in popularity, even prospering after their 2022 move to open the club to all genders. Bloomers, the minority–gender (or, as they call themselves, ABCD: “Anybody But Cis Dudes”) counterpart to Mask and Wig, was founded one year before Eli entered his freshman year at Penn in 1979. Simply Chaos, the only non–sketch group on campus, didn’t come into existence until late 2002, and has maintained a quiet presence, with its relatively small body of stand–up performers.

“If somebody had planted the seed, I would have maybe tried it earlier. I don't know whether I would have succeeded or I would have failed miserably,” Eli confesses.

Valeria Bonomie Piñerua (C’25) knew she wanted to do sketch comedy before she even entered her freshman year at Penn. Inspired by her sister, who had experienced a great deal of fun and success with her comedic troupe at Emerson College, Valeria went to a preceptorial and decided to audition. During her freshman year, Mask and Wig and Bloomers were more strictly divided by gender. She’s been with the latter since joining, serving as head writer during the spring 2024 semester.

A Health & Societies major, Valeria’s professional future lies in public health and medical sociology. However, this decision didn’t come easily to her. Having poured hours of time and energy into Bloomers and comedy, Valeria heavily considered pursuing a career in entertainment but ultimately valued the tangible impact of healthcare work. She describes a unique feeling of fulfillment that she doesn’t necessarily get from comedy writing.

“It was a big debate for me for a long time,” she laughs. “They’re both things that I love ... I made many pros and cons lists.”

The first con that came to Valeria’s mind, though? “Job security, for sure.” 

It comes as no surprise that those in entertainment fear the instability of a market that has been so rife with problems, particularly in the age of AI. While job instability isn’t always the final deciding factor, it is undeniably powerful, especially in an environment where most of your peers are on pre–professional, six–figure career tracks. 

Involvement with comedy on campus comes in many forms. In the case of Jacqueline Davis (C’25), who performs stand–up with Simply Chaos, the comedic sphere didn’t reveal itself to her until much later. “The summer before my sophomore year, I watched ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ on Amazon Prime, and I was like, ‘that looks so fun and cool.’ So, I came back to school, I found Simply Chaos on Instagram, and I went and auditioned. That’s kind of been it ever since.”

Jacqueline, who is studying for her LSAT and is on a pre–law track, is plenty busy outside of stand–up, but she doesn’t let this get in the way of her amusement. She doesn’t have to work hard to justify it either.

“Having fun, having happy memories, and growing your own sense of personhood is just as real [as] and maybe even more important than any of the academic stuff that people are involved in,” she says.

Penn provides students with a unique opportunity to pursue their interests of all kinds. One cannot ignore the relevance of Penn’s influence when it comes to connecting students with resources and alumni that can make even the most difficult–to–attain job seem within reach.

“I feel like Penn definitely sets us up for success with the resources that we have access to market ourselves and to kind of navigate the professional world [of] comedy,” Jacqueline says. “This is very different from the college comedy world overall … I think the majority [of college students] are just doing it for fun.”  

A main appeal of the comedy club lies in the culture and the devotion. While they incorporate silliness and whimsy, they still operate with zeal and a need to justify a non–pre–professional direction. Such begs the question: is it worth pursuing something with no direct attachment to a career? Jacqueline and Valeria argue yes.

Valeria describes the Bloomers culture, saying, “We joke sometimes that we're in Philly to do Bloomers and school on the side. It's definitely very involved. It’s something that I prioritize […] but it's something that I love doing. I think a lot of people prioritize it because it's so fun. It's so fulfilling,” she says.

Jacqueline also sees a similarity between her comedic pursuits and the skills she must refine for her chosen career in law. “I think that a lot of the skills that I'm learning in doing stand–up comedy will translate really well into law. Whether it's actual comedy or not, I think a lot of the time giving my set is almost like giving a closing argument. I have to sway the audience, and I have to get them on my side. I have to deliver something successfully,” she says.

Here, professionality and fun seem to go hand–in–hand: not because they must, but because they do. It’s the love of the game.

This isn’t too different from how Shaun Eli derives a great deal of his comedy. He describes how he reshapes the stories of his everyday life in ways that make them more enjoyable to listen to. He commits himself to a way of thinking where his mundane interactions can later be turned into routines. “Being a comedian is looking at things sideways, so that if you interpret it differently, there's comedy,” Eli states.

Humor is so often used as a tool in communication, and it is a beautiful human trait; there’s a vulnerability in making a joke, as humor is subjective. Eli, for instance, strongly ascertains that the non–career–oriented humor, what he deems “junior high school humor” is far outside the realm of what he and the intelligent comedians he works with are capable of producing. In Eli’s eyes, the strength of the Ivy League comedian is his ability to appeal to and find humor within the professional mold. 

Valeria has a slightly different take. “I've never thought of our comedy being necessarily highbrow. I love silly humor. You know, we try to be smart sometimes, obviously, and make statements about the world where we see fit, but I don't think that us being at Penn necessarily makes us better at comedy.”

Maybe this just means that everyone can be a comedian. Can we all expand beyond the confines of humor as we understand it and appreciate it as an art?

We turn to Penn’s sketch–comedy troupes as an excellent example. Mask and Wig and Bloomers performances exist as spectacles of their comedic form, with months of preparation, costuming, props, and music going into them. They exist to entertain as exhibitions and are widely appreciated through this lens. However, this kind of comedic incubation is not the only way at Penn for students to pursue comedy. 

Still, Valeria recognizes the comedic limits on campus, echoing Eli’s experience of decades ago. “Here at Penn, we only have Mask and Wig and Bloomers, and up until recently, where you ended up was decided by your gender identity more than your style of comedy. I think Bloomers is great because it has so many different styles of comedy in it, but at the same time, there's eighty people in Bloomers. That could make up so many different comedy troupes and have a lot wider range of voices,” she says. “I would love to see more sketch comedy troupes on campus that highlight other people's voices and other people's opinions. I think that would be great for all of us.”

“I can't imagine a world where I'm not involved with comedy to some degree. I feel like you can always be more than one thing. You can do comedy for fun while having a different job that pays the bills,” Jacqueline says. “Life's too short to just explore one passion.”

For many, comedy has provided both a relief from academic stress and a form of artistic expression. Penn as a whole can foster a community that promotes pursuing your interest without shackling yourself to a career.

Shaun Eli’s example, though, is a testimony to the idea that devotion can give birth to surprising desires, including the want to step outside of a lucrative career for an unstable one later in life. Nowadays, it’s solely comedy that pays his bills. Sometimes, devotion finds you in strange places and at strange times: from a Prime Video series to a first date.