With little more than a week left before the 2018 Stern Follies, Heads of Content and graduating MBA students Ben Broderick and Rourke Willner still found the energy for plenty of quick quips and banter in the Sosnoff Café at NYU Stern. The big event, to be held on April 27 in NYU’s Skirball Center, has been a long time coming for the duo and their team—prep started last summer, and there has rarely been a reprieve since.
“We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t love it,” said Broderick. “And the enthusiasm around it inspires us, too.”
Follies takes the form of a multi-media comedy event. It is, at its core, a live production, with Saturday Night Live Digital Short-style videos played between the acts of the live show. Although Stern has produced themed Follies in prior years, having a cohesive story threaded throughout the production was a development first implemented in 2017’s show, based on The Wizard of Oz. This year, that format took on one of the most beloved Disney stories of all time: The Lion King.
“In our show, The Applyin’ King, Simba is a student who goes through some of the typical trials and tribulations of the recruiting process,” Willner said.
“We wrote original lyrics to five or six Lion King classics for your listening pleasure,” Broderick added.
The script for the 2017 show was written just five weeks before the spring performance. For this year’s show, Broderick and Willner drafted a script last summer.
“We didn’t want to do the 4-week crunch time script writing this year,” Willner said. “We really put the onus on ourselves to get the ball rolling as early as possible.” As early as possible, in their case, meant the next morning. No rest for the weary, it seems.
The Follies board voted to run with the script for The Applyin’ King—and then the next behemoth step in the process began.
“The first half of the year is focused on coming up with sketch ideas, brainstorming and playing the classic Stern circumstances out,” Willner said. The participation in this process spans across students at all stages of the MBA program, which means that some student participants, particularly those in their first year, haven’t been at Stern long enough to experience what these classic circumstances are actually like. Broderick, Willner, and the rest of the board work to guide that process during the fall semester.
This year, the number of participants dramatically increased. The Stern Follies’ social media and web presence seems to have helped spread the word. Willner attributed much of the increased participation to the team’s ability to connect with new students at orientation in Fall 2017.
“They allowed us to speak at LAUNCH—”
“Asked us to,” Broderick corrected.
“Right, they requested that we speak,” Willner laughed.
Once the brainstorming in the fall was complete, so began the crowdsourcing of content creation. The number of students who signed up to participate this year allowed the board to rely heavily on contributors to be largely self-sufficient during the production process.
“The second half of the year is about execution,” Willner said. “And, for the vast majority, this is their first time producing a show or doing comedy.”
“The joy of the brainstorm session is being able to come up with great ideas, while building a support system for execution,” Broderick said. “We give sketch ideas the green light, then the script, then the production itself. We help [contributors] when they need equipment, advice, or people to be in the sketches.”
The standard business school tropes fit organically into the program. Recruiting, in particular, lends itself to the format of Follies; dreaded hurdles like coffee chats and cover letters are “ripe for parody because it’s all a farce to begin with,” Willner joked. “The whole thing is kind of a charade in and of itself.”
The jokes can’t be as predictable as these b-school tropes, though.
“There are lots of internal monologues about the business school experience,” said Broderick. “We try to surface it through Follies—and the challenge is finding new ways to parody classic things,” Broderick noted.
Follies are a creative outlet that graduate business programs across the country put on. The tone of Stern’s production, however, is different than those of many other schools.
“Follies at some other schools can be downright dirty,” Broderick said. “They can be brutal and mean-spirited. It can feel more like a roast and can get pretty risqué and controversial.”
“Our goal is not to put anybody down—the people, the school, or the b-school experience,” Willner added. “The easy humor is making fun of other people. It’s harder to come up with fresh ideas that aren’t making fun of someone or some other institution.”
Such low-hanging fruit hasn’t been necessary at Stern. Instead of throwing cheap shots, the Follies board has focused their energy on crafting a more creative output—with puns on professor names (they promised not to “rag too much” on Dean Raghu Sundaram, for example), short live performances on campus throughout the year, and the occasional Barney costume.
“The easiest jokes are often the mean ones,” Broderick said. “And there’s a satisfaction in getting the jokes right without resorting to that.”
“One of the most rewarding things from last year’s Follies was how many graduating students felt like we captured their Stern experience,” Willner added. “We want to make sure that the spirit of Follies is upheld–if you want to complain, at least make it funny.”
Location, at least, helps the team come up with a wide array of sketch ideas.
“We get to make fun of the school and the city,” Willner said. “Being in New York—it’s unique.”
“Unique New York, huh?” Broderick joked, alluding to the classic tongue-twister and vocal warm-up.
The Follies team has been working throughout the year to increase their visibility and presence on campus. From wearing birthday hats and handing out cupcakes on March 28—in honor of Leonard N. Stern’s birthday, of course—to setting up a booth at Passport Day on April 26, the hope was to increase student involvement by keeping Follies top-of-mind.
“The process is exciting because we got to do it together,” Willner said. “The people who get most involved in it do so because they get to have fun with friends.
“We aim for some degree of sentimentality,” he continued. “[Follies] is one of the last large events of the year and [it] gives us the chance to celebrate and revere the time we spent together.”
One thing was for certain: the scale of this year’s show required a lot of work from a lot of different participants.
“We work a shitload on this but there have been a ton of people who have put in hours well beyond what they needed to,” Broderick said. “It couldn’t’ve gone this well without them.”
Willner had one more important note to include before they got back to work.
“We’re probably not going to need that Barney costume anymore after this,” he said. “So, if we could sell that—”
“Oh no way, man,” Broderick interjected, without hesitation. “I’m keeping that.”
Students can purchase tickets to the 2018 Stern Follies, The Applyin’ King, on CampusGroups. To learn more, visit the Follies Instagram (@sternfollies) or www.sternfollies.com.