Meet Emerson College’s L.A. Mafia

With a new $85 million L.A. mothership, the Boston liberal arts college known for its illustrious alumni aims to put even more of a stamp on Hollywood

For an East Coast liberal arts college with only 4,300 students, Emerson College has a surprising number of high-profile alumni entrenched in Hollywood. Established in Boston in 1880 as a school of oratory, the communications and arts college has had a satellite campus in Burbank since the 1980s. With the recent debut of the institution’s futuristic $85 million Sunset Blvd. mothership, dubbed Emerson Los Angeles and designed by architect Thom Mayne, the school aims to put even more of a stamp on Hollywood.

Past Emerson grads include pioneering television creator Norman Lear (’44), monologist Spalding Gray (’65), SCTV stalwart Andrea Martin (’69), and surreally laconic comedian Steven Wright (’78). In another decade or two, the newest crop of Emerson grads will likely have a roster as accomplished as the list that follows.

  • Actor, director, and the artist formerly known as “The Fonz” Henry Winkler went to the Yale School of Drama after graduating from Emerson in 1967—with a lot of “Ayyy”s. 
  • Every time you can’t get those ominous notes from the score of Game of Thrones and American Horror Story out of your head, think of music editor David Klotz (class of ‘94).
  • Television host and WWE enthusiast Maria Menounos (‘00) is well known for going the Extra mile.
  • Jennifer Coolidge (‘85) was a member of the Groundlings and appeared in filmmaker Christopher Guest’s ensemble (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) in addition to her more recognizable turns in American Pie and Legally Blonde.
  • How filmmaker P.T. Anderson’s two semesters at Emerson studying English literature shaped Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, The Master, and the forthcoming Inherent Vice is as enigmatic as some of his characters.
  • Seth-Grahame Smith (class of ‘98), who wrote Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, must have received a different American history syllabus than Ken Burns.
  • After graduating from Emerson in 1979, sharp-tongued ranter and actor Denis Leary, who created the Emerson Comedy Workshop, stayed on to teach comedy writing for five years and in 2005 was awarded an honorary doctorate.
  • Actress Gina Gershon, who transferred from Emerson to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, would be directed by fellow Emersonian Andy Wachowski (who left before graduating) in Bound and later appeared with Denis Leary in the TV series Rescue Me.
  • In 1982 Mr. Show co-creator David Cross attended one semester at Emerson, probably in a state of arrested development.
  • Actress and director Judyann Elder (‘67), the first recipient of the college’s Carol Burnett Award at her graduation, later won both a NAACP Trailblazer Award and a Distinguished Alumni Award from her alma mater.
  • Will & Grace executive producer and class of ’85 grad Max Mutchnick’s success enabled him to endow the Campus Center that bears his name.
  • Comedian and actress Laura Kightlinger (’86) wrote for Roseanne, Will & Grace, Saturday Night Live, and the 2006-7 IFC series The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman in which she also starred.
  • MTV Networks president Doug Herzog graduated from Emerson in 1981, the same year that the music channel he would later oversee premiered.
  • Former Tonight Show host Jay Leno, class of ‘73, majored in speech therapy but did most of his talking at the comedy club he founded on campus.
  • Still have pictures of you or one of your pals sporting a “Rachel” haircut? Blame it on Kevin S. Bright (class of ‘76), Emmy-winning executive producer of Friends—and founding director of Emerson College’s Los Angeles branch.