he O’Connell House, Fulton 511, and the Vandy Cabaret Room have become the standard locales for comedy at Boston College and typically act as welcoming hosts for the four comedy groups on campus. Had you walked by what is now Stokes Lawn, but what was lovingly known as the Dustbowl until 2010, on a sunny day in 1992, however, you may have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of the early performances of a group that would eventually become a hegemon for humor at BC.
Although now a sketch comedy group with regular performances in front of the chalkboards of the Fulton 511 lecture hall, Hello…Shovelhead! started out in 1989 as small group of My Mother’s Fleabag rejects who would perform just about anything just about anywhere. One early performance that took place at a play done in conjunction with Contemporary Theatre, Love Me Tender, was a “hilarious look into the progression of a fresh college grad from a naïve lad to a cold, unscrupulous insurance salesman,” according to a recap of the event published in The Heights on Nov. 20, 1989. That same semester, Hello Shovelhead hosted its own fall show titled A Day in the Life of the Heights Review, a clip of which was featured in a promo video for Shovelhead’s 30th Anniversary Show.
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ob Karwin, founder of “Hello, Shovelhead” (punctuation has changed throughout the group’s 30 years) and BC ’89, and Tim Canty, co-founder and BC ’92, were both on hand for the performance, in which Canty “stole the show” and any role Karwin portrayed “caused the audience to roar,” according to writer Candace Coakley.
Comedy is a particularly hard industry to survive in because the humor often comes with an expiration date—what is funny in 1989 might not play so well with a 2019 audience. Luckily for Karwin and Canty, this was not the case when Shovelhead screened a video Karwin graciously filmed for the 30th Anniversary Show.
In the opening video, Karwin was candid about the rejection by Fleabag, the oldest comedy troupe at BC and coincidentally the oldest college comedy troupe in the nation. Karwin conducted interviews with numerous past members of the group, including two of his co-founders, Liza Jones, BC ’89, and Canty.
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eminiscing about her days in the comedy group, Jones brazenly opened up about being the only female in the group when it first started. When Karwin jokingly asked about the sexual harassment she faced—presumably manufactured for the bit—Jones gave a bold response that earned thunderous laughter from the crowd:
“All of it was just magical,” Jones said.
Canty took on the task of explaining the group’s peculiar name, which was inspired by the quirky greetings of his friend Mike. According to Canty, Mike would often greet him by addressing Canty as some random object, such as a doorknob or bottleneck. One day, that object was inexplicably a “shovelhead,” and the rest is history.
Although unintentional at the time, the “shovelhead” greeting is a fitting characterization of what Shovelhead does in the present: The comedy group digs deep into the foundations of life at BC to find the basis for its skits—well, at least for some of the skits. At its Surprise! We’re Moving. Fall Show last year, Shovelhead parodied topics that hit home for liberal arts students—such as a skit where Matt Wilson, MCAS ’21, and Sean McShane, MCAS ’19, butchered a performance of Hamlet—but also veered into wackier territory with an asinine skit about a relentless BuzzFeed reporter—the personal favorite skit of Laura Huepenbecker, a current director of Shovelhead and MCAS ’19.
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oing into the 30th Anniversary Show, however, Huepenbecker and co-director Rob McCrory, MCAS ’19, decided to widen the scope of the concepts covered by the sketches. Once the group had announced the date for its 30th Anniversary Show, dubbed Hello Shovelhead! Presents: Our 30th Anniversary Spooktacular, alums began to book their flights from various locations around the world.
“I see [the 30th Anniversary Show] as a nod to the alumni,” Huepenbecker said. “Just [a] thank you so much for putting in the work that makes it so fun for us to do now.”
This outlook translated to designing the show around humor that would be accessible to many age groups, not just college students. With the pressure on, the group’s current members went about the strenuous writing and selection process, which lasts months leading up to show. During a typical week, group members will spend up to eight hours writing potential sketches for shows. Shovelhead then comes together to read sketches for about three hours a week, a time during which members pitch their new sketches to the group.
“It’s a great structure for teaching people how to write—it’s like the most collaborative thing and that’s one of the keys to our success,” McCrory said.
Shovelhead greatly benefits from allowing all members to contribute to sketch writing—during any given show, various humor types ground different bits. Huepenbecker and McCrory agreed that “2 Apricots” is the weirdest sketch they’ve done. In the skit, someone simply goes to a store and buys two apricots. Huepenbecker described the humor behind that sketch as “very fifth-dimension subreddit.”
Others are grounded in common BC experiences, like not being able to find a table in Hillside. McCrory wrote the sketch and opted to feature a voiceover of the main character’s thoughts while he listens in on a girls’ conversation about guys.
“And then he [runs] into his friend who is like playing the Millenium Falcon, and he’s like, ‘I don’t want to sit with Kevin. He’s being weird over there,’” McCrory said.
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or the 30th Anniversary Show, Shovelhead elected to perform a riskier skit that threw back to the days of abundant musical theatre pieces. In October of 1996, Shovelhead performed one such piece to celebrate the inauguration of University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J. In the musical skit during the anniversary show, Sean McShane, MCAS ’19; Matt Wilson, MCAS ’21; and Zach Erickson, MCAS ’20, performed a song about a business meeting in a near-scatting style.
The group’s hilarity extends far beyond the BC bubble, however, and alumni have had post-grad success in the comedy business. Sascha Rothchild, BC ’98, writes for GLOW, a 2018 Netflix show about female wrestlers in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Kevin Allocca, a former director of Shovelhead and BC ’06, succeeded on the business side of the industry as the current Head of Culture and Trends at YouTube. As such, Allocca is tasked with tracking the website’s most popular videos.
One such format that often receives heavy viewership on YouTube is the “best of” compilations for popular shows like The Office or Arrested Development. The very same shows Allocca frequently sees are connected to his alma mater.
Tobias Fünke (David Cross), a flamboyant Daisy-Duke wearing and chronically unemployed actor on Arrested Development, introduces himself as “Dr. Tobias Fünke,” and goes on to detail his education, which apparently includes an undergraduate degree from the one and only Boston College, when (unsuccessfully) auditioning for yet another role during the pilot of the hit sitcom—or at least graduating from BC was supposed to be part of his character arc, according to IMDB, an admittedly inconsistent source. For the purposes of the final cut, Tobias’ post-grad degree from MIT is the only educational experience that is mentioned in his brief introduction.
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ilot name-drops and U.S. News college rankings aside, Arrested Development does in fact have ties to BC. Shovelhead alumna Bri LeRose, a former director of Shovelhead and BC ’11, was a writer on the popular show that ran from 2003 to 2019. It was Fleabag alumnus Amy Poehler, BC ’93, however, who inspired LeRose to break into the comedy scene at BC.
“My tour guide was in Fleabag and she was telling us stories about performing with Amy Poehler and all the fun things that she was doing, and I was like, ‘Wow, that sounds great,’” LeRose said in a 2010 profile in The Heights. “So I had actually intended to join Fleabag my freshman year. Then, I don’t know why, but I saw a Shovelhead banner, and I thought, ‘You know, I really like to write, too.’ I thought maybe that would be a better fit for me. So just sort of on a whim decided I would try out.”
Luckily, LeRose’s audition went much better than that of Tobias—LeRose went on to describe the moment she learned she had made the cut to be in Shovelhead as “one of the highlights of college,” despite the fact that the returning members of the group had woken her up in the middle of the night to deliver the good news. The tradition of disturbing the sleep of the new members in order to induct them into the group didn’t end in 2011, however, and Shovelhead members still make the midnight trek to Newton and Upper to give new members a warm welcome. This exciting introduction to Shovelhead is a fitting reward for the strenuous audition each member has to endure.
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he audition process spans two nights and starts off fairly easy, but progressively wears down prospective members. The first night consists of circle sessions where auditioners tell a little about themselves and their style of humor after being questioned by current members. This year, 65 people tried out for spots on the 13-person team, and only 12 prospects made it to the second round of auditions.
The pressure is on for the second night, and auditioners are asked to partake in improv games and edit a sketch. The number of people accepted into the group varies each year, but all new members undergo the same initiation ritual—one Huepenbecker and McCrory dubbed “Meet the Members Night” to avoid accusations of hazing.
“We wake up everyone in the group,” Huepenbecker said.
“It’s a late night,” McCrory added.
“And then we don’t go to bed,” Huepenbecker finished.
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few lost hours of sleep is a small price to pay for all that Shovelhead provides its members. Huepenbecker described the current members as “so weirdly close,” and the group has meant so much to her that she has even decided to get a tattoo of the Shovelhead logo.
“Part of the reason I am so excited about this tattoo is cause I’m like, ‘Ah, Shovelhead showed me what a true best-friendship is,’” Huepenbecker said.
Finding friends who can share a common sense of humor is not only important for Shovelhead, however. Huepenbecker and McCrory view comedic relief as a potential remedy for some of the stress that BC students can face during their time on the Heights.
“We all take ourselves so seriously,” Huepenbecker said. “This school—I love it—but I think that a little bit of comedic relief from people that just are not trying to take themselves seriously at all and provide something that is purely just for fun I think is meaningful. I think it’s worthwhile.”
Featured Image Courtesy of Hello…Shovelhead!