UCLA Spotlight


Jack Rothman, Social Welfare

  • By Stan Paul
  • Published Sep 1, 2003 8:00 AM

For Jack Rothman, comedy is a gift. In fact, on his 75th birthday, the professor emeritus from the School of Public Policy and Social Research received a certificate for a comedy class from his children.

“I guess they figured if I’m going to be telling jokes, I might as well learn how to do it better,” says Rothman, who has continued to take classes and work on his material. Starting with that initial lesson, the retired teacher and researcher has remained a diligent student of the trade and has already made appearances at the Improv, the Ice House and the Comedy Store.

Describing his comedy as “not crude or blue, but somewhat cerebral,” Rothman uses a broad range of his own experiences as joke fodder — from serving on university committees and reading student evaluations to searching fruitlessly for a simple polo shirt with a pocket in Los Angeles.

“Humor has always been a core part of my makeup,” Rothman explains. “As a university professor, I put that in the background. As emeritus, I can move it forward. All my life, one of my biggest kicks has been making people laugh.”

Before diving into comedy, Rothman enjoyed a distinguished academic career that included publishing some 25 books and consulting for organizations such as the Los Angeles County Children and Family Services Department. Rothman earned his Ph.D. emphasizing social psychology from Columbia University in 1960 and spent more than 20 years on the faculty at the University of Michigan. He was a professor at UCLA from 1984 until his retirement in 1994.

Wearing his trademark cap on stage, Rothman has made his teaching background a plus as he faces critical audiences. “Jack has a hilarious sense of humor, with the charm of another age,” says his comedy coach, Greg Dean. Like his younger classmates, Rothman has had to endure the difficult process of falling down and getting back up, a trial by fire for any stand-up comedian. “Jack is an amazing guy; he takes feedback well,” Dean says.

One routine that drew big laughs at a gig at the Comedy Store’s Belly Room centered on what Rothman calls his “language converter,” a hypothetical device that can change foul language into gentler, even poetic messages. With a wry smile, Rothman explained that a coarse remark he heard after a cell phone went off in a public place might, with the help of the language converter, become: “Kind sir, full of grace, put your phone in a private place.” Common courtesy, he pointed out to the audience, has seemingly disappeared. “What this country needs is a department of homeland civility,” he quipped.

He may be a little older than the average comedian, Rothman admits, but “someone has to replace George Burns.” Pointing out that Burns stayed in the business until he was 100, Rothman figures he has a long career ahead of him.

In addition to his stand-up, Rothman continues to write and published "Hollywood in Wide Angle" in 2004. The book offers a glance into the film-making process and its sociological implications through interviews with over 30 of Hollywood's biggest directors. - (Updated 1/07)