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History

Matthew C. Iseman ’93

Stand-Up Comedian and Television Host

When I got to Princeton, I had no idea what I wanted to study because I had no idea what I wanted to be. Getting to college had always seemed like the ultimate goal rather than a steppingstone toward lifelong pursuits. So I embraced the “liberal arts” and tried everything: literature, biology, history, geology, politics, psychology, and even economics. (I’m not stupid, I figured money might be important at some point in my life.) I spent my first two years at Princeton enjoying the college experience, studying whatever subject sounded interesting at the time, playing sports, and being social—which is a polite way of saying I got pretty good at beer pong.

Then my brother, who was two years ahead of me at Princeton, graduated and moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to work construction and ski—that is, to figure out what to do next. And I realized, at some point, I, too, would have to decide what to do with my life. So I sat down the summer after my sophomore year and thought long and hard about my future. I came up with medicine: I liked the sciences and the idea of helping people. On paper, it was the perfect profession for me.

History comes alive

Princeton doesn’t have pre-professional majors such as pre-law or pre-med. So, while I signed up for the prerequisite classes to get into medical school, I still had the option of choosing my major in any field. I knew I’d study biology and chemistry for the rest of my life as a doctor, so I decided to pursue something outside of the sciences. Choosing my major came down to which classes I had enjoyed the most: history. The lectures never felt didactic, they felt like stories coming to life. The professors could take a seemingly arcane subject such as English Constitutional history and make it feel alive and relevant.

I bring up that particular subject because my professor, William Jordan, truly stood out to me. Every week I looked forward to his lectures the way my classmates looked forward to episodes of Melrose Place; he wove intrigue and personality into the story of English common law and the roots it laid for our modern society.

I ended up concentrating on modern American history, but when it came time to choose my thesis adviser, I requested Professor Jordan. He laughed and said he had no idea what went on in modern America, but I insisted, because I wanted him to help me tell the story of nuclear proliferation in Cold War America.

He finally relented. Writing my senior thesis represented the greatest academic challenge I faced in college, but Professor Jordan made it the most enjoyable. He challenged me not to simply recite supporting facts, but to craft an argument in a compelling narrative leading inexorably to my thesis. I ended up getting an A. I bring it up only because you rarely have a chance to brag about your thesis grade and also because the experience of writing that thesis shaped me. 

From med school to stand-up

I went on to medical school at Columbia and, shortly after graduating, realized that medicine wasn’t my passion, so I hung up my stethoscope to become a stand-up comedian.

Yes, you may be wondering where the history comes in. Be patient.

When I left medicine to pursue comedy, the hardest part was telling my dad, a doctor and a Princeton grad himself (’61). But I will never forget the first words out of his mouth, “Life is short, do what makes you happy.”

So I took that advice and moved out to Hollywood. Since then, I’ve toured around the world as a stand-up comedian and am currently hosting Clean House and American Ninja Warrior. Don’t worry, the history part is coming. 

When I started at Princeton, I never envisioned a career in entertainment, nor the path I would take to get there. But, as I look back on college, I realize that the most important thing I learned majoring in history was how to tell a story: how to take material, analyze it, formulate an opinion, and express it persuasively and concisely (if you consider 100 pages concise ... there were a lot of footnotes). And that’s essentially what I’m doing as a comic and an entertainer.

Now I realize parents might not like the idea of sending a child to college and medical school so he could tell jokes, but, for me, I wouldn’t change a minute of it. Princeton emphasizes independent study, encouraging us not just to follow a curriculum, but to learn how to create our own questions and then answer them. Essentially, Princeton taught me to forge my own path. 

So, for anyone entering Princeton considering what to study: Rather than choosing a major based on your presumed future career, choose one that excites you today. The passion with which you pursue your studies is the most important thing you can have. I don’t recall many of the facts or figures I learned at Princeton, but every day I use the skills I learned in pursuit of that education. Since no discussion of history would be complete without a footnote and a historical quote from some wise man, I will leave you with this. Remember: “Life is short, do what makes you happy.”*

*My dad, January 1999

Iseman-Matthew