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History

Scott Sonneborn ’93

Writer and Humanitarian

Compared to some of the other job descriptions on this website, the title of “writer” is kind of vague. It can mean a lot of things. Which is why—as a guy who has written for Beavis and Butt-head, Tom Green, Superman, and Batman, as well as a circus for Ringling Bros. and about a hundred other things—I use it. 

(As for my credentials as a humanitarian: I have two preschool-aged boys, and—despite the ketchup on the floor and the chalk on the TV—more often than not, I’m actually very nice to them. So I don’t think I need to say any more about that.) 

I definitely have Princeton to thank for a writing career that has taken me from MTV to MAD Magazine to Disney, and from TV shows to books. Not just because one of my instructors got me a summer internship in New York that led more or less directly to working at DC Comics after college. And not because of the campus literary magazine with the rather presumptuous title of The Final Say that my friends and I founded (in retrospect, the title was very prescient, at least in the sense that the first issue was the final one). And not because my time living among a group of wild and woolly freshmen as a resident adviser turned out to be good training for when I ran away with the Ringling Bros. Circus for several months while writing the show. 

Historical training

Rather, I think my A.B. in history (with a certificate in American studies) deserves much of the credit. During my time as a history major, the book that made the biggest impression on me wasn’t about a specific era or event. It was E. H. Carr’s What Is History?, a book of historiography that talks about getting inside the heads of authors and thinking about why they are making the arguments they are. I found that fascinating. I didn’t know it at the time, but learning how to look at things from other points of view—even if they were very different from mine—turned out to be very useful training in getting inside the heads of characters as diverse as Superman and Tom Green. 

Just as important were the requirements of my major. Or rather, the fact that (back in the 20th century, at least) the requirements weren’t so onerous that I couldn’t afford to take lots of other kinds of classes that had nothing to do with American history. 

Or America. I took German and studied abroad, spending four months in Düsseldorf and Berlin. I also took a playwriting class from a young Tony Kushner—then a couple of years away from his Pulitzer Prize-winning success with Angels in America. He’s the one who got me that internship I mentioned before. 

Juggling roles

Switching from classes in American history to German to playwriting to anthropology to drawing to film criticism gave me the ability (and the confidence) to tackle things I knew little about and figure out how to wrap my head around them.

Which is exactly what I do now: Each year I write between 10 and 20 different books and episodes of TV shows—switching from Beavis to Batman to something brand new and then back again. 

Even if you aren’t planning on working with circus clowns and superheroes, it seems to me that what I learned as an American history major at Princeton is useful for any career that requires you to continually master new skills and take on roles that are fresh and challenging. 

Which I think describes pretty much every career you might follow after Princeton. As well as the humanitarian work you’ll do at home. 

Sonneborn-Scott