Comedy’s central

Even boos are good news for Jeff Hanna.

By Allison Knab (Biology '97)
Hanna.

Hanna.

For Jeff Hanna (Spanish ’97), his low point as a comedian came last December, when he got booed off a stage in Sacramento. “Four minutes in, I knew the crowd hated my guts,” he recalls.  But Hanna wasn’t disheartened by getting the hook. “I make a choice as an artist and as a comedian to do material I think is edgy,” Hanna said.  Getting booed “reaffirmed what I’m doing.” 

If Hanna needs proof that his decision to stick with material that makes some people uncomfortable is the right one, the last year should be evidence enough: signing with renowned entertainment manager Barry Katz of New Wave Entertainment, acting in his first movie, appearing on “The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn” and taking meetings with Comedy Central. 

Though Hanna says he always thought stand-up might be something he’d be good at, it wasn’t until he’d been through one investment banking position at Merrill Lynch, one busted dot.com and one aborted attempt at life as a screenwriter — pairing up with Matt Leonetti (Commerce ’97), his fraternity brother and former roommate at Virginia — that he decided to give it a go in the fall of 2001.  Since then, he’s put all of his efforts into stand-up, even moving from Los Angeles to New York City for a time to get access to the comedy clubs there.  He’s performed at locales such as the Comedy Store and Hollywood Improv in Los Angeles and the Comedy Cellar and New York Comedy Club in New York City. 

One of Hanna’s first breaks originated with fellow Wahoo David Koplan (Foreign Affairs ’93), who owns his own production company in Los Angeles. “When I first came out here I didn’t know anybody, and no one went out of their way to be helpful,” explained Koplan, who was excited to get a chance to help a fellow Virginia alumnus. He put Hanna in touch with New Wave Entertainment.  At the same show where Hanna showcased for his new management, he was picked up by the Late, Late Show.

Hanna appreciates how fortunate he is.  “I have moved extraordinarily quickly through the ranks,” he said.  “I don’t know of any other comic at my level that is headlining.”

Despite his love of stand-up, Hanna’s aware that it takes spots on television and in the movies to drive audiences to see him.  “You have to be on a parallel path,” he said, “developing comedy and getting your face in front of everyday Americans.”  To that end, Hanna spent time last fall in Edmonton, Alberta, filming the film horror send-up “Santa’s Slay.” He may soon appear on Comedy Central’s “Premium Blend,” is working with the channel to develop sketch characters for the spoof “Reno 911!” and is developing his own show for Comedy Central.  “It’s in secret development,” he said, laughing, giving away only that it’s a comedy set within the National Basketball Association. 

Regardless of his forays into movies and television, it is still live comedy that gives Hanna the most satisfaction.  “I think stand-up is the riskiest of all entertainment arts,” he said. “You’re out there totally on your own as writer, director, stage manager, prop man — but it is one of the only performing arts that gives you instantaneous gratification.”