'Pitt Tonight' and Tomorrow: Emmy-nominated Student Production Makes a Lasting Mark

This story, written by Cristina Rouvalis, is excerpted and adapted from the summer 2017 issue of Pitt Magazine

When Jesse Irwin walked into Professor Robert Clift’s offi­ce in September 2015, he was a kid with a crazy idea.

“I really want to start an on-campus late-night talk show,” Irwin said matter-of-factly.

A late-night talk show? Seriously?

An assistant professor of fi­lm studies, Clift was taken aback by the student’s ambitious plan. But instead of saying, “Are you kidding?” he offered to contribute production equipment and otherwise help however he could.

Three months later, a few hours before the ­first live performance of “Pitt Tonight” on Dec. 14, 2015, Clift couldn’t believe the high-energy atmosphere when he walked onto the set. Students carrying walkie-talkies. Writers running jokes. A slick logo portraying a moon bisecting the Cathedral of Learning.

But the biggest surprise of all was Irwin himself. As soon as he stepped onto the stage of the Studio Theatre of the Cathedral, he let out a primal scream, his arms helicoptering to the drawn-out notes of the trumpets in the house band. Students in the audience roared back.

Looking dapper in a black suit, Irwin was loose and breezy as he cracked jokes about pre-med majors, the house band  and himself as an improbable late-night show host.

Clift watched the whole thing unfold from the audience. As a documentarian, he had done a film on standup comics and knew what he saw. Irwin had the rare natural timing of a comedian.

What started as a crazy idea quickly became a history-making first at Pitt, with a student turned star. Eleven episodes later, Pitt Tonight is one of the most popular student-run productions anywhere. It quickly attracted 3,500 Facebook followers, and members of the Pitt community line up once a month throughout the academic year to get into the free show, taped live on Sunday evenings and edited for broadcast via the internet.

Pitt Tonight is more than a cherished campus fixture. It has won national credibility as a finalist for two Emmys from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Mid-Atlantic Chapter: for Student Production in the arts and entertainment/cultural affairs division and for Irwin in the Talent category.

On April 15, Irwin stepped onto the stage to host the Pitt Tonight season finale, leaving behind a legacy that he will pass onto a successor, Andrew Dow, a film studies major. At the time, the 23-year-old was a senior (he since has earned a bachelor’s degree in film studies).

Irwin says he wouldn’t have been able to transform himself into a comedy show host without his 70-plus person staff, consisting mostly of students. “They make every aspect of the show twinkle. Without them, I would just be a weird kid standing on stage in the dark.”

That team is a microcosm of the campus. Engineering and creative writing majors hash out jokes in their own writers’ room. Other students book talent, operate cameras, work the teleprompter. Sometimes editors stay up all night to go through hours of footage to put the latest show onto the “Pitt Tonight” website.

“Jesse built 'Pitt Tonight' from nothing to something huge and awesome,” says Noah Wilps, a junior film and fiction writing major and staff member of the show. “He brings everyone along with him.”

Jesse being Jesse — something his staff members always say — he didn’t stop at the success of his own show. He became an activist for student-generated media at Pitt by proposing the merger of Pitt Tonight with University of Pittsburgh TV (UPTV). The UPTV station that relaunched this year will be home to six new student-produced shows, including “Trying to Make Sketch Happen” (a sketch comedy show) and “The Bully Pulpit” (political think pieces).

“When you have someone pull you up, the best thing you can do is the same for the next person,” Irwin says. “As a student, it’s your job to leave the place you love better than you found it.”

Keep reading about Jesse Irwin and the future of “Pitt Tonight” in Pitt Magazine’s summer 2017 issue.