Alumna Danielson visits F&M, talks forging path, shattering glass ceiling

By Erin Moyer & Ellie Gavin || Senior Editor & Campus Life Editor

When Jen Danielson ‘95 was a senior at F&M, she was sure wanted to be in entertainment. What she less sure of was how to get there. She was an English major. She took her ambition to Professor of English, Padmini Mongia, and the two started work on her senior thesis: was there a glass ceiling for high-powered women behind-the-scenes in entertainment? Danielson cold-called Hollywood producer after Hollywood producer as part of her research. After graduation, she packed up the car, picked up with her college boyfriend (much to her mother’s displeasure), and moved to Los Angeles. As Danielson told F&M students on Thursday evening at her talk, “Women in Entertainment: Tackling the Glass Ceiling,” she had no money and no job. She found work at a temp agency and, as fate would have it, soon went to work for Jimmy Miller of what was then Miller-Gold, one of the industry’s biggest talent agencies. And for Danielson, what was once the topic of her senior thesis is now the topic of her day-to-day.

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Danielson eventually found her own way into the talent agency. Miller became a mentor. And it was through Miller that Danielson came to work as producer for Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, and more. Danielson’s work as producer garnered her two Peabody Awards. Moreover, it led to her current place: President and Head of Content for Above Average Productions, described as “the digital arm” of Lorne Michael’s production company, Broadway Video.

At Above Average Productions, Danielson’s day begins around 10 or 10:30 a.m. in keeping with her motto that “nothing’s funny before noon.” But Danielson’s day actually begins much sooner, at home with her daughter. Maybe a windstorm rolled through the night before, and she now has to realign their small patch of grass for the family’s dog. Maybe her daughter has an elaborate project to bring to school, and the two of them have to hail a cab. Whatever it may be, Danielson said, she normally has a full half-day of life before her day at work begins.

These days, Danielson says that her role at Above Average has grown to include many more business-aspects than ever before, noting that the cross-section between the business side and the creative side has become very deep. For Danielson, those business aspects, such as fundraising, come a little bit less naturally.

However, Danielson pointed out that business savvy alone is never enough. “I don’t think people like to give money to things when there’s no passion behind them,” Danielson said. The true heart of Above Average–and moreover, what sets it above competitors–is in pairing lesser-known talent with established talent and watching the pair take off. 

Danielson’s interest in entertainment was, in part, shaped by the television she grew up with. “I was very much a product of the sort of 80s television,” Danielson said. “I can go from Golden Girls to the emergence of Friends to Seinfeld. Roseanne also resonated in the early days.”

But as Danielson noted, traditional forms of comedy have evolved. Though comedy will always exist in half-hour segments and on film, Danielson discussed, the way viewers consume it has changed. Danielson laughed that she had watched Breaking Bad in maybe three weekends.

“Different pieces that are shareable in nature. It goes hand-in-hand with the social media that’s now involved,” Danielson said. “I don’t watch SNL on Saturdays, necessarily. I watch the five bits everyone told me to watch on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.”

Danielson said that shows like 30 Rock, which she produced, evidence this ongoing shift. “The way 30 Rock was written lends itself to that, too–there’s larger character development, yes, but there are vignettes that you can pull out,” Danielson said. “There’s the ten-second “I want to go to there.” You make enough of a thing that [the story’s] gotten shorter and shorter.”

Danielson noted that this new form of media consumption comes with both pros and cons. She notes that the shorter and shorter these bits become, the harder it is for content creators to have ownership over their work. People know the jokes, but they sometimes don’t even know where they are coming from.

Danielson advised current F&M students to take their education into their own hands and pursue their passion, even if they have to somewhat forge their own path. “The was I approached education was doing what I was told,” Danielson said.

She urges students to use the resources at F&M to tailor their education to what they actually care about, saying, “Anybody will let you do it. It’s such a supportive environment here.”    

To students who feel as though the opportunities they want or need are not available to them, Danielson has very simple advice: create the opportunity yourself, and put yourself and your hard work out there.

“I told the improv troupe this, too. If you’re doing things in a very small theatre, what you make is only available to that small audience. There are other ways to get your things out there,” she said. “The same goes for writing. People should submit outside of their immediate world and put themselves out there. Everyone responds more to something tangible than something’s idea. It’s all just making things.”

Senior Erin Moyer is a Senior Editor. Her email is emoyer1@fandm.edu. Sophomore Ellie Gavin is the Campus Life Editor. Her email fgavin@fandm.edu.

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