When CJ Hunt found himself dressed as an old woman and cracking jokes on the stage of Harris Theater during the winter of ninth grade, things were not going according to plan. He had hoped to play varsity basketball that season, but when he didn’t make the team he decided to try his hand at acting for the first time. He lost a varsity letter, but in comedy, he found a calling.
CJ arrived at Fay in the fall of 1997 as a seventh grade boarding student from Long Island. “Middle school hadn't been going well for me,” CJ recalls. “I was a skater kid who was staying out late and blowing off school work. Eventually, my dad presented me with the choice: military school or boarding school. I looked at the Fay admissions catalog and thought, ‘well, this looks better than military school!’”
Fay offered CJ a new kind of educational opportunity. “I had never been in a place where ideas mattered and where it was cool to have something to say about a novel,” he recalls. “Fay is where I developed my work ethic.” He recalls that former faculty member Michael Beck took him under his wing and helped him to focus on becoming a leader. The skater jeans disappeared, and CJ got involved with student government, representing his class on the Student Council and serving as a White Team Color President.
After Fay, CJ went to Milton Academy, where his passion for comedy took root. For his senior project, he did an independent study on improv and sketch comedy and attended rehearsals and shows at Boston’s Improv Asylum. At Brown University, CJ majored in Africana Studies and was a member of Brown’s improv comedy group IMPROVidence. However, he also discovered another passion that would alter his career trajectory: teaching. During college, CJ worked with Summerbridge, an academic enrichment program for underserved middle school students. “My dream was to be on Saturday Night Live, but in college I was tutoring these students who didn’t have half the opportunities I had. All of a sudden, comedy didn’t seem like a career with much purpose.”
He felt the pressure to make a choice. “My social life was all about comedy, and my academic life was all about racial injustice in the United States.” Weighing the two career paths, teaching felt like the more meaningful option, so he signed on for a two-year stint with Teach for America in New Orleans after graduation.
The classroom taught CJ some hard lessons. “I think there is often a difference between what you are talented at and where you find purpose. Teaching gave him a purpose, but he quickly realized that he was unprepared for the task. “As a performer, I cared deeply about whether the students liked me, and as any great teacher will tell you, wanting to be liked is a fatal quality in the classroom,” he says.
But as CJ finished his second year of teaching, the improv games he was using as bonding activities in the classroom blossomed into a new career leading an improv comedy program after school. Those after-school programs reintroduced him to his love for comedy, and he began to lean into building a career as a writer and performer. “When I stopped being a classroom teacher, it felt like a failure,” he says, “but it’s important to recognize when you are not good at something, to look at where you struggle, and to listen to your gut about what does excite you.” CJ followed his instincts back to comedy and carved out a career where his talent and purpose could be united.
Since making comedy his full-time job, CJ has performed in sketch shows across the country. In 2016, he moved to New York for his first TV job as a staff writer for A&E’s Black and White
. Since then, he has been a field producer for BET’s The Rundown with Robin Thede
and a regular host of The Moth storytelling show
. He is currently a field producer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah
and is also directing a documentary about the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans.
Finding humor in topics this weighty may seem like an impossible task, but CJ notes that even in the saddest stories, there’s a built-in opportunity for satire. “When people reach a boiling point, comedy can be the pressure valve. When you’re feeling helpless, comedy makes you feel less alone. It captures the absurdity of those who refuse to change in the face of facts. As someone who once thought I had to choose between comedy and social justice, I feel incredibly grateful that my job is to come into work every day and use my comedy brain to tell stories that I think are important.”Read an excerpt from CJ's Commencement remarks here