Investment-banker-turned-comedy-writer Tom Thriveni ’10 on the improv class that changed his life
Seeking creative release from his day job at a private equity firm in Boston, Tom Thriveni ’10 booked a spot at a local improv class. Three hours dissolved, and with it, his motivation to continue pursuing a career in finance.
“That class lit something so visceral, so pure in me,” said the alum, who now writes monologues for James Corden on the CBS franchise, The Late Late Show.
He decided on the way home that night to move to New York City “no matter what” as soon as his two-year contract with the firm ended in 2014.
While Tom grew up consuming late-night television shows with Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert, as well as NBC’s Saturday Night Live, he had always pushed away his interest in comedy. As the son of hardworking parents who immigrated to the United States from India in their twenties, Tom said he was raised with a highly risk-averse mindset when it came to setting his career goals.
“Self-doubt started from an early age for me,” said the writer, who went to high school in Salisbury, North Carolina. “Even as a Morehead-Cain Scholar, part of me still struggled with the tendency to compare myself to others.”
It wasn’t until the summer after his sophomore year that he chose to ignore those deep-rooted fears by applying to do his Morehead-Cain summer internship with Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (an opportunity offered by Jon Benson ’06, who was a field segment producer on the show at the time).
“I would have never taken the risk of doing an internship in New York City with one of my favorite shows alone, but the Foundation gave me the opportunity to say to myself, ‘This is a dream for you; go for it,’ and then helped me do it,” said Tom, who graduated from UNC with an economics major.
Yet even after an energizing summer on set, he reverted to following what he thought would be a safe career path in investment banking after graduation from Carolina. After a few personally unfulfilling years and a period that also included a traumatic brain surgery, Tom developed an “unquenchable thirst” to return to the world of late-night television.
“The fear of jumping off my path and having things not work out, that suddenly seemed like nothing compared to the regret I’d have if I didn’t do it,” he said.
Using the strength of the Morehead-Cain Network, Tom contacted Dave Bernath ’89, then the executive vice president of programming and multi-platform strategy for Comedy Central. Tom recalled the shock of hearing back from the digital media entrepreneur (and future general manager of the entertainment company) that same day.
“He emailed me back within ten minutes and said, ‘Let’s talk on the phone tomorrow,’” Tom said.
Through Dave’s mentoring and a short series of interviews later, Tom landed a job as a researcher on CC’s The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore in 2014. After two years working on the show, he moved to Los Angeles to be a writer’s assistant for James Corden before being promoted to his current position in the fall of 2018.
Even after his most recent successes, Tom said he still experiences self-doubt from the inevitable and ever constant rejection that most comedy writers must face as part of the craft. But he’s learned a few ways of coping along the way.
He advised scholars and fellow alumni to seek out different perspectives and to be vulnerable with people they trust, to “check the facts” of one’s own life to appreciate past accomplishments and expertise garnered, and to learn to appreciate the joy of the creative process.
“We focus on titles and degrees, but in the end, it’s about your skill set, which is something that no one can ever take away from you,” he said. “When you’re in the trenches with someone else, or banging your head against a wall to fix something and, finally, you do because you spent hours of practice on it, that’s what feels like flying.”
During the COVID-19 quarantine, Tom said that in his free time, he is keeping busy by writing a pilot series about his stint working in mergers and acquisitions, trying his hand at playing the guitar, and experimenting more with cooking.
Tom’s talk was the second installment of Morehead-Cain’s Virtual SEVEN Alumni Speaker Series. The next event is on Wednesday, May 13, at 4:00 p.m. EDT with George Hodgin ’09, a former Navy SEAL officer and now an entrepreneur with a focus on cannabis medical research. George will give advice about charting a non-traditional path as you pursue your passions.