“American Studies? What are you going to do with that?” wondered just about everyone I informed of my selected major. To shut them up, I’d add that I was doubling in History as well…which often elicited the same question. The real answer was “I don’t know,” which was hard because – like most college students – I was too smart not to know things back then. That ambiguity, however, is exactly what makes American Studies such an ideal area of study. Because it touches on a variety of disciplines – history, gender studies, sociology, cultural anthropology – and can be applied to wherever your path leads you. So what did I do with that? Well…
The most important thing I learned was how to tell a story and convince someone it’s true. I was expected to do my own research and to make class presentations packed with evidence to support whatever strange notion I had about 60s counter-culture or women in the Civil War. It all came down to writing and speaking well. If you can do that, you will be prepared to tackle the demands of any career you might later pursue.
In my final year, Law School seemed like the way to go, but after an internship at the Fairfax County Public Defender, I discovered I liked working much more than school. My first after college was as a staff writer for a small entertainment magazine. It wasn’t Woodward and Bernstein, but it was (technically) journalism and that’s not much different than writing a research paper.
One of the many people I profiled was a television writer and he liked my work enough that to help me obtain a job as an assistant for an executive at Cartoon Network. One of my duties there entailed writing critiques of pitches and scripts we received, not unlike writing book reviews in American Studies. After reading stacks of scripts, I gathered enough hubris to venture into screenwriting myself. Although script is entirely unlike a research paper, both require you to seek out a topic of interest; find a take on it; and build a story that pays off your thesis/logline. The verbal pitch is not unlike a speech… or, if things are going badly, a debate.
True to my educational roots, my first feature film script is about American culture, specifically our relationship with Christmas. Mad Men, Masters of Sex, and Boardwalk Empire can be viewed as American Studies television series, each created by people who want to take a magnifying glass to a particular time in our cultural history.
If you don’t know what you want to do, you’ll figure it out eventually. In the meantime, it doesn’t hurt to learn how to tell a story.
— Todd Casey has written television shows for Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Marvel, Warner Brothers, and Disney. His first feature, ‘Krampus’ was released November 25, 2015 from Legendary Pictures.