HomepageEnglish and Creative WritingWatson Fellowship Winner Tommy Armstrong ’20: Travels and Reflections

Watson Fellowship Winner Tommy Armstrong ’20: Travels and Reflections

“After three attempted muggings, I am quite aware of my surroundings everywhere I go. I’m curious how else I have changed.” - Tommy Armstrong

     “After three attempted muggings, I am quite aware of my surroundings everywhere I go. I’m curious how else I have changed,” says Tommy Armstrong, an Ursinus alumnus who graduated in 2020. During his senior year at Ursinus, Armstrong was selected as a Watson Fellow. The Ursinus website states that the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is a “one-year grant for purposeful, independent exploration outside the United States, awarded to graduating seniors nominated by one of 41 partner institutions.”

     Armstrong graduated with a major in English and minors in Film and Creative Writing. He was one stagecraft class away from a minor in Theater and says, “If they had the Creative Writing major when I was there, you could bet I’d be one of those.”

     After a delay in his travels due to Covid-19, Armstrong began his journey around the world in April 2023. Armstrong’s trip included traveling to cities in nine countries, including Barcelona, Spain; Vienna, Austria; Istanbul, Turkey; Cape Town, South Africa; Liverpool, England; Berlin, Germany; Tokyo, Japan; Auckland, New Zealand; and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

     Published in The Grizzly in April 2020, an article written by Kevin Leon ’20 followed the announcement that Armstrong had been awarded a Watson Fellowship. In the article, Armstrong is quoted describing his project, stating that he would be studying “the intersection between comedy and hardship and see where the comedic impulse comes from around the world and how it’s affected by cultural norms and events.” Additionally, Armstrong is quoted saying that he wanted to “examine comedy as a coping mechanism for depression and [see] if that is a global trend…[by] shadowing improv troupes and comedy groups around the world.”

     While having a lot of appreciation for improv, during his travels Armstrong became obsessed with standup comedy. Everywhere that he went, Armstrong took pictures of every comedian at comedy shows to share with them afterward. Armstrong says, “My mom would always take pictures of all the athletes when we did sports growing up to share with everybody and I thought that was a really meaningful and lasting way to support people in what they love to do, and my mom let me use her SmugMug account, so.”

     Watching so much standup inspired Armstrong to start doing it himself, and he fell in love with it. He had his first two shows on April 24, 2023, and has performed over 150 times since. Recording each of his sets, Armstrong has been able to see the astonishing changes in his performances. Armstrong says, “I’ve read recently you need 10,000 hours of practice in a discipline to reach your potential in it, and for comedians who are vying for 5-minute spots at weekly open mics, you can imagine how much room there is for growth for almost every comedian.” He adds, “I know being a comedian is part of who I am now, and wherever I am in life, I will find my way onto a stage.”

     During his independent exploration, Armstrong interviewed approximately 50 comedians around the globe for 30 to 90 minutes. Armstrong tried not to approach the project with “rigid predetermined ideas about the connection between comedy and depression,” but with almost every comedian he told about the project, “it seemed to light up a well of ideas in their mind about the relationship between the two.” Armstrong notes, “It was funny. They seemed to know what my project was about before I did.” Working as a digital communications specialist at Ursinus, including journalism work and video production, allowed Armstrong to develop interviewing skills that paid off during his conversations with comedians. At this point in time, Armstrong is editing clips of each comedian to post, and he is creating transcripts from the interviews with the goal of writing a book about comedy and depression.

     During his time as a student at Ursinus, Armstrong started the habit of posting a new comedy video every week. This year abroad, he has been able to post five days a week due to the increased speed of editing standup clips, and his audiences have grown much larger on TikTok and especially Instagram. Armstrong says, “Instagram is especially cool because my content is reaching comedians who I admire and am a fan of and some of those comedians are following me back, sharing my stuff, and reaching out to me. That has been unreal.” When Armstrong was in Berlin, just six months into his standup journey, the comedian Todd Glass reached out to him. “I just woke up from a nap and thought I was dreaming,” says Armstrong. Since then, Glass has been a very kind supporter of Armstrong, with Armstrong asking Glass for advice and asking him to participate in his Watson project as an interviewee.

     The Watson Fellowship has allowed Armstrong to carry out his project, but it has also given him an opportunity to grow as a person and to learn more about himself. This led to Armstrong making a discovery relating to his own personal relationship between emotions and joke-writing. “My jokes aren’t necessarily reflections of my feelings, a lot of them are just the funniest thoughts that I had in a particular situation, reading, in the shower, or while eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” says Armstrong. One thing that he has learned is that when he is experiencing sadness he is not interested in creating comedy, stating, “I assumed that because comedy was such a joyful release from sadness that my mind would gravitate to joke writing when I was feeling unwell, but when I’m depressed, I reach for guitar instead of a pen.” Everywhere that Armstrong went, he bought a cheap second-hand guitar and would play it every day, especially when he was “blue.” He would tinker with chords, find a progression that he liked, and then play and freestyle lyrics over it in a voice recording. “Anyway, now those musical recordings give me a window into what I was feeling and thinking in each place,” Armstrong states.

     Armstrong has experienced great growth in his year abroad, and he reflects on his time at Ursinus and how the skills that he developed in college have contributed to his success in carrying out his project. As an English major, reading and thinking about literature has helped him develop a “tool kit” for listening to and reviewing comedy. Armstrong says, “Having guided discussions around books helps you discover the vocabulary for understanding what you like and don’t like in jokes, and that makes the time spent watching comedians a more productive experience for thinking about what you want to achieve with your own jokes.”

     Workshopping in creative writing classes was fundamental in how Armstrong approaches communicating with other comedians and creators “about their craft.” He explains that he cannot go “charging in with criticism” but also cannot be dishonest or vague about what it is he likes, expressing that every comedian has a strength that they can develop to make their comedy uniquely good. “When people ask my advice on their comedy, I think helping reflect that strength to them is important, and so is describing to them things they may not realize they’re doing that are hindering them,” says Armstrong.

     Additionally, Armstrong had an “eye-opening” DIY Publishing course with his advisor, and friend, Dr. Jon Volkmer that showed him the value in and necessity of being purposeful in what one creates in a way to build an audience around it. During the course, Armstrong discovered that he enjoyed making fun of formats that he was already familiar with. He created an “inept vlogger” character named Gary to make fun of niche YouTube list makers and now his TikTok account is called @GarysFather and has over 110k followers, saying, “People probably don’t know why the hell it’s called GarysFather, but anyways, haha.” Today, much of his standup content makes fun of the expectations people have at comedy shows. Armstrong says, “One easy joke format a lot of comedians tell is, ‘People say I look like if ____ was ____,’ so I have a joke, ‘People say I look like… my family.’”

     Dr. Jon Volkmer, Professor of English at Ursinus College, speaks to his experience working with Armstrong, saying, “Tommy is possessed of endless stores of energy and invention. Whether recruiting faculty to act in his films, or a business to let him use their space, Tommy was never shy about asking, and managed to exude confidence and professionalism at every step.”

     Armstrong finds that the most important thing that he learned at Ursinus was that “people are the most important.” He explains that he would not have received this life-changing opportunity without help from people who cared about him, like Jon Volkmer, Carol Dole, Talia Argondezzi, Domenick Scudera, Meredith Goldsmith, Johanna Mellis, Kelly Sorensen, and others.

     Dr. Talia Argondezzi, Director of the Writing and Speaking Program and co-chair of the Watson Fellowship Committee, worked closely with Armstrong. Argondezzi says, “Before I started working with Tommy on his Watson application, I was already familiar with the hilarious and poignant videos he had made throughout his undergraduate years, so I was a fan.” When working with Armstrong for his Watson, Argondezzi noted that his enthusiasm for comedy was “infectious and irresistible.” She states, “It’s a cliché that as a teacher, sometimes you learn more from students than they learn from you, but in this case, it was very literal: working with Tommy was one of the experiences that helped to spark my interest in writing comedy, and I have been doing so ever since.” Argondezzi and Armstrong even worked on a video together, with Jeff Bender, a writer who teaches CIE at Ursinus.

     It is evident that Armstrong has left a lasting impression on many of the professors at Ursinus, including Dr. Carol Dole, Professor of English. Dole says, “I heard about both his creativity and his ambition before I even met him; other faculty were talking about a really talented first-year student named Tommy who made films.” Dole is very interested in film, so she went to see a film of his that he had arranged to show at the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, “presenting a real movie on the big screen at age 19!” After that, Armstrong showed up in many of Dole’s classes, and she was delighted to have “a student who was both extremely creative and also an excellent analyst and academic writer.” Dole still remembers the final project that Armstrong crafted in 2018 in her seminar on adaptation. One of the book-to-film adaptations that students could envision was a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dole says, “Tommy elected not only to write the 10-page thematic analysis, but also to do an optional video of his own: a complex choose-your-own adventure game in the style of early film.” She adds, “The fact that it was an optional ‘extra’ made it especially impressive that it was so well produced: Tommy came up with period costumes, got a fellow student/friend to devise a score appropriate to the style, and played all the parts himself!”

     In between graduating and beginning his year abroad, Armstrong worked as a staff member at Ursinus. As a staff member, one of his favorite opportunities was helping Watson finalists Austin Mickles, Jeff Cocci, Nikole Fandiño Pachon, and Paige Bristow prepare, with Bristow winning a Watson Fellowship. Commenting on his work with Bristow, Armstrong says, “It has been awesome corresponding with each other during our journeys, and helping her prepare is one of my biggest accomplishments at Ursinus.”

     Armstrong asserts that this has been the best year of his life. Giving advice to others pursuing what they are passionate about, Armstrong says, “Sometimes, creators debate over whether or not doing what you love for a living will ruin that passion for you. If something is important to you, set your life up in a way that doing it every day is inevitable. If you have a gift, requiring yourself to do it often is the only way to reach your potential.”


This article is also published in the Spring 2024 Issue 8 of The Grizzly.

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