Mental health is no joke but maybe it should be, according to a USC School of Dramatic Arts professor

Professor Zack Steel at his computer
Professor Zach Steel leads USC students through comedy exercises during his Wellness Day workshop on March 12, 2021

BY Chandrea Miller

It’s mid-March on a Friday morning. Dozens of USC students open their laptops and login to Zoom, but it’s not for a lecture or class.

“I have no idea what to expect,” said sophomore Phong Doozy Do.

Freshman Valerie Dao is equally perplexed–“I mean, are we going to dress up like clowns and do clown stuff?”

Freshman Valerie Dao takes a respite from her rigorous study routine by joining SDA professor Zach Steel’s Wellness Day workshop: Make Me Laugh
Sophomore Phong Doozy Do gets animated during the workshop

The students have signed up for the Make Me Laugh workshop led by Zach Steel, USC School of Dramatic Arts assistant professor of theatre practice, head of comedy, and supervisor of the medical clowning program.

“We’re here today because joy is possible,” Steel said. “Laughter is possible, even during these times of isolation.”

Steel plans to use laughter, play and clowning around to improve emotional and physical wellness during this historic moment of separation and stress brought on, in part, by the pandemic.

“Before pandemic, we were facing a crisis of mental health on university campuses everywhere,” Steel said. “Now it’s just compounded by the pandemic, so we must act.”

Act through improv-based exercises, mindful activities and spontaneous game play.

“My mission is to destigmatize play as something that is a waste of time or unproductive,” Steel said. “I’m hoping to bring back that agenda-less time that we used to get on campus right before classes or in between classes and provide a platform to smile and laugh—the antidote to loneliness and isolation.”

Arts in Action Lead Producer William Warrener joining in the fun of the Make Me Laugh workshop

Steel collaborated with USC Arts in Action Lead Producer William Warrener to create the comedy-based workshop as part of USC Wellness Days–five separate days spread throughout the months of March and April–in lieu of the traditional mid-March spring recess.

“Laughter, joy, wellbeing, connection–all of those things– are needed now more than ever,” Warrener said. “Everything the university can do to alleviate loneliness and isolation, provide some informal moments of connection and relationship building, is absolutely critical.”

According to USC Provost Charles F. Zukoski, the university spring break was reimagined and reconfigured with wellness and safety in mind.

“To minimize the risk of the virus spreading die to travel, we decided to forego the traditional spring recess and replace it with Wellness Days,” Zukoski said.A Wellness Day is a day on which there will be no classes and no classwork expected of students. Students are encouraged to use this time to rest, exercise, and connect with friends and family.”

Or join a wellness workshop created by schools across the university looking for ways to integrate wellness, self-care and stress management into the USC 2021 Spring Semester.

“It’s a supportive and fun environment,” Warrener said. “It’s an hour of your time that won’t be like any hour of your week.”

This Zoom captures the first Make Me Laugh workshop held on March 12, 2021. The final workshop is April 30, 2021.

And that’s exactly what student Valeria Dao was hoping for when she signed up for the Make Me Laugh workshop.

“Coming in as a freshman, I feel it’s very hard to make close friends,” Dao said. “I actually prefer the Wellness Days over a spring break to be able to have something like this where I can be vulnerable and create close connections in environments with other USC students–it makes me feel a lot more bonded with the Trojan community.”

Sophomore Phong Doozy Do said that Steel’s empathic approach to students has been a lifesaver.

“I am very grateful there are teachers like Zach Steel who care about a student’s mental health,” Do said. “I’ve always dealt with depression and anxiety and comedy is a universal language that speaks to everyone.”

In addition, the second-year, health and human science major said that Professor Steel’s comedy classes have inspired him to minor in comedy and performance with hopes of integrating the use of medical clowning into his future healthcare career.

“Professor Steel taught me that comedy is medicine,” Do said. “And that it reveals as it heals.”

The USC School of Dramatic Arts Medical Clowning Program blends the art of performance with the sciences of medicine and psychology to improve the physical and mental well-being of hospitalized patients as well as communities in need, such as its recent partnership pilot program with the Los Angeles Children’s Bureau to combine medical clowning and foster care with the goal of increasing the bond between the foster parent and child.

“There’s a lot of healing aspects to laughter and play is such an important part of being alive,” Steel said. “I’m trying to adapt the work that I do to various populations.”

From hospitals, foster care, to mental wellbeing, professor Steel is on a mission–to clown around.

“Clowning and playing feeds our hearts, it makes us able to love and connect,” Steel said. “It’s the ultimate bonding tool.”

The Wellness Days workshops are open to USC faculty and staff too.

USC employee Marie-Reine Velez said she signed up after feeling like she could use a mental break.

“I was feeling burnt out,” Velez said. “I knew I could use a laugh and I was so happy I did it. I felt so much better afterward.”

Faculty, students or staff interested in joining a Wellness Day workshop can register on the events page of their school. To join the Make Me Laugh workshop register at

“Come and give it a chance,” Steel said. “It’s an opportunity to be among people without any agenda but to laugh.”