Alice Mathias has long known how to put on a show. At age 7 she directed a circus starring her four younger siblings, several cousins, and some horses and chickens. One highlight: Her three brothers as cowboys performing the campfire ditty from the 1980s comedy Three Amigos. Another time, Mathias and her sister wiggled old photos in front of a video camera and deemed the result Hollywood-worthy. “We explained that, when we grew up, we wanted to be producers,” Mathias says. “We had absolutely no idea what that meant.”
Today she does. Mathias, 38, a prolific producer and director of TV comedies, snagged her ninth Emmy Award nomination in July. The nod is in the category of “Outstanding Short-Form Comedy, Drama or Variety Series” for the offbeat hit I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, a Netflix sketch comedy show that Mathias describes as “absurdist and unhinged.” Her previous nominations were for Portlandia (2011-18) and Documentary Now! (now in its fourth season).
Mathias, who splits her time between New York City and Jackson, Wyoming, works primarily with Broadway Video—founded by SNL creator (and Three Amigos co-writer) Lorne Michaels. She’s directed and co-executive produced History of the World: Part II with Mel Brooks, That Damn Michael Che, and Schmigadoon!
When she got her start with Portlandia, Mathias realized comedy is serious business: She produced 71 episodes, directed parts of 18 episodes, and wrote scripts. “The tag of ‘renaissance person’ gets overused, but any one of those things—writing, directing, or producing—would be a pretty remarkable accomplishment. Alice has been able to accomplish all three,” says veteran producer David Cress, who worked with her on Portlandia.
With its freestyle, Twitter-velocity vibe, sketch comedy often teeters on the edge of mayhem. Mathias manages to maintain order and stay on budget. Cranking out an entire series in 20 days can mean wrangling 300 employees on 12-hour shoots. Diet Coke and Cheetos come in handy. She spends evenings running through the next day’s schedule, like an athlete prepping for a match. “I try to approach the work calmly,” Mathias says. She and her partner, Jeff Johnson, a Meta artificial intelligence research executive, rarely watch TV together, except for an occasional documentary. But Mathias keeps tabs on reality TV and online memes. “A huge part of my job is watching The Kardashians to dial into the themes and signifiers of the show so I can satirize them later,” she says.
Mathias grew up in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago with her parents, John Mathias Jr. ’69 and Julie, and two sets of twins who followed her to Dartmouth. In high school Mathias dabbled in improv and performed in musicals, including Chicago. The Apple+ musical parody Schmigadoon! she directed this spring borrows heavily from the celebrated musical to create the imaginary world of “Schmicago.”
As an undergrad, Mathias wrote a humor column, “Alice Unchained,” for The D in which she zinged absurdities of campus life. “Pointing out the little details everyone kind of overlooks—and saying it out loud—I noticed that’s an endless source of comedy,” she says. She also churned out short films for Dartmouth Television. “We made a lot of silly and scrappy shows, which are the words I would use to describe what I do today.”
The comedy bug bit hard when the English major headed home after graduation. Second City’s renowned improv theater was just down the street. Dropping by to see comedians—including some she has since worked with—sharpened her focus. In 2008, as a grad student at University of Southern California film school, Mathias scored an internship with multimedia giant Broadway Video after reaching out to then-VP Andrew Singer ’00, who was struck by her low-key approach and even-keeled demeanor. “In addition to her talent, her attitude is positive and constructive and empathetic,” says Singer, now the company president. “That’s really the thing I first took notice of.”
Mathias credits her ability to keep a level head to a childhood with four energetic younger siblings. “I’m not complacent, but I like to think of myself as someone who takes things one day at a time,” she says. “And I like how it’s going so far.” She supported the writers strike, though it was tough on friends and colleagues who weren’t working. “Writers are the foundation for everything we do,” she says.
Because of the strike, the Emmys won’t be announced until January. Despite her nominations, Mathias has yet to win one. “At this point I’m so used to not winning. It’s relaxing not to have to give a speech,” she says. “Winning would be cool, but it’s also truly fun to go to the parties with your collaborators.”
C.J. Hughes is a freelance writer and a member of DAM’s editorial board.