“Madison made me fearless,” says Steve Marmel ’88, describing his six-year stint as a journalism major at the UW. Initially hoping to emulate Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist Mike Royko, Marmel instead developed his comedic voice on campus and now produces the Disney Channel’s kid-friendly, animated-robot series Mech-X4.
“If I was working on anything outside of school — and if you checked my grades, you’d know I probably was — it was either standup comedy, or it was [my humor column for] the Badger Herald,” he recalls.
Marmel, who lives outside Los Angeles with his wife, Judi, and their two dogs, has plenty of reason to remember the UW fondly, starting with his humor column. “After freshman year,” he says, “I stayed on for summer school just so I could get into the Herald when all their regular columnists went home for summer.”
Marmel also performed standup for the first time at Memorial Union. After judges for the Catch a Rising Star showcase deemed him the “second-funniest person in Wisconsin,” he spent most nights hanging out at the Comedy Cellar on State Street. Even a stint in student government had a comedic aspect to it when Marmel was elected student-body president during his fifth year. “I ran this whole joke campaign with a slate of student senators, and we won,” he says.
I’d never written a script in my life, but I found myself sitting at a desk in Hollywood learning by doing, just like I did at the Herald.
After graduation, Marmel freelanced for USA Today and traveled the country, doing his comedy act at small clubs. His big break came in 1996, when a TV executive hired him to write for the Cartoon Network series Johnny Bravo after seeing him perform at the Hollywood Improv. “I’d never written a script in my life, but I found myself sitting at a desk in Hollywood learning by doing, just like I did at the Herald,” he says.
More TV projects followed, including teen star Demi Lovato’s live-action series Sonny with a Chance. A couple of years ago, Marmel conceived Mech-X4, which begins its second season this fall. “I told Disney, ‘I want to do an action comedy with kids and a monster-fighting robot.’ They read my script and said, ‘If you can make it on our budget, let’s do it,’ ” says Marmel, shown above in the control center of the giant robot. “I track it all back to Wisconsin, because that’s where I took a chance and found something I love.”
Story originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of On Wisconsin Magazine.