Crew members Rachel Cooper ’19 and James Tralie ’19 interview students for a Princeton Tonight segment.
Sameer A. Khan
New life for an old-fashioned concept: Students create a TV variety show

“Cut the music!” It’s late night on a Tuesday, and the normally quiet halls of East Pyne are echoing with the sounds of disco. As a Bee Gees medley breaks off mid-wail, Ryan Ozminkowski ’19 directs 20 undergrads toward the task at hand: production planning for Princeton Tonight, the University’s first student-run broadcast television program. 

Ozminkowski and showrunner Jordan Salama ’19 assess the status of the April episode. Can they lock down a cameraman to film the show’s cold open? Is the standup segment in shape for filming on Wednesday? Who’s handling publicity for the episode’s centerpiece — an interview with Saturday Night Live star Cecily Strong, to be held on Thursday in front of a live audience in McCosh 50?

Onstage in McCosh 50: Saturday Night Live cast member Cecily Strong, left, and Alexis Andres, dean of Whitman College.
Sameer A. Khan

“We’re all sold out for the event — great,” Salama says. “But we want to make sure people actually come.”

There’s something charmingly old-fashioned about Princeton’s newest media club. Princeton Tonight is a throwback to TV variety shows, with sketches, musical acts, interviews, documentaries, and gonzo man-on-the-street antics rotating through the show with no set format. The group’s medium of choice: not Facebook, nor Snapchat, but local public-access television. (Episodes are, of course, also available on YouTube.) Its host, Marcelo Lukes ’19, dresses sharp like a hipster but projects the warmth of a fuzzy old sweater.

The guest list leans heavily on nostalgic throwbacks and established masters. The show’s biggest “gets” include Oscar-winning makeup artist John Caglione Jr., Full House star Dave Coulier, and the one and only Art Garfunkel. Salama says his dream guests for next year are Paul McCartney and James Taylor (“the concept of the show came to my mind with the idea of James Taylor”). Other staffers name Diana Ross, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Joel to their wish lists. 

Ryan Ozminkowski ’19, Princeton Tonight executive producer, and James Tralie ’19 prepare for filming.
Sameer A. Khan

Salama and Ozminkowski hatched the idea for Princeton Tonight early on in their freshman year. They envisioned the show as a technical and creative training ground for students hoping to work in entertainment. And so, with the support of the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students (ODUS) and the Princeton Broadcast Center, they’ve plunged into the deep end of television production.

The show’s crew — now 50 students strong — has learned plenty of lessons along the way: how to mike musical guests in a TV studio usually wired for news-show talking heads; how to run a writers’ room; how to court, book, and wrangle celebrity guests. Above all, they’ve learned how to adapt on the fly without losing their cool. 

Princeton Tonight’s season-finale interview with Cecily Strong (co-sponsored by ODUS) is a perfect example. The initial plan was to feature the interview with Strong on the show’s April broadcast. Then, on the day of the event, bad news comes in from Strong’s agent: NBC owns exclusive rights to the TV star’s image, and won’t allow her to appear on the show. Princeton Tonight’s producers quickly come up with a backup plan. Instead of broadcasting their talk with Strong (which would go ahead as planned for the enjoyment of the live audience), they will interview spectators about her and have them do their best impressions of her characters.

With a plan B in place, Salama focuses on the bright side: Their show is officially big enough to count as a potential breach of contract! “It was pretty cool that NBC acknowledged Princeton Tonight and the work we’re trying to do,” he says.