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what i’m doing with my mba

At 62, Louise Richer is taking an EMBA at McGill to help her bring a higher level of professional management to the Montreal comedy school she founded.Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail

This story launches a new series that features students and graduates who are using their MBAs and EMBAs in unique fields other than the traditional ones of finance or consulting.

Louise Richer laughs easily.

Her laughter erupts as suddenly as a summer shower, saturating a conversation about how she, the director of a national comedy school, recently returned to the classroom to become a student again. The born-and-bred Montrealer thinks it's hilarious.

"It's funny," she says, giggling over the lilting cadences of her French-accented English, "because I am 62, the oldest person in the class. But in my head," she adds, pausing for the punch line, "I feel young."

That youthful exuberance has steered Ms. Richer in the direction of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University where in September she enrolled in a 16-month executive MBA program that will end in December.

The former comedian and actress hopes to apply her business training to enhancing operations at l'École nationale de l'humour, the acclaimed postsecondary institution she founded in Montreal in 1988.

"I want to develop a more systematic approach to my organization," continues Ms. Richer in all seriousness.

"I think that will be my last legacy to a school I love so much and to the young people there doing all they can to realize their dream of becoming creators in comedy."

Comedy to her is not entirely a joke. It is deserving of serious study.

"A lot of people think comedy is easy, they think anyone can do it," Ms. Richer. "But a comedian is a great observer; he is a chronicler of the times."

The motto of her school, printed large on the wall and visible to all who enter, is "Je pense donc je ris." I think therefore I laugh.

"Comedy is a mirror of society," she continues. "Tell me what you are laughing at and I will tell you who you are."

Her first degree, perhaps not surprisingly, was in psychology, which she took more than 40 years ago at the University of Quebec. Acting lessons at HB Studios in New York followed later when, at age 27, the lanky redhead with a toothy smile decided to change careers.

Returning to Montreal in 1983, Ms. Richer started doing stand-up at clubs such as La Pleine Lune and Club Soda, encouraged by friendships with the comedy duo Ding and Dong, and other comedians encountered during her university days.

She was determined to make a career of it, but when she went looking to improve her skills she was dismayed to find that Montreal had no training to offer. This galvanized her to make a difference.

Ms. Richer approached Gilbert Rozon, founder of Montreal's popular Juste pour rire comedy festival, who then invited her to launch a professional development program within his government-sponsored organization.

She eventually outgrew Juste pour rire, moving first to a location on Jean Talon Street and then an even larger building on Sherbrooke Street East.

Initial funding came from the Ministry of Culture which invested $650,000 to get the school launched in 1998. Additional funding of about $200,000 annually comes from the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Students pay $14,000 for a two-year individualized program of study including political science, French, history and practical courses such as sitcom writing, voice training and improvisation. There are currently 36 students enrolled. "It is very difficult to get in," Ms. Richer says. "We take only 15 per cent of candidates."

Of the 500 graduates who have gone through the program since the beginning launch in 1988, several are now household names in Quebec, a province that celebrates homegrown talent. Famous alumni include Mike Ward, Lise Dion, Martin Matte, and, perhaps better known in English Canada, Patrick Huard and Louis-José Houde, actor-comedians who appeared in the top-grossing 2007 Canadian film, Bon Cop, Bad Cop, opposite Colm Feore.

As the person responsible for having created these celebrities, Ms. Richer is something of a star herself.

When she entered the Desautels program in the fall, her reputation preceded her. It was implicitly understood she would be the class clown. Ms. Richer has not disappointed.

"For sure I am unconventional. I don't leave my sense of humour at the door when I come in," she says.

"But the open-mindedness of the EMBA program has touched me. I don't feel judged, I dare say I bring something unique to the others in the class."

That something unique is her ability to laugh. Ms. Richer sees it as a great strength and has incorporated laughter into her study program.

"Being a good business leader is not so different from being a good comedian. The profiles are similar," she says. "For both, you have to have transparency and you have to have good listening skills. Being a comedian is mastering the art of listening to and exchanging ideas with your audience. It's about taking what's out there and pushing it further."

And then she laughs again, right on cue.