By Jenna Marina
ORLANDO, Fla. (Aug. 29, 2017) – UCF film alumnus Aaron Brownlee ’06 has stood on the New York City stage where the Broadway hit “Hamilton” performs every night. He has interviewed Academy Award winner Robert De Niro, taken flight with the United States Air Force Thunderbirds and has brought joy to pediatric cancer patients by delivering beanies to them in their hospital rooms.
Brownlee’s role as a producer over the last year for NBC’s the “Today” show has already given him a lifetime’s worth of unforgettable experiences, but what really makes him pinch himself is his trek to Rockefeller Center’s commissary every day for lunch.
When he reaches the ninth floor, he steps off the elevator and turns right instead of left toward the food.
A fan of “Saturday Night Live” since he was a child, he never misses a chance to go peek at the stage and silently reflect on this moment in his life.
“I look at this holy grail of comedy and I think to myself, ‘You’re here. Even if it’s a bad day, you’re staring at Lorne Michaels’ dreamland right here,’” Brownlee said. “Take it in, always appreciate every day.”
Brownlee has been a storyteller for as long as he can remember. Growing up in Georgia, he put on plays with his brother in their basement and says he shot an original hour-and-a-half James Bond film before he could drive a car.
He came to UCF because he liked that the university allowed its film students to own the work they created while in school.
“I would run to class because every day I was learning something I was so passionate about. It was a joy to go to class,” he said. “Being around a lot of creative people with a lot of different point of views helped changed the way I wanted to tell stories.”
After graduation, he headed to California thanks to an internship connection that UCF had with UCLA. He got his start as an assistant for a producer who was making horror films.
He spent the next decade filling up his resume with experiences as a production assistant on “NCIS,” various full-time jobs and a freelance producer, working on a variety of projects from advertisements to music videos to print with companies like Target, Best Buy and People magazine.
In 2016, a mentor asked him about his interest in applying for a job at the “Today” show. The opportunity to work for the nation’s longest running morning show, which is currently celebrating its 65th year on NBC, intrigued him.
He went through a series of interviews and still remembers the day he got the phone call asking if he was ready to move to New York.
“I never have doubted myself, but for the very first time, just knowing that it’s such an institution and it’s one of a kind, I had this whole bout of unwavering self-doubt. I was just like, ‘Did you talk yourself into this? What did you just do? Are they going to figure out you’re a phony within the first 10 minutes?’” he said. “Looking back on that moment, that’s when I knew that I really, really wanted it, and wanted to work for them.”
Since joining the production team, he estimates that he has created at least three hours of television. His segments range from 3-4 minutes on average, and he typically works on four projects at any given time.
His real passion lies in telling people’s stories and creating an emotional connection between audience and subject. He said when people are trusting the “Today” show to tell their stories, he feels a responsibility to “get it right.”
“Being able to tell stories about real people that matter, who are doing great things in life and trying to help people; being able to put that on a national platform and get letters and emails and cards that say, ‘You’ve changed my life’ or ‘We’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars because of your piece,’ that’s what is most rewarding,” Brownlee said. “I can see the fruits of the labor of my work.”
With the surge of television access on platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon in addition to traditional media, Brownlee, like most, believes society is experiencing the golden age of television.
He is happy to be contributing to it and hopes to continue to expand the depths of his storytelling.
“One day, if I have a drama or a dramedy on television or streaming on Netflix and people are loving it and it has a part of myself inside of it,” he said, “that would be the ultimate dream.”