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Change Agent: The Road to The Daily Show

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Change Agent

THE POWER OF ACTIVE WRITING

Jesse Salazar: The Daily Show sets the gold standard for comedy, and you’re surrounded by some of the greatest writers in the game. What set you apart? Did you work harder than your colleagues, are you funnier than them, or do you just have an innate wit that can’t be denied?

Elliott Kalan: There are definitely writers at the show who are better writers than I am. There are writers at the show that I think are funnier than I am on an individual basis, and are better at coming up with ideas. But I think I out-worked a lot of people, in terms of always giving as much as I could, in terms of effort, and always trying to apply myself deliberately to what I was doing.

Jon Stewart talks a lot about writing actively. I’ve always taken it to mean not just kind of by gut or by rote, or just doing it the way that you’ve done it before. Writing actively requires you to think about your creative process and how you can improve it.

Sometimes, a joke hits you right away, on a gut level. For example, the President was giving a speech about national security. He was saying something about how, “We’ll have a defense for every attack.” My line was something like, “If they come at us with sharp claws we’ll grow a thick shell.” Talking about it as if the United States was an animal that was evolving. I wrote that down, and I think it ended up in the show.

But there are also many times when I know there’s something funny about a sound bite, but it won’t be at the front of my mind. It will be hard to figure it out. You end up staring into space waiting for it to come to you. That’s the passive way to do it. But to do it actively, I figured out a process for breaking down the ideas and processing the joke step by step — a kind of joke engine.

What’s absurd here? How do I illustrate that? Is there an analogy to something relatable? How do I heighten the absurdity? How can I do it without it being obvious to the audience? Can I make it more sophisticated, so the audience won’t see it coming? The logic should be clear, but I don’t want the audience to come to the idea before I get to it.

I was also enthusiastic and friendly. People want to help out people that they like. In addition to having some level of talent with jokes, I tried to look deliberately and actively at solving problems and becoming better at what I was doing. I constantly worked on the tools in my toolbox and got a reputation, I think, as a guy who was always working at it.

COMEDY AND SOCIAL CHANGE

The comedy narrative is really sticky because people remember the humor in things. In the social sector, it’s hard to talk about an issue, like the climate crisis, racial tension, or poverty in a comedic way.  Do you think social sector communicators will have more impact on the serious issues of the day if we look for more comedy in them?

I think it could probably be useful as a tool for getting attention. When comedy gets used to address serious issues, and we often struggle with this, it can become very nihilistic. Often if you point out how absurd or ridiculous everything is, then the end result is people feel like you’re just kind of tearing things down. It’s hard to build something up in a humorous way. That’s the big challenge.

It’s much easier to point out why something is pointless or absurd with comedy than it is to inspire somebody to make an effort. Though I think comedy can be used to make a subject palatable. Not understandable, but graspable. With climate change, I think a lot of people feel the problem is so large they’re unable to do anything about it. It becomes hard to grasp mentally.

Comedy helps shrink it down enough for people to take it in. The challenge after that is to be inspiring. It’s hard to be an inspiring comedy force. Jon does it, but that’s because Jon is a genius. His understanding of an audience is awe-inspiring. Mixing the two elements of comedy and inspiration is a very difficult thing, but it’s possible.

Do you think you’ve really had an impact on the important issues of the day?

I don’t know. When you run in comedy circles it feels like everyone’s thinking about comedy all the time and affected by the comedy they’ve just seen. Then you’ll have someone like my dad say, “Have you heard this Louis CK character? Have you heard of him?”

I’ll be like, “Yeah, Louis CK. He’s been around for a long time. He’s one of the top comedians.” He’ll be like, “Oh, yeah. I heard he has a TV show.” And then you realize there’s a lot of the world that’s not so impacted by comedy.

I had a rude awakening in 2004, when I was a Production Assistant on the show. It was so obvious to me that George W. Bush and the Iraq War were bad for the country, and the show had been talking about this, and the audience is loving it, and all the people I know were talking about how excited they were to vote Bush out of office. And then the night of that election, just seeing Bush take it without too much difficulty, and all these anti-gay marriage bans were passing. It was a really sobering night of, “Well, we’re making people laugh, at least.”

There are times when I feel like we’ve maybe had an impact on very narrow things that we’ve talked about. You look at John Oliver’s show, and he’s had an impact on some things. Their FCC show, for example, got a good number of people to write the FCC, so it seems like he had an impact.

He’s galvanizing people who are on the same wavelength and also informing people about things they may not have known about that are problems.

FOLLOWING YOUR HONEST FEELING

One of the most poignant memories of my life came from the Daily Show after 9/11. The whole country was trying to figure out how to respond culturally. I will never forget Jon Stewart coming back on after 9/11 and not doing comedy. He talked indelibly about how hard it is to build and how easy and cowardly it is to destroy. Then, he cried. It was a remarkable moment.

Recently, people have spoken about Jon’s somber response to the hate crime in Charleston. How do you make the judgment not to use comedy, when there is no shortage of horror, like a tsunami or a shooting? What’s the process of trying to determine where to come down on one or the other sides?

It’s interesting that you mention his after-September 11th show, because I had a very similar experience watching that. I was a junior in college at the time. My roommate and I spent the rest of the day going from hospital to hospital, throughout the day trying to find places that we could donate blood, or do something. There was nothing we could do. It was a terrible day. We were so drained that we spent the night watching tapes of Mr. Bean because we needed something totally silly and goofy.

I remember when Jon came on and did that show, and watching it, and being affected in a similar way. Looking back at similar episodes since I joined the show, it can be very difficult to find the place where it’s okay to make jokes in a way that doesn’t feel like trivializing the event, or being disrespectful, or even tasteless. A lot of it is, I think, just trusting that the way we feel about something will resonate with people.

For someone who wants to communicate on that level I think it helps to be aware of how you feel about a subject and how it affects you, and then to trust that honest reaction.

WHAT’S FUNNY

Outside of comedy circles, who in politics has used comedy really effectively?

I think President Obama can be very funny. He’s very good with getting lines out. There was a time when John McCain was good, where he would be able to get a funny line in and make a point about somebody.

The best of all time is Abraham Lincoln…

 …Really? Lincoln. Why do you think he was so impressive?

For his reputation, which he deserves, as a master of the higher rhetoric, he was also really smart about using funny anecdotes, using a funny phrase to make a point or deliberately going to the well of his all-American backwoods humor. If Christ had parables, then Lincoln had backwoods jokes.

He really used comedy as a tool for persuading people, often without them even knowing.

What’s an example?

It’s hard for me to remember which Lincoln jokes were actually said by Lincoln and which were made up later. There’s the famous one when people were complaining about Ulysses S. Grant’s drinking, and he said something like, “Find out what whiskey he drinks and send a case of it to all my other generals.”

Or another story about him was someone accusing him of being two-faced and he responds by saying, “Well, if I had two faces, you think this is the one I would go outside with?” Or something like that. Some of the Lincoln lines may be folklore, but he was basically the greatest guy that ever lived.

ADVICE FOR BEING FUNNIER

Since people have such personal reactions to social change, how do you tailor jokes to such varied experiences?

It’s something that comes up in joke writing a lot. The more specific a joke is the funnier it is. If you say “restaurant” in a joke it’s not as funny as if you say Arby’s. Even if someone has never been to an Arby’s, it’s funnier because they can now visualize it in a more real way. It just feels more real and lived.

Right, por ejemplo, there’s nothing grosser than a Taco Bell floor.

Ha. Yeah. People, hopefully, have some experience they can draw on.  If you just said, “The floor of a fast food restaurant,” people would be like, “Oh, okay.” But if you said, “Like a Taco Bell floor,” people will be like, “Ew, gross! Ha ha!” It makes it that much more real.

I’m a big believer in coming at things from a personal perspective and being very open about that. “This is my particular perspective, and even if it’s only my perspective, this is how I see things.”

WHAT COMICS TEACH US ABOUT RELATING PROBLEMS TO PEOPLE

I want to talk to you a little bit about comic books, since comic books are having a massive cultural moment. In addition to your gig with Jon Stewart, you wrote “Spider-Man and the X-Men.” Why is it that an anxiety-prone orphan from Queens with spider-powers is so popular? What can he teach us about social change?

Spider-Man is a special thing to me. I say to people, “If there are two moral guideposts in my life they’re Abraham Lincoln and Peter Parker.” He has really led me the right way more times than not.

Speaking for myself, Spider-Man is a relatable character. Reading him feels like I’m reading about part of myself. Whereas, with a character like Wonder Woman or Superman or Batman, I always felt like I’m reading about the adventures of one of my teachers or an uncle I don’t know that well.

If you read old comic books, especially old Marvel books, you think, “These characters have a lot of problems. In some ways they’ve got more problems than I do. This is rough.” You feel a lot of sympathy for them. When you read an old Superman comic, he spends a lot of time explaining to other characters what they should be doing. It feels like a book about your super-powered dad.

Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman — they always felt like your “official authorized, government-provided heroes.”

RAPID-FIRE SECTION

Who do you think is the funniest late night host?

Jon Stewart. By far. Not a political answer, just an honest answer.

What’s your favorite comedy movie?

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek by Preston Sturges, starring Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton. If someone doesn’t laugh at that… It’s got verbal jokes, it’s got people falling down jokes, topical 1940s jokes, silly character jokes, everything. For a movie in the ’40s, it’s extremely edgy, because it’s about a woman who finds herself pregnant and doesn’t know who the father is. It’s a really goofy funny movie.

What was the last movie to make you laugh out loud?

I just recently watched the movie Happy Christmas, which is a Joe Swanberg movie with Anna Kendrick in it. There are some scenes where two characters try to write an erotic novel together in a scheme to make some money real quick, and the conversations they had were very funny.

Favorite superhero movie?

Spider-Man 2, the Sam Raimi one.

Do you consider Ann Coulter to be a comedian?

If I say yes, then it kind of implies that I think she’s funny, but I don’t. But I think that what she’s doing is this kind of performance comedy that is taken to a horrible grotesque level.

Actually, you know what? I’m just going to say yes, and I’m going to call her an avant-garde performer working in conservative grotesquerie. That’s what I’m going to say.

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