Elliott Kalan of The Daily Show in Conversation with Kimberly A.C. Wilson
Elliott Kalan, the Emmy-winning former Head Writer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, sat down with the Meyer Memorial Trust’s Kimberly A.C. Wilson to talk community building through podcasts, Abraham Lincoln, the process of writing for Jon Stewart, and more.
Illustrated Notes by Zsofi Lang
Jesse Salazar: Everyone in communications knows how frustrating it can be when your colleagues are absolutely certain they know how to do your job. Yes, they have met a journalist before, or they once wrote a blog post, or they read The New York Times. Well, our next speaker has the same issue but with comedy. People are always trying to be funny around him, but the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has four separate times determined that he is, in fact, the best comedy writer. I don’t need to tell you how amazing The Daily Show is. I’m sure you’ve seen it at some point, but you’re about to hear from a guy who spent the last 12 or 13 years helping Jon Stewart turn The Daily Show into television legend. Steve Harvey once said, “You can take lessons to become almost anything, flying lessons, piano lessons, singing lessons, but there’s no class for comedy. You have to be born with it. God has to give you that gift. Well, Elliott Kalan is a gift from God, and I hope you all enjoy your gift.
Elliott Kalan: Hi. Thanks, everybody. That was about as overhyped as I’ve ever heard anything.
Kimberly A. C. Wilson: It’s going to get worse.
That was amazing.
I’ve got my phone here because I’ve got Twitter questions coming in, so I’m going to be that person who occasionally looks down to see what’s going on.
I’m going to keep checking my phone just to see …
… what time it is or did this podcast download properly.
Just be ready for that.
I thought we would start with something fun. I wanted to play a little game of quick fire one word, and you give me your one-word answer. Does that work?
Wait, first I should say thank you to everybody for having me here. OK, I had to say that, so only one word?
Only one word, and this may be hard. Comic books.
Toilet, but I’ll have to explain that. There’s a good reason for that, but it’s not … Anyway, maybe we can talk about that.
We’ll come back to Abe’s toilet. Writing.
Judas Priest, which is two words, but it’s a name, so that’s one word.
I’m going to let you have that one, so metal generally.
Metal, yeah, but these days particularly Judas Priest.
I don’t know. There’s no one word that sums him up. It’s impossible. He contains multitudes.
He does contain multitudes.
I’d say the boss.
He would say that Bruce Springsteen was the boss, but I would say that he is.
You’re both right.
Yeah, there’re multitudes of bosses in the world, I guess.
Multitudes of bosses.
There’s room for multitudes of bosses in the world.
How did you end up writing for Jon Stewart at The Daily Show?
I started there, I think as Jesse mentioned, about 13 years ago as an intern when I was in college. I went to NYU for college to study screenwriting, which so far has not paid off. If there are any film producers in the audience, get in touch with me. I interned there my last semester of school. My dad met somebody who worked there who was one of the directors of the show, who’s maybe the nicest man in the world, and because my dad has no shame and will say anything to anybody, he was like, “Oh, my son likes that show a lot. He should intern there. Why don’t I have him send you his information,” and he, being the nicest man in the world, said, “OK, sure.” I got that internship, and then made some kind of impression as an intern, and they asked me to stay on as a production assistant because a position opened up, and then I just kind of kept weaseling my way up the ranks, stabbing people in the back and stepping on people. It was a real Wolf Hall type scenario. The opportunities kept opening up there.
I’d been a fan of the show since it started with Craig Kilborn, and very much so, even more so, when Jon took over. When I was in college I used to watch it at 11:00 when it first aired, and then I’d watch the 1:00 rerun of that same show because I wanted to see it again. I wanted to figure out how it worked and everything like that. I didn’t think I’d ever get to work there. Even when I was working there, I didn’t think I’d ever get to write there. Then when I was writing there, I didn’t think I’d ever get to be a head writer there, and then that happened, too. Then, like Alexander, there were no more worlds left to conquer. It was a lot of hard work and a lot of opportunities opening up. I feel like I can take like 45 percent of the credit for my position there.
It seems like a lot of work and kind of a trajectory that was …
Maybe 85 percent of the credit.
Yeah, OK. In his opening monologue on Monday night, The Daily Show’s new host, Trevor Noah, called Jon Stewart “more than just a late-night host. He was often our voice, our refuge, and in many ways, our political dad.” When I heard that, I thought, “Wow, that means Elliott Kalan is actually the voice of dad,” which made me feel like we were having an opportunity to talk to somebody who’s really plugged into creating that voice.
In a way. By the time I was working with Jon, his voice was so complete in and of itself in a lot of ways, it feels like I was helping … I don’t want to keep saying “dad.” I think that sounds … Even though when I was watching the show when I was younger, I really kind of felt that way, and my own feelings about the show and being there for so long and having … It was a real family atmosphere there, so complicated. There was a feeling sometimes that Jon was show dad, and when he went off to make his movie and John Oliver took over, it was like, “Why did dad leave us?” But then he came back. It was helping him to best continue to express that voice in a way that was consistent to itself but also not redundant or repetitive, I guess.
I would say to people who were submitting to be writers, “Show us how your voice fits into the voice of the show. What do you bring to the show that’s different from what we have now but is not so wildly different that it clashes with it?” My job as a writer was to write the jokes that Jon wanted to tell but wouldn’t necessarily think of himself, or a joke that he would have thought of if he had the time to sit and focus on it but didn’t have that time. Much of the time I was able to get his voice right, and then other times too much of my voice would sneak into my scripts, and there’d be a joke about gremlins or something like that, or Ghostbusters. That was not going to get on the show.
Server: Sorry to interrupt. What can I get for you to drink?
Before we went on stage, Kimberly asked if we could get a drink at some point during it. I just want you to know that this has nothing to do with me. I’m totally throwing you under the bus on this one.
That’s OK. Since you’re here, I’ll take a tequila. Thank you.
Server: For you, sir?
I don’t want you to drink alone.
I’ll have a Jack and coke.
Server: All right, perfect. I’ll go ahead and get that started.
Thank you. Put it on Sean’s tab.
The second half of this is going to be much more focused.
It’s going to ramble a little bit. I want to pick up on what you were just talking about because one of the things we have in common in a room full of communicators and writers, is all of us have been in a place where we’re really writing somebody else’s voice, and you described that challenge of both writing for somebody but also having your own unique voice that’s your own that weaves into the voice of the people you’re writing for. How do you do that?
It can be tough, and I’m sure people here have had that problem, too, where you would say something a certain way, but the person you’re writing for would not say it that way, would want to make a slightly different point, and sometimes it helped to think of whoever I was writing for, whether it was Jon or one of the correspondents, as a character rather than as a person. Maybe that was because my school background was in screenwriting. It was like, OK, the character of Jon is in this situation. What would he say then, or how would he put it? That would help me to break out of the structure of my own voice, that it was less I’m writing a thing for someone to say but I’m writing for this character to say. Jon is not a character. He’s a person, but to think of another person as a character helps sometimes to … I use it sometimes to, if I’m in a disagreement with somebody or someone and I have had some kind of bad air between us, I go, well, if they were a character, why would they act that way? What would cause them to feel the other way? It works sometimes. Oftentimes it doesn’t work, but sometimes it does. It helped to depersonalize it a little bit and make it a little easier.
Also just always being … always listening to the person you’re going to be writing for, or if it’s an institution, the sense of that institution, so that … Sometimes writing stuff for Jon, I knew that if he’d used a phrase a couple times in meetings, that’s a good thing to put in. If he had expressed a particular idea, then I could maybe hone that idea slightly, but I wanted to include that because if he’s saying it around behind the scenes, then it means he feels that way, and he’s going to want a joke off of that, or a point off of that is going to be that much more valuable to him than if I just wrote an amazing joke about Ghostbusters, which I did many times, and they never got on the show. Every now and then I’d get a joke on about Predator 2 or some other ’80s sci-fi action movie.
But not Ghostbusters.
For some reason Ghostbusters never made the cut when I was … Other people wrote Ghostbusters jokes, they ended up on. Not me. I don’t know what it is. Just a bad record. There was always that tension between what would be the type of thing I would say or the type of joke I would want to make, and would that fit Jon’s voice. If it didn’t fit Jon’s voice, then it would have to go. There’d be a certain amount of … alienation is a weird word to use for it, but kind of like that where you feel distance from the work, and you have to find your way to it so that you don’t feel that distance, and you can write it truthfully to the voice that you’re writing in, if that doesn’t sound too abstract or conceptual or anything.
It sounds very writer-ly.
Oh, yeah, well I’ve been practicing being a writer since I have all this time on my hands these days, so…
It sounds like Jon was a great teacher for you.
Yes, very much.
Both in terms of your style, but also in terms of the lessons that he taught about how you could be a better writer generally, not just how you could be a better comedic writer.
Yeah, very much so. I feel like the role all these show obits that were written when he announced he was leaving were all about what a political teacher he was or a political communicator. A thing that didn’t get touched on very much because I don’t know if it’s as noticeable if you’re not in the room with him every day is he had a very big emphasis on what he would call doing things actively, that we have to actively manage this, we have to actively write this. Let’s look at this actively, meaning rather than just writing by gut or by instinct or sitting back and letting things happen or doing the show in such a way that it’s like — “This story happened. We know how to cover these. All right, we’ll do this, we’ll do this, soundbite joke, soundbite joke, great, we’re done. OK, everybody” — that you’d be actively thinking all the time, how do I make this as good as I can?
How do I look at this situation and find a, if it was a management thing, find a solution to it, rather than just reacting to what was going on. If I know something is going to happen a couple weeks down … if we have a presidential election coming up in a couple weeks, let’s start actively thinking about things we can do while we cover that. We’re going to build up to it rather than just waiting for it to happen, and then doing something off of that. I feel like that’s the thing that I took from it the most and applied to my own writing the most —that I can say I want to become a better writer, instead of just writing a lot and hoping that I get better, which will help a little bit. I’m going to look actively at my work and say, how do I do this and how can I do it better?
One of the things I did was, for instance, I came up with a series of steps that I could go through to write a joke when I was having trouble writing a joke. I’d be like, I know there’s something funny here, so what does my brain do unconsciously when a joke pops in on its own? How can I do that consciously? Formulating that as a series of steps I could go through would help me, and it felt like the show process throughout the day had been designed in a similar way. Like how can we have a series of steps to go through so that we are not either waiting for things to happen, but we have a way to guide us through the day. Very confusing, but doing things actively, and that was the thing that he taught me that I feel like has made the most difference for me and the most impression on me, that I don’t just have to float though life like, “I’m a writer, I guess. All right, wrote that. Got to go. That’s it.” I can look at my own work and say, “How can I make this better, and how can I make my writing process better so that I’m a few steps ahead the next time I try to write something.”
This is all very dry.
No, for writers, what does that look like? You were talking about the way the day was laid out to make that easier.
Our daily process was … it was based around meetings and scripts and meetings again. It’s like we have a meeting where everybody talks about things, and Jon tells us what he wants to do for that day’s show, and we discuss it and try to figure out jokes for it. Then that gets assigned to writers, and they write a script. Then Jon and the executive producers and the head writer read that script to give notes, and then those writers go off again and rewrite based on those notes. In that first meeting, we might be set in one place, and then after the script, when we have that second meeting with the notes, we might have veered off in a totally different direction. Veered off makes it sounds like we’re wildly out of control, but we might have decided to turn in a different direction. Then they would write that, and we would go back and look at it again and get more notes. There’d be another rewrite, and there’d be a rehearsal. Then there’d be another rewrite after that.
At each stage we were focused on … Oh, here are the drinks.
This is awesome.
You came just in time. I was talking for too long.
Server: All right.
I’ll finish in a second. This is the best stuff, because it’s all like dead air, right? Thank you very much.
Server: You’re very welcome.
You did a great job.
Thank you. Cheers.
A good way to illustrate my piece. I came up with this joke-writing process. It’s like, OK, there’s a soundbite. John Boehner said something dumb, and I know there’s something absurd about it, but a joke is not popping into my head the way it sometimes does. I know there’s something crazy about what he said, so let me describe that to myself in a straightforward way, not as a joke. What’s the most absurd way he said it? OK, now that I know what the kernel of it is, what’s the way I can communicate that? What are the different joke forms that I know? Does Jon talk to him directly? Does Jon continue John Boehner’s thought in a way that heightens that absurdity? Does he make an analogy, or does he … After I pick the form that I think is best for what he said, what type of joke would come off of that, then how can I, looking at that joke now the way I have it, how can I make it less expected? That was the first thing I thought of. What’s the second thing I’m thinking of so that I’m that much farther ahead of the audience.
It was like this process that I could take myself through so I wasn’t just like, “Ah, Ah,” and setting a time limit for myself like if I don’t come up with this joke in four minutes, I’m going to move on to something else, then maybe I’ll come back, and I’ll leave the front part of my brain. I’ll move on to something else, and I’ll let the back part of my brain think about it for a while because maybe he’ll come up with something. By making that process I feel like it allowed me to improve my writing as I was writing, and also, when I handed in a script it was farther along in the writing process than if I had just put down the first thing that I thought of, or said, “Ah, I can’t think of a joke. I just won’t put this in.”
Many times those jokes didn’t work anyway, so I don’t want people to think it’s a foolproof strategy.
Are we talking about Ghostbusters again?
A lot of it’s Ghostbusters, yeah. I cannot overemphasize how often I would turn to Ghostbusters as a source of humor, but purely out of love.
Thank you. Now I’m trying to bring that type of active focus into other types of writing to make it so it’s not just jokes but it’s other things. I feel like that’s what I picked up the most.
Other writing that you’re doing now?
Yeah, not other people’s writing. Not like reading Shakespeare and being, well, maybe if he did this instead. I’d say it’s pretty obvious that they die at the end. What if instead they did something different, you know?
It might work.
Maybe. Now I’m going to want to go off and improve all his plays. This is a total tangent that is not going to be productive to anybody, but this summer my wife, my son, and I went to England to visit my sister who lives in London. We took a day trip to Stratford, and we were looking at Shakespeare’s grave, and it struck me that what I do and what he did are two totally different things, but at the same time he was writing ambitious stuff at a very fast rate for what he thought was a very temporary audience, not expecting it to outlast the season that it appeared in, and was just kind of like probably not too many steps ahead of where he needed to be when he was writing, whenever he was doing it, and he just happened to be a genius, so things came out differently.
They came out great, but I felt this real kinship with him of, like, oh, yeah, well, we’re all writers, I guess. It’s not like when Shakespeare was writing he was like, “I’m Shakespeare. In 400 years people are still going to be quoting me.” He was like, “I got to get this thing written. These actors are not going to do it the way I want them to, and I’ve got to … whatever. I’ll just get it out. I’ve got to do this thing. How do I focus?” It was very inspiring to me to be like, well, no matter what you’re writing, you’re still a writer under the same pressures.
I love that that’s the parallel, the genius.
But then I don’t think anyone’s going to come visit my grave in 400 years. That’s where the parallel ends, but as far as he knew he was like, “I’m making a pretty good living as a writer these days. This is really good. I went from solidly lower middle class to solidly upper middle class. This is pretty nice.”
I like that analogy. One of the things that you talked about, other writings that you do. I’m sure a lot of people here who are fans of comic books are familiar with your …
A lot of comic books fans in the audience.
A lot of comic book fans in the audience, I’m sure. We’re doing strong here, so I know that they’re here. You’ve written for Marvel Comics, and you’ve written Spiderman, which is a huge thing.
That was my dream, yeah.
That was your dream? Tell me about that.
There was a year, a few years ago, in the same year I won an Emmy, and I got engaged, and Marvel bought my first story that I sold to them. The Marvel sale was very strongly the second-best thing that happened that year. It went engagement, and then right underneath that was selling a story to Marvel, and then the Emmy was … it was still great, but it was not on the same level because I’d been wanting to do that since I was a kid. If there’s two ethical figures in my life who teach me the way to live, it’s Spiderman and Abraham Lincoln, and I’m never going to get the chance to work with Abraham Lincoln, so I’m working with Spiderman instead. That was pretty fantastic. That was amazing, yeah. I should said “amazing” and not “fantastic,” because he’s the Amazing Spiderman. I can use “Amazing,” “Spectacular” or “Web of” to describe Spiderman because those are his title prefixes. Fantastic is a different set of characters.
The Four, right?
OK, well, tell me … Since you’re on Abraham Lincoln, you’re also a huge fan of Abraham Lincoln.
You’ve named your son …
His middle name is Lincoln, yeah. I wanted his first name to be Lincoln, and my wife would not hear of it, so that was not …
She’s colluded with you on your obsession with Lincoln.
Sure, yeah, well, it’s such a … it’s like a freight train barreling down the tracks. You got to either get on board or get out of the way. That is how it is with me and Abraham Lincoln. The only joke I regret writing at The Daily Show, although I’m pretty proud of it, but I regret it still, is one that was an Abraham Lincoln joke that was like … it was a fairly tasteless joke … not tasteless. When Barack Obama had just become president, there was a news story about what dolls his daughters were seen carrying around. They were like, it’s important to cover this on the news. It’s important to cover this stuff because First Children are often beginning national trends. When Amy Carter did some such thing, other kids started doing it, too.
I wasn’t a writer yet at the time, but in a meeting I suggested the joke that in the 1860s Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willy Lincoln, began the national craze of dying of cholera. That’s a solid joke, but it’s a joke about the death of his son, and it’s something that … really, he was never quite the same afterwards, and his wife spiraled into madness. I feel so bad about it. It’s really terrible. If there’s an afterlife and I meet him, how do I explain … I know you understand. It was a solid joke. I was making a solid point, but, no, he was the most interesting person who ever lived as far as I’m concerned.
OK, so you’re interested in him. Tell me about the toilets, because when you …
When I said “toilet,” I was worried people were going to think, “Oh, he doesn’t think well of Abraham Lincoln,” when in fact I think very well of him. This is the type of writing I never got to do on the show. It was such a busy job, and I’m sure plenty of people here have their own writing that they want to in addition to what they do professionally. It’s hard to find the time and the energy to do that. My first piece of advice is leave your job. It really helped me to find the time. My second is just finding that time anywhere. Like the comics you were talking about I was writing on the subway almost entirely, handwriting in a notebook, and then I’d have to find the time somewhere to type it up. I was almost missing deadlines, not because I hadn’t written it but because I didn’t have the time to sit down and type it.
There’s a story I’ve been wanting to write for a long time, and I finally got to write it just a few weeks ago. It was a short story about … I was trying to think of … Abraham Lincoln is such a monumental, historic figure in a way that it’s hard to remember what a human being he was, and it’s very easy to not treat him like a human being. It’s that way with all historical figures or all celebrated figures, and I wanted to write a story where Abraham Lincoln is using the toilet, and what’s just going through his mind during that time. For years I’ve been wanting to write this, and then a few weeks ago I finally got to write a first draft of it, and I was very happy with it. It’s the classiest handling of Abraham Lincoln using the toilet that I think could come out of it. I feel like I found a way to get through it to a really beautiful thing at the end.
I’m going to be telling lots of stories about visiting famous people’s graves, I guess, but my wife was kind enough to come with me to Springfield, Illinois, so I could see his tomb and his house and everything. At his tomb, it struck me — I’m never going to be able to meet this person — in a way that it hadn’t before, that he died over a hundred years before I was born. No matter how much I learn about him, I’m never going to know him, so similar to knowing Jon or Spiderman — these characters or people that I feel like I’ve gotten a sense of how they think or talk because I’ve spent time with them — I wanted to put myself in that position with Abraham Lincoln. It was like, well, what’s the most humanizing experience I can think of for him? Oh, it’s using the toilet. It’s not going well, and it’s a story no one will … I’m going to submit it places to get it published. No one’s ever going to see it, but I was very happy with how it came out.
Did you actually visit his toilet?
Well, at his house in Springfield, there’s an outhouse there, and the park trooper said it’s not the original outhouse because we asked him, but it was one at a farm where Lincoln had done work. The farmer was a client of Lincoln’s at one point, and they knew Lincoln had eaten dinner there at least once or twice, so they have a reasonable assumption that he used it. I was impressed by the drive for historical accuracy, that they weren’t going to just put up any outhouse.
It had potential.
It was potentially one that he used, but that they had to be very open about the historical provenance of this is very clear. It was never actually at the house, so …
I think that was an eew. I like the analogy between Lincoln and Jon and Spiderman. It sounds like the beginning of a great story.
Aside from my parents, you say, oh, who are the people who had a big impact on your life. Oh, Lincoln and Jon and Spiderman, I guess, yeah, so …
That’s good company.
One of them is a real, living person.
You’ve met him, at least.
That’s the thing. Spiderman’s a fictional character, but I’ve written for him, so I feel like I know him in a way or I’ve interacted with him a way.
You’ve put words in his mouth.
Yeah, exactly. My relationship with him is not totally different from my relationship with Jon. What’s Spiderman going to say in this situation that he would believe, and he’s going to say jokes anyway. Yeah, very similar. It might be the same guy. We’ve never seen them in the same room together.
I like this idea. What is it that comics have taught you about storytelling?
A couple of things. Pacing is a big thing, and voice, and getting a character’s voice clear, because as a comic book reader, you know when a character is speaking out of voice because you’ve spent so much time with them. You have this idea in your head of who this character is from all the years … too many years spent reading children’s entertainment books, which are really good, though, a lot of them. Also, how to see someone develop over time. A lot of the comics have been around for a long time, the big ones anyway, and you’ve seen these characters grow, sometimes minimally but in some ways over time to become sort of a fully formed personality. If anything, it’s taught me less about writing and more about just interacting with people. The idea that they change over time, and there’s not a specific event that makes someone who they are necessarily, but just adding up all the different issues of somebody.
There’s hundreds of issues in someone’s life. I mean like comic book issues, not like emotional issues. Some people do have hundreds of issues, but there’s a comprehensive person that comes out of it over all that time. In writing comics, writing something that is a moment in time but is informed by all the things that came before it, and that might be applicable to institutional stuff just in knowing the context of what you’re writing. Even though you’re writing this one thing, it’s informed by the history of the organization, or the history of the thing you’re writing about. Everything is in an ongoing context and not just in one moment in time. I’m being very philosophical in this one, yeah.
I’ve run out of stories of visiting famous people’s graves. That’s not true.
There are more.
There are more, but none of them so far have been applicable.
More graves, really?
Well, like Teddy Roosevelt’s grave and Franklin Roosevelt’s grave. You can’t see them otherwise. That’s the place they are, but anyway … they’re not going to come to you.
Among the other things that you’ve been doing, in addition to The Daily Show, you created a podcast called Flop House.
Basically, it was created by two friends of mine, and I joined very early on.
OK, this is the Flop House podcast, and it is a podcast about …
Bad movies, yeah.
Not just bad movies, but epically …
Hopefully, the worst movies we could find, yeah.
You have a fanatical following of fans.
It frightens my wife greatly, yeah.
You’re serious. Really you’ve created a community, and comic books also sort of have communities that are built around them that are super emphatic about their love of the characters and they follow every step. One of the things that we try to do here with some success is to try to build communities around our ideas, around issues that our foundations are funding. Do you have any secrets about how … or tips about how to build community?
Not really, but with the podcast, for instance, it’s something that we did just from our own passion of that subject of movies in general and bad movies in particular. Because the Internet exists now, and anyone can put anything on the Internet, and it’s available for people to find if they stumble on it or are looking for it — it took us a period of years. We’ve been doing it now for eight years or something like that, seven or eight years. It was like a specific gravity of that subject has pulled in all these people who felt like we were … The thing we hear the most is, when people listen to it, “It feels like I’m hanging out with my friends when I listen to it.” There was a sense of having a specific interest and building an atmosphere where people felt a kinship to it or felt like it was representing a part of their life or representing what they hoped it was like when their friends hung out with them, and then just letting that happen.
Since then we’ve been trying to cultivate it more just in … A while ago we put up a Facebook page for the podcast. A lot of our fans came and turned it into mini Facebook within regular Facebook where they talk about stuff that’s totally unrelated to the podcast, and I can’t find anything. Sometimes I’m looking for a specific post, and I can’t find it because there’s all this other junk that I don’t know anything about. There was a certain amount of just letting it happen, which is not the ideal thing when you’re actively trying to do it, but focusing more, I think, on the thing you’re saying and the thing you’re creating and less on how to drive people to it, but more than that, making sure it’s something that people want when they see it.
The community builds out of that.
Yeah, and it feels like we have a very tight community and a longer-lasting one for that reason that we weren’t constantly tweeting out or constantly actively … What’s the word? Not evangelizing, but …
Promoting this as a …
Yeah, because we’ve done very little promotion. In fact, criminally little promotion.
It’s a private page.
You have to be a member of the Facebook page to post there or read stuff, but that it was … what was the thought I was thinking of? I totally lost track of where I was going. I blame that. That’s the problem. I blame you, but providing that thing that people felt like they wanted or felt but didn’t know it until they saw it, and then being nice to those people and not going after them. There are plenty of times when I’ve either followed somebody on Twitter or I’ve started listening to a podcast or something, and their own promotion becomes so heavy that it drives me away. I think that it helps that we haven’t been doing that. There’s probably a middle ground where you can promote it at a point where people are intrigued but not repelled, but if you go too far, then people get repelled. They’re like, “I get it. OK, I get it. I believe in what you’re doing, but I never want to donate money to you again because you won’t stop bothering me,” or like, “I like this, but I don’t like the things around it.” It’s, I guess, respecting the people that you’re trying to drive to you enough that you don’t try to force them. It’s all very zen. It’s the kind of thing you can really do when you’re not trying to do it. I guess that’s my advice — don’t try so hard.
That’s good advice. We’re going to go to questions in a minute, and I just wanted to give people a heads-up, if you have questions, just stand up so that they can hand you the microphone, and they will come to you. Be sure to introduce yourself and your organization, so we can be sure to get you on the air.
If we don’t have enough time for all the questions about Abraham Lincoln, then I’m happy to talk to people afterward about it. I can’t not talk about him.
We have a couple of Twitter questions that got in early. You left The Daily Show in July.
In early August.
In early August.
One week into August. Jon’s last show was also my last show.
For a number of reasons. Mainly because I just didn’t get to see my son very much, and he’s just a little boy. He’s a toddler, and he’s very cute. I would see him for an hour in the morning, and then by the time I got home he was asleep. I’d see him on the weekends, and it was like, “Oh, I’m getting as much time with him as I would if I was divorced.” That’s not the way I want my life to be. I was with them for a long time until just recently.
Until just recently.
I’ve been very excited about the new show they’ve been doing. I was excited knowing it was coming up.
Did you check it out?
I saw the first couple of episodes. I haven’t seen last night’s yet, but I think they’re coming into their own very quickly and very nicely. Every time I watch it or I talk about it, my wife goes, “Do you wish you were with them?” I go, “No, I don’t need to do it anymore. That’s OK. Maybe someday.”
What happens when news happens? What happens to that muscle? I’m a former journalist, and when news breaks, it immediately shows up from reporter friends who send it to me before it even breaks, and my first impulse is to think, “Is my bag packed? Can I go and cover this?” What do you do when you hear now news that previously would have sent you right into your writer’s room?
I unconsciously start thinking about, how is Jon going to want to talk about this? What’s he going to feel about this? What can we say about it? I have to remind myself, “You don’t have to worry about that right now.” It’s such a big relief. It means I can spend time looking at news stories that we would not have done on the show because there’s not a lot of humor potential in them, and I don’t have to look at other stories that we would be doing on the show. There was the big three-hour CNN Republican debate, and we were supposed to record an episode of the podcast that night. We had to reschedule it because one of the co-hosts, Dan McCoy, is a writer for the show, and he was like, “Oh, I’m going to have to stay late to watch that debate.” I was like, “Oh, there’s a debate? Fine. OK.” There was a very freeing feeling to that, but there’s still a sense of how are we going to handle this? I have to put the brakes on for the moment.
There’s a story I read once about one of Bob Hope’s writers when Kennedy was assassinated, that he was driving over to see Bob Hope about something. I don’t think it was to inform him about the news, but in his head on the drive, he kept thinking about jokes about the assassination because he was so primed to write jokes about current events that he just couldn’t stop his head from doing it. I remember reading that story, and it made me feel so much better about my own reaction to those types of things because it’s like, oh, other people have had that problem, too. That’s great. You build it into this program in your head, and it just keeps running, you know?
You’ve managed to tame that.
Has anything happened in the last month that has made it difficult for you to curb that impulse?
No, because I think about …
There’s been no tempting news?
When I weigh that against being able to write that Lincoln toilet story, and it’s … At this point in my life, that’s what I want to be doing, so, you know.
There’s always going to be the math there.
Yeah, or thinking about how much time that took away from family. It’s like the program starts running, and then I go, “Oh, you don’t need to do that. There’s this other stuff you’re going to be focusing on for a little bit, at least.”
That’s awesome. I’m going to start with a couple of Twitter questions that we’ve got already.
I’ll try to answer more shortly because I know I have a tendency to continue talking forever.
I’m going to start with comics.
This is a question from Jesse Salazar who was up here earlier.
Yeah, he was here.
He was saying those nice things. Go ahead.
He’s the vice-president of communications for the Council on Foundations, and he wanted to ask you about Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is the newly coined MacArthur Fellow and writer who will write the new Black Panther comic. He’s officially a genius, and he’s going to write the new Black Panther comic. What is it about comics that makes them so ripe for shaping social debate?
Maybe because they function as dramatic metaphors for things in a way that can be very symbolic, kind of blatantly symbolic, but you can’t get away with as much when you’re dealing with realistic human beings and stories. One of the things that I always loved about Marvel Comics growing up is that the characters, when they were punching each other, would always be shouting their philosophies at each other. There would be a lot of, “No, the stronger must dominate and punch,” and then Spiderman would kick the guy in the chin and be like, “Well, what about ordinary people?” They would just be bellowing how they felt at each other, and it meant that they could be having these very basic debates about how the world works while wearing circus costumes and hitting each other and things like that. Maybe because the world is so heightened already, it allows you to tackle those issues in a way that doesn’t feel like you are either approaching them from the wrong scope, or … I don’t know.
Tuck your social commentary in between …
Kind of. You can do it … you can just come out and say things because the characters are saving the world on a regular basis anyway, so to have them try to solve some huge, world-changing problem is a way that you can usually do it in a movie or a short story without it feeling silly. It still feels silly in a comic, but it feels acceptably silly. I’m looking forward to that book. I’m wondering what it’s going to be like. He’ll have to figure out the tension between the fact that the Black Panther is not African-American because he’s African. In the past I think they’ve tried to do that, and they’ll have him be in New York or something, but it feels a little … It’s not where he’s from. He’ll figure it out. He’s a genius. He’ll figure it out.
The gold standard of that book for me is the writer Christopher Priest’s run on it about 15 or more years ago, and so that’s the gauntlet I’m throwing down to him. He has to be as good as Christopher Priest.
I’m excited to read it. If he would like any help with it, I’d be happy to offer that. I think he can do it, but if he’s looking for somebody to punch it up, I’ll work with him on that.
You can throw Spiderman in there.
Spiderman will end up in there at some point. It’s a Marvel book. At some point they’re going to be, like, “Let’s get some sales on this. Throw Spiderman in there.” Years ago there was a comic book adaptation of the movie Meteor Man —Robert Townsend — which was a superhero comedy, and Marvel did a six-issue series, and Spiderman showed up in the middle of it for no reason. He’s not in the movie. He’s not part of the Marvel universe, but they were like, “Get some sales on this. Throw Spiderman in.”
That’ll work. This question is from Jesse Beason, my friend, who is with Northwest Health Foundation in Portland, Oregon. He asks, does political humor have a responsibility to change the narrative? In other words, is it enough to point out the idiocy of American politics?
I think it has the potential to, but not the responsibility to. I feel like once you put that responsibility on it, then the humor becomes secondary to the purpose, and that’s not the way to get to the best humor. Humor is a flawed tool on its own because I feel like by nature it’s about … It’s hard to be humorous in a positive way. It’s very easy to dig at something humorously, so it’s hard to put that much weight on it because it can only do so much in terms of criticizing. It can inform people and alert people. Like last week, Tonight does a great job of alerting people to things they may not have known about and showing them the problem, but once you get into the realm of … It feels like to change the narrative you need to suggest a solution a lot of the time, and humor may not be able to do that.
There would be times we’d have meetings where we would talk about the Middle East or something, and Jon would be like, “But how would we solve this problem?” We were like, “I don’t know. If we knew, we wouldn’t be doing this. We’d be solving the problem.” Especially if the show is meant to be humorous first and informational second, I feel like it will benefit them and the viewer and other people more if the humor is strong. It feels like a show that is funny, that people will watch and get something from, is powerful more often than something that is overtly about changing things but has a humorous angle to it. I could be wrong about that. It feels like very few of the great social injustices have been righted by humorists. They’ll highlight it, but usually somebody who’s serious about what they’re doing has to step in and do something about it.
That’s a good call.
There’s a thing that Stephen Colbert says in interviews a lot that I think Peter Cook said before him. He’s usually quoting Peter Cook about how the best satire ever was in Weimar, Germany, when the Nazis were first rising up. It did the job on them. That was the top satire that there ever was and didn’t really do the job that it was hoping for, but … I don’t know who originally said that, but I’m going to give Peter Cook credit through Stephen Colbert.
Works for me.
All right, I’ve got one more Twitter question before we go to the audience.
These people are starved to ask questions.
They’re starved. This question comes from Cynthia Olsen, who’s the comms director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Are you in here, Cynthia? There you are. She tweeted earlier.
Thanks for coming.
She asked about the internship program for vets, and that it’s inspired other employers to offer similar opportunities. How did it come about?
The full details of that I don’t know for sure. I wish I could say I had more involvement with that program than I do because I had minimal, but that was very much from Jon seeing an absence of programs that were not just about bringing a veteran in for the day and showing him, “This is how this place works. Anyway, good luck. See you,” but about actually placing them. We had this program that I … I’m going to keep talking as if I’m there, but this program that brings groups of veterans in, and they see how the show gets put together. Then it ends with them having meetings with different departments, and it ends with a job fair where different employers come, and a number of people have gotten jobs. We’ve hired some people from it who are fantastic at their jobs. I think it was … veterans’ care and veterans’ issues is a big, important issue for Jon. It’s something that’s about as close to him as anything I can think of. I think he just saw that there was an absence of programs that were doing that middle step. They’re like you can tell a veteran how something works, and then step three is they get a job, but the step two of how do they find that job or how does the employer find them, nobody was filling or not enough people were filling.
It came from that, and the goal of it was to get people jobs and to try to … It wasn’t one of those things where we were like, hey, they stole our idea, that other company that’s doing this. We want other people to do that. It’s another example of actively looking at a problem and trying to actively think of a solution. He [Jon] said, “This is something that’s a problem. How can I do something about it that’s not just … I can go on TV and I can say this is a problem, but how can I do something more than that?” If I was putting myself in his head, maybe that was the way he was thinking about it. I have a disclaimer that I don’t … I cannot claim knowledge of what goes on inside Jon’s head or anybody else’s — but that kind of active focus on things.
That’s great. If there are questions, I’d like to open up. We’ve got somebody right up front. There are mics coming at you from both directions, I think.
If you know semaphore, and you have semaphore practice, we can answer them that way. I don’t know semaphore, but I can guess at what the questions are.
Audience: Hi, Elliott.
Audience: I’m with the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. I was wondering if you can share some of your Ghostbusters jokes.
You planted that question, didn’t you?
Thanks. I’ll pay you afterwards. They were all situational. I can’t remember them. When the 25th anniversary of Ghostbusters came up in 2009, I was pushing really hard that we should do a week where there were just clips of Ghostbusters that would say, “Happy 25th, Ghostbusters,” but then I also wanted them to be Christmas themes because I thought it would be really funny to make the audience question what exactly we were celebrating here, but nobody was interested. It was not an idea that went very far. There was a lot of just comparing situations to Ghostbusters or trying to use clips from it or … it was a big thing for me.
It’s a regret.
Yeah. Someday, I’ll do a Daily Show-type show that’s just coverage of Ghostbusters.
our daily ghost. Is that a hand?
Audience: This question goes back to referencing Stewart as a political dad. I feel like that comes from this trust and this ethical presence that he brings. I feel like that’s essential to the conversion from comedy to inspiring action. I was just wondering how you embed that into comedic writing, and how you balance the comedy with the serious sort of injustice that he often brought to the show.
In his case, he is brilliant, so that helped. A lot of it, I think, was being honest about how we felt about things and not telling jokes that — even if they were funny jokes — did not accurately sum up how we felt about a thing or didn’t, but feeling like it was OK for Jon to put out there how he feels about something, and that the audience will respond to it honestly either by agreeing, or if they don’t agree, at least recognizing that he’s not playing a part or just posing or something like that. The comedy and the seriousness would flow from that to a certain extent.
If you mean like a mix of how do we figure out the mix of goofiness and seriousness, it was a lot of like boating down a river rapid, just kind of trying to go with the momentum of where the story was taking us. In general, I think the only way to earn the kind of trust that Jon had and that feeling of political dad was just to be open the way that he was and not to ever say something because he thought it was the thing that people wanted him to say, or for us to write something because it was an easy way to get out of an act or an easy way to make a joke about something. The conversations we would have in meetings where we would say, “Well, how would we solve this?” were very frustrating to me many times because I didn’t know.
Like I was saying, those were helpful because we could figure out how we felt about things. A lot of our meetings were divided between joking around and nonsense and goofiness, and I felt like I was better at providing that, and genuinely talking about how we felt about things so that we could get a sense of what’s our immediate reaction to this story. What’s our reaction once we talk about it and think about it more, and actually get to know it, that we’re not just going off of our first instinct. Maybe that first instinct was right or maybe it informs what we’re thinking, but once we really learned what this is, how do we feel about that? I wouldn’t say there were stories where we were like, “That’s great,” and then we learned more about it and we were like, “That’s terrible,” but there were stories where we would see that the news was not covering them accurately.
We would have to do a lot of self-education because the easy thing would be to just go along with the pack and just take it for granted what the news was saying, but then sometimes we’d have to … There was this bill that was being called the Monsanto Protection Act that was about lawsuits about something … the official name wasn’t the Monsanto Protection Act, but the news was covering it in a very shallow way. We talked about it a lot, and talked to a lot of people who were professors in agricultural law and in copyright law and things like that to figure out what does this bill actually say? Does it say what the news says it says? It was doing all that work that helped us to realize, OK, our feelings on this are a little more complicated than we originally thought, and being open about that — knowing that we can disagree with our core audience without them throwing up their hands and being outraged and walking away.
We knew that any time we did a headline that was criticizing Obama, we knew it would take the audience a little bit longer to get on board, whereas if we put Bill O’Reilly or Dick Cheney on screen, the audience would be like, “Yeah, whatever you say next I agree with,” but not being afraid of that and not just following along with this is what they want from us. We know they like it. Let’s just give it to them. I hope that audiences saw Jon saying what he felt and what he thought, and said, “OK, well, I don’t totally agree with you, but like I get that you believe what you’re saying, so I’ll think about it.” Just honesty seems like the main thing.
Question over here, and up in front.
You’re better at spotting people’s hands than I am. It’s just a blur to me.
It’s the glasses.
Audience: I’m from the New York Public Library.
From the New York Public Library?
I’m a big fan of that library.
Tell people … There’s a Ghostbusters connection, of course, right?
Yeah, well, I’m not going to say that’s not part of it, yeah. When I was a kid and grew up in New Jersey, we’d go into New York, and if we were walking by the library, my mom would be like, “That’s the Ghostbusters library,” and I’d be like, “You’re right. It is.”
Audience: I’m not here to tell you that we also have books, but I will also say that among the things that most impressed me about Stewart’s career and the show is that he quit, that he moved along. I think that’s just a really interesting message to kind of be at the height of one’s career and to move on. I’m sure you all talked and thought about that a lot internally. How did you experience that?
Talked about it in terms of before he made the decision or after he made the decision?
Audience: Just making the decision, and we can all look at political figures or sports figures who stay too long, or very rarely do you see people leave at the right time, in the apex of their career to go on and do other things. I was inspired by that. I just wondered what you thought about that or how folks experienced that.
I think I was fairly inspired by it, too. Knowing that he is a … active is the word that I keep turning to. He wants to do things actively. He never, it felt like, wanted to do something with half effort or just because he knew how to do it and was always challenging himself. That’s something that was very inspiring to me. The discussion when we knew he was leaving around the show was more like, “What’s going to happen to us? Do we still have jobs? What’s going on?” I think for a lot of people it’s going to take time for them to figure out what it meant for him and what it really felt like. It did feel weirdly, from the media attention, like he was dying. There was that show after he announced where he was like, “I’m not really … Am I dying?” It’s hard to look at it objectively when it had such a big impact on my daily life, so from my own point of view, there is something inspiring about it, but it’s difficult for me to separate that from my own regular feelings. Ask me again in 30 years, and I think I’ll be able to do it.
People say … they were like, “What are we going to do without Jon?” I feel like the situation now is so much different now that he’s leaving than when he started when there were not really any other shows doing what we were doing. Now I feel like there’re so many shows doing what we were doing and doing it well, that … This is me treating Jon like a fictional character again, but maybe he was like, “You know what? Now I don’t need to be the only one. All these other people are here like in a very … George Washington moment of like, “Oh, the Republic is strong enough. I’ll go back to the farm now.” He would not want to be compared to George Washington. He would probably be very uncomfortable with that, but it feels like there’s a … if Jon being a dad is the metaphor, then there’s a lot of Jon’s kids out there who are doing shows like this that are performing a similar function. Maybe there was a sense of, if you’re not the only one, then you can afford to stop doing it. I don’t know. Most likely he was just tired. I don’t know, but that was my main reason for going. It was me tired.
There’s a question up here. A couple of questions up front.
I’m so excited I got to talk to somebody from the Public Library. Not to steal your thunder. Your question is going to be great.
Audience: I’m from Next Generation in San Francisco. I was at the Rally to Restore Sanity.
Audience: Which was fantastic.
How far were you from the stage?
That was most people’s experience.
Audience: Yeah, that was what was, I think, so interesting to me. I was there with my brother who was wearing a bear costume. It’s a long story.
I get it. You don’t have to explain it to me.
Audience: What struck me was the amount of people that came. I think it was close to 200,000 people or something. I don’t know, a huge amount of people.
It was many more people than we expected, yeah.
Audience: I think … that was my question. How did doing the show on a daily basis and for so many years — was it a different experience to be able to look out on that sea of people? Did you have a different experience of an audience because people loved it? People were happy that day.
I hope so. I don’t know. That’s a good question. It’s something I haven’t … I have a thing that I call Daily Show memory where we don’t really remember most of the stuff that we did, and time has dilated in a weird sense where the rally feels like it was last year and it feels like it was 20 years ago at the same time. I was looking at it from afar, too, because I was a staff writer at the time, and I was so focused on the day-to-day stuff that it felt like the rally was this big thing that was going on on the side that I was excited about, but I didn’t know entirely what they were doing.
It was very exciting to see that many people wanting to be a part of it, and R2D2 was there, so that was pretty exciting. I did not get to take a picture with him, but maybe someday. It was kind of a strange event. When it was over, I got to go up on the stage and just see all the people stretching way, way back. It was very strange. It was like being at the head of this enormous army, but then the army was there mainly just to have a good time and wear bear costumes, a very undisciplined army.
Audience: But cuddly.
Yeah, a very cuddly army, yeah.
Audience: Thank you for being here. This has been great. I think the thing for me that relates really well to what is going on here and the people in the audience is that The Daily Show and what you and Jon and all the staff did there was to really create a voice for people and to filter the news, the events, all of the things that we are faced with, and to filter it through humor but also that real authenticity which I think is what brought people back, right? That’s his voice. That’s Jon’s voice. It’s what you all helped to create. I honestly think that that’s a huge loss for us, even with the shows that are out now. Jon had brought such depth of emotion and real authenticity which you don’t see very often. I have two things. One is, when you read the news now, I just wonder, processing it through humor must be a really nice relief.
No, not at all.
It feels like the exact opposite.
I used to say all the time to people I worked with … I was like, “The news has it easy because they can just say things. They don’t have to make them funny while they’re saying them.” It’s a big challenge providing relief to others. Just speaking for myself, it was a lot of work and very stressful.
Audience: The work was stressful, but to be able to laugh about it. That didn’t feel … you never kind of reveled in that?
We laughed about lots of other stuff that was more fun. I got a lot of satisfaction out of it and out of being able to work with people who were so good at it. There were times when other people would say jokes at the show where maybe it gave me some relief about something. Speaking for myself — and I can only speak for myself — there was never a time when I was like, “Thank goodness, I have jokes to help me through this.” It was like, “Why do I have to write jokes about this stuff? The news, they can just say a terrible thing happens. They don’t have to make a joke about it.” That’s the way it is. Our job was not to … We had a lot of fun making that show, but our job was not to have fun. Our job was to make the best show so other people would enjoy it.
I used to say all the time that … I love sayings that the other writers, I think, are happy to not have to listen to anymore. It’s like in Fiddler on the Roof, Lazar Wolf says to Tevye, “I’m not going to be your son-in-law. I don’t have to listen to your sayings,” but the reason they paid us wasn’t to write jokes because we were going to be writing jokes anyway in our spare time. That’s what we like to do. The reason they paid us was to rewrite the jokes we had and to write specific jokes. I love writing comedy and I get so much fun out of it, but the work was, “You’re not choosing what you get to write about today. You have to write about this because this is what happened. Even if you don’t feel like that’s the thing you want to write about, you have to do it. That’s the job.”
When it was all done, I had the relief of being like, “I don’t have to write jokes about that again,” until a week later when the exact same story would happen. Then the challenge was, but we did those jokes. What are we going to do this time? When we come up with over-the-shoulders, the graphic puns that are on Jon’s shoulder, when the healthcare bill was being debated and sent through and then they did the votes on it years ago at the beginning of Obama’s presidency, we ran out of health puns relatively quickly. It became so tortuous to … we were just trying so hard to come up with new ways to pun off of health or healthcare. It was so good for us that there was more than one Hellraiser movie because we could do Healthraiser a couple of times, but it was … that was the tough part of it. That was the work of it. In some ways it was more noble because it was work rather than play or something. I don’t know.
Audience: Thank you for making me laugh for so many years very much.
Thank you for watching and laughing at it.
It would have been really disappointing for us if we didn’t have laughter when Jon said things.
Audience: My question is about audience and how you think about audience. Is it overwhelming to think about the entire nation? Did you write for the entire nation, or was it easier to think about writing to one person?
In my mind, I was writing for Jon, and I wanted to write something that he was satisfied with and that he liked and that hopefully he thought was funny. If the audience liked that, too, then that was great. I trusted that if Jon liked it, the audience would like it because Jon knew his audience so well and knows what he’s doing so well. When I was writing, it was very rarely with thinking of how will the nation respond to this. Even if I was thinking, “How will our audience respond to this?” it would be like, “Ah, there’s a good pot joke here, but if I write it, the audience is going to go ‘whoo,’ and then they’re going to applaud because we mentioned marijuana, and I don’t want to do that.” Being a comedy writer, I am quicker to complain about things than to look at them in a positive way, so I think I did more complaining to myself about the audience than anything else, but for me the audience was … for the writing was Jon. Jon was the person that I wanted to reach. I knew that he knew what he was doing. If he was really into something, then it was 99 percent likely that the audience would be into it, too.
In writing, maybe the thing is to pick your key person or your key tiny audience that is a good marker for you of how other people would respond or even whose respect you care about. If I wrote something and Jon respected it, then that was worth much more to me than if a million people laughed at it or something like that. I think, write stuff for Jon and see what he feels about it. Just mail it to him.
We’ve gone way over, but thank you so much for staying and asking questions, and I think you hear the applause. That’s for you.
Oh, for me, thank you. Thank you so much for having me. This has been great. I enjoyed it. I don’t know if you guys did, but I did, so I feel like it’s worth it.