Lessons from The Daily Show
- Comedy can be a tool for attracting attention to social change issues. It can help shrink large issues down to a digestible size and drive action.
- Framing problems in ways that strike an emotional chord with an audience, creates deeper connection and engagement.
- Cool is important. To stay relevant, organizations today need to be innovative, and show that they are at the intersection of culture and technology.
The Communications Network Board member Jesse Salazar recently sat down with The Daily Show Head Writer and ComNet15 keynote speaker Elliott Kalan to discuss Elliott’s comedic rise, what it’s like to work with Jon Stewart, and what social sector communicators can learn from comedians. A lightly edited transcript follows.
Jesse Salazar: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. I’m excited to hear your thoughts on how comedy shapes social change. The Communications Network focuses its attention on using communications to help create social change.
Elliott Kalan: I think that’s a good idea. It’s better than using crime to create social change. Communication is, I think, a better method for that.
We think so too. Let’s start by hearing a bit about you and how you came to comedy?
I’m just your regular comedy obsessive. I came to comedy organically. I was a very shy kid. I was a big bookworm, and I watched a lot of comedy movies, sketch comedy, stand-up, and a lot of television. As a kid I was really obsessed with comedy. It was something that I felt I had an interest in and a facility for.
Then I went to college for screenwriting. I’d always wanted to be a writer, so I went to college for screenwriting – it seemed like a good thing to waste my parents’ money on.
While there, my friend, Brock Mahan, and I became a sketch performing duo, called the Hypocrites. For years, we performed in various basements around New York City. We would rent out second or third floor walk-up theaters and put on sketch shows that would be attended by our relatives, and our friends, and not too many other people.
In the fall of 2002, I interned at the Daily Show, which was already a big show, but not quite as big as it is now. I got in the door right as things were ramping up. Then, I just never left.
Since then I’ve been working my way up the ranks to being a segment producer on the show, and then being a writer, and then finally head writer. I’m extremely lucky that things worked out the way I wanted them to when I was 13.
What did you think was the funniest thing growing up?
Monty Python, Mr. Show, and Kids In The Hall – oh, and Looney Tunes cartoons. When I was very young I got into comedy through Warner Brothers cartoons, especially. And the Marx Brothers.
Gremlins 2 opened up my eyes to a lot of different ways of doing comedy that I hadn’t seen before, like meta-comedy and breaking the fourth wall. For a kid, that was very revolutionary.
THE POWER OF ACTIVE WRITING
[Elliott Kalan as Toppington von Monocle]
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 there? 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?
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.
[pullquote1 align=”center” textColor=”#000000″]They use the phrase “bleeding-edge tech” a lot, because in today’s age, “cutting-edge tech” is no longer cool. Now, people have to really be shedding blood in order to matter. They can’t just be ok, they have to be everything.[/pullquote1]
COMEDY AND SOCIAL CHANGE
I find this really relevant to our work in creating social change. Just as you actively look for the comedy of a moment, we often look for its humanity. The comedy narrative is really sticky because people remember the humor in things. In philanthropy, 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.
Stewart is well-known for using comedy to shape attitudes. 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.
Right, I learned a ton from him on vitamin supplements.
Yeah, exactly. At the very least, they seem to be informing people about things they didn’t know about. That’s an impact.
FOLLOWING YOUR HONEST FEELING
One of the most poignant memories of my life came from the Daily Show after 9/11. I distinctly remember a national freeze on TV, comedy, commercials, etc.. 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.
Oh, yeah. Let me ask you this. Outside of comedy circles, who in politics has used comedy really effectively?
I think the President 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.
What happens when you think that one of your jokes is hysterical and you’ve just been thinking about it laughing, you present it, and Jon Stewart doesn’t think it’s funny at all? What is that death like?
The first time it happens it’s not so great. But at this point I’ve had many jokes bomb in meetings, bomb in scripts, bomb in rewrite with Jon and the executive producers… It’s disappointing when I think, “This is going to make the whole room bust up,” and then nobody likes it. But a joke that nobody laughs at is almost funnier to me now.
Norm Macdonald has turned bombing into an art. It’s funnier to watch him tell jokes that the audience doesn’t enjoy because he takes such pleasure in their non-enjoyment. You should look up his performance at the Roast of Bob Saget.
Norm Macdonald is telling the dumbest jokes. He’s like, “Bob Saget has a lot of well-wishers here today. They wish they could throw him in a well.” That’s the joke. You see him pause. He’s pausing for the not-laughter that doesn’t exist, and it’s so funny. I feel like I’ve hopefully developed that in the room, at least, where I’ll tell a joke and nobody will like it, and that will make it more enjoyable to me. The more you bomb in front of people the more fun it gets. You really have to cultivate an enjoyment of irritating people.
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.”
MOST REGRETABLE JOKE
In retrospect, what was the worst joke that you’ve ever told in the writer’s room?
There have been a lot of them. A lot of them are plays on words that nobody likes. I will tell you about a good joke that I’m ashamed of.
There was a news piece about President Obama’s daughters that focused on all the toys and dolls they were carrying around. The reporter said something silly like, “This is important to report because first children are often the starter of national trends.” They gave an example of something that Jimmy Carter’s daughter did.
I told a joke in the meeting, which ended up in the show: “Yes, just like when young Willie Lincoln began the national craze of dying of scarlet fever.” I was proud of that joke because it came from my specific area of interest, from all my reading about Lincoln.
It went over really big, and it made the point we wanted to make about how stupid the thing they were saying on the news was. But ever since then, I’ve been worried about going to heaven some day and seeing Lincoln there. How am I going to explain to him that I made a joke about the death of his son? It was a devastating moment for Lincoln, and he never completely recovered emotionally. What a terrible thing I did.
[pullquote1 align=”center” textColor=”#000000″]It’s interesting that you mention his after-September 11th show, because I had a very similar experience watching that…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. 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.[/pullquote1]
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.”
Whereas Spider-Man is spending his time swinging around to cheer up a child who you as a reader later learn is dying of cancer. [Referencing The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man, check it out!]
Yeah, exactly. Such a fantastic story. It showed that Spider-Man really feels it.
I remember reading it for the first time at a friend’s house, and it hit me so hard I couldn’t play with him. I had to go home. That comic ended the play date.
For those who don’t know the story, Spider-Man reads about a kid who is dying of cancer that’s obsessed with him. He decides to visit him. Swings around the city with him, and then decides to give him the greatest gift he can give, his secret identity. After Spider-Man leaves, there are several panels of him standing outside by the sign for the child hospice, and he’s just drawn with pure sorrow. As a reader, you can tell this has affected him deeply. He feels it.
By contrast, we think of Superman dealing with emotional suffering in a strange, Olympic way –“Kid with cancer? I’ll hit a hundred home runs for him at the Home Run Derby.” Then, he flies away with a “Get better, chum!”
Whereas, with Spider-Man, he’s going to spend some time with you, and he’s going to do his best not to show you how sad you’re making him. Then when he leaves, he’s just going to be destroyed. That’s his heroism. So many of the Marvel heroes are like that, where they’re heroes because there’s some kind of a flaw in themselves that they have to overcome.
Spider-Man has noble principles, but essentially he’s a hero out of guilt, and out of this fear that he is not going to be there for somebody when they need him. That’s a very real fear.
[The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man, written by Roger Stern, originally published in The Amazing Spider-Man #248 in 1984]
LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM WOLVERINE AND CAPTAIN AMERICA
You’ve written for Wolverine, who was a massively popular character in the 1980’s and 90’s. For a while you could put him in or on anything, and it would sell. Why is it that Wolverine has become less popular over the years?
I take issue with that premise. Wolverine is still super awesome and is still one of the top characters.
One of the things I like about Wolverine is that he has aged and developed over time. He’s still a brawler and a tough guy and a bad ass, but he’s no longer the loose cannon that he once was. In a comic I wrote, I got to deal with this guy who used to be the loner and now has this extensive family of characters who rely on him, that he worries about. Twenty years ago, he was the guy who would just enter a situation and kill a bunch of people, and then he’d be off on his own on a motorcycle and throw a cigar at somebody. That was him.
People love the loose cannon who gets results.
Then he went from being the bad kid in the neighborhood to being the dad of the X-Men – their leader. When Wolverine had responsibility, he stopped being the cool guy. Once he’s the guy who’s giving orders he can’t be the loose cannon anymore. But he strains against that responsibility, which I think still makes him cool!
In contrast, Captain America lives his leadership. His leadership involves helping his team to feel that they can achieve the impossible. They follow him because they know he would make any sacrifice needed for what’s right. He also harnesses their best qualities. He believes in his team.
WHY THE WORLD IS IN LOVE WITH A BILLIONAIRE PLAYBOY
Tony Stark aka Iron Man has had no fewer than 5 number one box office movies. What he can he teach social change communicators about the zeitgeist?
Iron Man is a fantasy figure who can kind of do whatever he wants because he doesn’t have any responsibility to anybody. He’s going to be a hero because it’s the right thing to do, but he’s also on a big thrill ride.
He’s a hero because it’s cool. Not because of his willingness to sacrifice.
Yeah, exactly. He’s doing it because it’s cool. In the comics they’ve really played that up, where he is this kind of avatar of well-meaning but often soulless capitalism and technology. He is always talking about how cool everything he does is, and he’s got all this cool tech. He’s is always promoting his own merits.
They use the phrase “bleeding-edge tech” a lot, because in today’s age, “cutting-edge tech” is no longer cool. Now, people have to really be shedding blood in order to matter. They can’t just be ok, they have to be everything.
That’s such an incredible point to make because I think many of us feel like there’s a constant pressure to adopt the latest hot thing, and you’ve helped locate that feeling in the culture. That tendency provides some smart commentary on the social demands of our digital age.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON SOCIAL SECTOR COMMUNICATIONS
I’m in awe of anyone who works in the field you’re working in. I’m impressed by those who try to make things better and write something meaningful, without falling back on comedy. In comedy, the major goal is to make people laugh, so if we don’t change anyone’s mind, at least, we’ll think, “Well, they thought it was funny.” But to work without that safety net is awe-inspiring to me. I’m very intimidated by that.
I want to end by saying thank you. At so many points in my career, I have been touched by The Daily Show. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania as a young gay kid, and always felt weird.
Jon Stewart always made me feel like a normal person, and I really appreciate that.
That’s fantastic. That makes it feel like we’re doing something other than telling poop and balls jokes all day. That is a very nice thing to hear, so thank you very much. Because we do. We do tell a lot of balls jokes all day long.
Balls are hysterical. The kicking of them, the throwing of them.
I would call them the funniest body part.
Thank you, Elliott. Thank you.
Who do you think is the funniest late night host?
Jon Stewart. By far. Not a political answer, just an honest answer.
Would you rather bring into to the writers for him an improviser or a stand-up comedian? If you had the best of both?
The best of both. Hire them both. If these are the best two people we’ve got to have them.
New York comedy or Chicago comedy?
New York, for me. Chicago feels more like an improv town and New York feels more like a stand-up town. I just feel more at home with New York comedy. It’s the scene that I grew up in, and I just don’t know the Chicago scene as well. But any time I’m in Chicago I make sure to go see comedy there, and it’s always really funny.
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 1940’s 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.
Favorite X-Men character?
After the experience of writing the character, I’m going to go with one of the younger characters, Glob Herman, who is- His whole power is that he is just a see-through blob, and you can see his skeleton through his gross flammable skin. He has a real bad attitude about everything. He’s just a total teen who is always surly and mad all the time.
[Spider-man and the X-Men, by Elliot Kalan.]
Best classic X-Men?
I’d say maybe Beast. When I was younger I gravitated to the characters who were the smart scientist characters. He was a really funny character. He would quote Tennyson, shout “Oh my stars and garters!” or “Blue blazes.”
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.