Running the writing room
Words of wisdom
Ben Karlin, executive producer of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, isn't all that familiar with the starving writer's plight. Although countless Hollywood hopefuls pound the pavement and suffer endless rejection before penning a pilot that never airs, Karlin found success shortly after landing in Los Angeles.
As an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, Karlin had written for The Onion, the satirical newspaper that started at the university before expanding nationwide.
After graduating in 1993, he worked as the paper's editor, before joining former staffers with television ambitions—if not TV experience—in L.A. in 1996. The five-person crew, known as “the Onion guys,” sold a pilot to Fox just months after Karlin, then 25, touched down. Prophetically enough, the pilot was a news spoof called Deadline: Now.
“It was a very atypical Hollywood story,” he admits. “There really wasn't a period of trying to prove ourselves. We had good success right out of the gate.”
Although the pilot never made it to TV, it did lead to a steady stream of work for the Onion guys, punching up scripts for films such as Ice Age and Monkeybone, writing pilots, and writing for sci-fi comedy Space Ghost Coast to Coast on the Cartoon Network. But despite the financial security, Karlin was frustrated by how little impact he felt he was making on the entertainment world.
Still, his body of work was substantial enough to catch the eye of The Daily Show producers, who offered him a plum post: head writer. While considering the job, Karlin got sage advice from showbiz vet Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show, The Ben Stiller Show), whom he calls a “semi-mentor.”
“He said, 'You can either be working, or you can be preparing to work. All the pilots and development stuff was preparing to work—always, 'Look what I can do!'” says Karlin, now 34. “I took the chance to do some actual work that would build a little bit of a legacy.”
Running the writing room
Relocating to New York in 1999, Karlin was woefully unprepared for a job in TV, he says: “I'd never been on the set of a television show before. All of a sudden, I was running the writing room. At no point in my life did I feel like a bigger fraud.”
Jon Stewart, who had replaced Craig Kilborn as host four months before, says Karlin is selling himself short. “Because Ben was an editor, he was very good at understanding the parameters of what we have to work with,” says Stewart. “Lots of guys are creative and smart, but they say things like, 'It's a great bit. All we need is a thousand guys dressed as Russian soldiers.'”
Karlin—who says he grew up on “smart comedy” such as Monty Python, Letterman and Seinfeld—eventually earned the trust of his staff. Gradually, he learned the television business, too, and moved up to executive producer near the end of 2002.
As both he and Stewart grew more comfortable in their roles, Comedy Central's satirical show emerged from cult favorite to nothing short of a pop-culture icon, one with seven Emmys in the bag since Karlin came on board. Earning its biggest raves when the country's political climate is at its most fevered, The Daily Show not only entertains viewers but—to the consternation of current-events teachers everywhere—serves as a primary source of world news to many.
Although Karlin is iffy about The Daily Show's role in keeping people informed, he does believe that its place in TV history appears secure. “I don't think there's anything else right now that's doing what we're doing, the way we're doing it,” he says. “I have no illusions about what kind of effect the show has, but as far as injecting original genetic material into the giant biomass of pop culture, we've done that.”
Raised in Massachusetts, Karlin is typically one of the last to go home at the end of the day. He unwinds with extreme exercise; he recently completed a triathlon that saw him swim a mile, bike 25 miles, then run six more. “I enjoy spending time focusing on areas where I'm inadequate,” he says.
Karlin's stamina will be seriously tested in the coming months. He's an executive producer on The Colbert Report, starring Daily correspondent Stephen Colbert, which debuts later this month. After the success of America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction (1.25 million books in print in the U.S.), he says, the Daily Show gang is working on a follow-up, along with a handful of film projects. (For more information on The Daily Show's projects, see page 4.)
Stewart is impressed by Karlin's ability to stay focused while juggling multiple tasks, even comparing him to Keanu Reeves' character in The Matrix. “Ben's smart, he's sane, and he does triathlons,” says Stewart. “He's like Neo: The rest of us see everything in regular motion, but Ben sees the zeroes and ones, even while being attacked by 20 ninjas.”
Words of wisdom
Like Odenkirk, who shone light on Karlin's career path nearly a decade ago, Karlin has words of wisdom for the next wave of aspiring scribes: “Don't listen to anybody! Nobody knows what they're talking about.”
Striking a more serious tone, Karlin adds, “There's this weird combination of natural talent, skill development and ambition, and people that have various combinations of those things seem to be the most successful.”