One of the panels at IFP's phenomenal Script to Screen Conference this weekend was A Conversation With Steve Bodow (Head Writer, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart). Moderated by Jason Guerrasio (Managing Editor, Filmmaker Magazine), the conversation was a refreshingly frank behind-the-scenes look at the show's creative process. It also included a lot of valuable information for anyone with dreams of one day writing for the Comedy Central show, which features some of the most hilarious and excoriating social commentary on TV.
Note that these quotes are culled from my real-time notes, so this is more paraphrastic than word-for-word.
On the show's configuration
There are 10-12 writers, and 8 or so producers in charge of finding the clips you see on the show. Every day starts with a meeting between the two groups.
The show has an insane schedule -- it's very iterative, as we go through 4-5 drafts of each script; segments are sometimes put together in as little time as 24 hours; longer pieces can take upwards of a week. But in a pressure situation, in the writing room during rewrites, a writer can spit out 5 or 6 funny jokes in 5-10 minutes. It's what the hive mind can do.
A typical day is 10 hours, about 9am-7pm. It can get longer but that's typical. I think we get as much done in those 10 hours as other places might in 12 or 14. The structural, internal dynamic stuff is really efficient; it comes from Jon on down that people have families and want to have lives. That makes the day intense, but I do get home to see my kids and that isn't always the case in this kind of job.
Writers most often work in teams of two and sometimes work alone; some writers have a temperament where they want to work alone. There's also full-room writing so there are basically three modes, and everyone has to be able to do all three.
We actually write the show in this AP news writer software and it's terrible and arcane but it's what we use. We pick the jokes and write the scripts and assemble them in a rough order. We have multicolored index cards for the general shape of the show, the scripts come in, and then we kind of shape it by hand.
We help shape the field pieces and sometimes come up with ideas, but there is a separate staff devoted to the field pieces (where correspondents head to locations to interview subjects); they're basically making short films. These producers might've gone to film school or were previously staff at other news magazine shows -- field pieces usually take about a month to do. That involves booking talent, traveling, shooting hours of footage, editing it all down to 4 minutes -- the regular writers like us are not hugely involved.
On how he got hired and became head writer
Eight years ago, I knew a guy who knew a guy at the show and I called him; he said I should call when an opening happened, but it was rare: "no one leaves these gigs." However, three weeks later someone left, and I put a packet together. They don't care what you've done before so much as they care about, "can you write for this show?"
How did you get into the head writer gig? I killed two people. No, people do leave; the previous head writer left to be a film producer, and I was promoted because... I'm tall?
On hiring new writers
When we need new writers we do put out feelers to agents, but it turns out the personal network of writers who know other writers etc. is much more helpful. This last round we needed three writers; we got 150 submissions, and ended up choosing the three writers from very different backgrounds -- one was from the print world, one was a theater parody writer, and the third person was the show's own writer's assistant. We read the submissions blind and pick the best material; your resume up to that point doesn't matter.
What exactly do aspiring Daily Show writers submit? It's a packet of material you write specifically for the show, about ten minutes of material. You write the different segments we do, like "chats," where Jon talks to a correspondent, for example. Can you write the voice of the show? Can you write funny jokes? Can you write them densely? Can you integrate the different kinds of media -- tape, visuals, soundbites, etc. -- into writing, and not just write funny monologues for Jon? The formatting doesn't matter; Word is adequate to the task. As long as it's clear what's going on.
Do people blindly submit or do you ask? You have to come recommended from some place when we're looking (which we're not right now). You have to know someone or have a connection. ((The takeaway is thus: your resume doesn't have to be long, and you don't need to have written comedy news material before. But you do need to be a writer, and you need to have connections. Rome wasn't built in a day, so if you're reading this because your dream is to write for The Daily Show... start making connections!))
Since the show has become more popular over the past several years, is there more of a feeling of responsibility that "this is where young people get their news," and you have to report everything? No, that would kill the show. It's a comedy show and we need to make ourselves laugh. We can't take on the responsibility of "first we must educate!"
When the show takes breaks, does it get you that there's good material happening while you're away? Absolutely, it's a kind of therapy to be in a place where you can work out your problems with what's going on in the world. It's a creative release. Last summer we went on long break for the summer and Sarah Palin resigned and gave a crazy, incoherent speech, and we were like, it's too bad we have to go on vacation! Life is so hard.
How has the show changed from the Bush administration to Obama? That's a work in progress. The figure in the White House is now less of a subject for us, although there's plenty of whack stuff they've done. But now the emphasis is less on what they're doing and more on how it's being covered in the media, especially by Fox News. We have to hold ourselves back as we could do Fox-News-Fox-News-Fox-News every day -- not because it's our personal vendetta but because they've really turned up their volume. Instead of going out with something about them every day, we have to think about, what can we say about the larger things Fox New is up to? Instead of just a day-to-day thing.
What is your relationship with the White House? We've had a lot of cabinet members on the show -- eight or nine, I think. Judging from that it seems they're eager to have their people on the show, which is different from the previous administration. But I don't think we're going easy on them or anything.
Jon isn't in all the meetings, but he's in all the important ones. This is really his show, he has the most ideas, he calls the shots, and he's the final re-writer: it's his to a complete degree. People pitch to him -- they also pitch to me, and others act as filters, but everything goes through Jon.
He does quite a bit of reading to prep for the interviews. The writers help come up with the questions, and there is some "gaming out" of where the conversation might go, but it's not rehearsed or anything.
When you're coming onto the show to be interviewed by Jon, don't try to be funny. It's just a contest you'll lose!