September 12, 2007

The Cornell Connection: Jason Reich '98

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Hey there Ignorant Ivan! Name two cool alumni from Cornell! Well, you probably can’t, so Daze comes to the rescue (again) by talking to Cornell alums in arts & entertainment that you can aspire to be (before you end up taking a soulless job in finance.) In the inaugural installment of Coolnell (tentative title …), Daze talked with Jason Reich ’98, a four-time Emmy award-winning staff writer at The Daily Show.

Sun: What was Cornell like for you? You studied Communications while you were here, right?
Jason Reich: Um hmm.
Sun: Was that ever particularly useful later in your life or in your job, or both?
JR: It’s the kind of thing, and I know people say this a lot, but the courses were interesting, I liked it, but its hard to say that there’s necessarily a direct application of that stuff to the work that I do. I think its more like — this is like right out of the Cornell brochure — you really get exposed to so many different things, both in your regular classes and your electives. In the Communication department, you could really research the things that interested you in the context of these Comm classes. And I think that’s what makes a lot of the writers on the show really particularly funny because people have such a broad range of experience and people know so much about so many things that it really informs the way people write jokes for the show. You get a lot of unexpected references and very smart jokes because people are just well-read and well-studied. There’s not really a direct one-to-one correspondence, but its sort of the whole general exposure to smart people and smart things.
Sun: What are some of the other majors that the other writers had?
JR: I think we have an English major … since I’ve been here, we had a guy who was pre-med who was all set to go to be a doctor and then got the Daily Show job and took the job. We had a guy who was a lawyer for many years and then gave up lawyering and started doing stand-up and the Daily Show for many years after that. So it’s really a very mixed background of what people have done and what people have studied. Plenty of journalism people — we have a lot of writers who are magazine writers, a couple of those guys who are there now, some who have been ad copyrighters before the show. A lot of different types of writing, not necessarily comedy or late-night writing, so it’s a nice mix.
Sun: There’s a lot of Ivy Leaguers writing for the Daily Show, right?
JR: I don’t think there’s a disproportionate amount there now. There are definitely a few. I’m the only Cornell guy. We got, let’s see, a Yale guy … I wanna say we have a Brown guy?
Sun: I looked it up and I think that UPenn might have been the only school that wasn’t represented [laughs]
JR: Really? There’s definitely a Harvard guy. I guess so. Plenty of people have come through that have represented a fair amount of the Ivies. That’s what people say about late-night in comedy writing, that its like the Harvard Mafia, but people come from all over.
Sun: How do you best represent Cornell in that environment?
JR: People aren’t necessarily coming into work flying their school colors, though I think there is a lot of good-natured crapping on other people’s schools. [Laughs] I think people are pretty cool about it. I’m trying to think if I’ve gotten in any specific Cornell jokes or references into the show …
Sun: I can remember at least two but I wonder if they’ve had anything to do with your input directly …
JR: Sure, refresh my memory.
Sun: Once Jon Stewart said that he thought Cornell was going to win the NCAA tournament.
JR: That was not my doing.
Sun: [Laughs] He just thinks its funny on his own.
JR: Yeah, I think so. I feel like if it works for the show I’ll swallow my pride and let Jon Stewart make fun of Cornell.
Sun: There was another time that, it wasn’t really so much about Cornell as it was about Jon’s own fashion sense where he was named a fashion icon by New York Magazine or something, and then to prove them wrong, he put up a picture of him performing at Cornell in sweatpants and like a wifebeater or something.
JR: That’s funny. I would be that that probably just came from Jon. A lot of the stuff that happens at the top of the show is really driven and written by Jon himself so I would guess that probably came directly from him.
Sun: You were in the Skitsophrenics when you were at Cornell, right?
JR: I was.
Sun: Did that ever help you later on in your career, before the Daily Show or during?
JR: Yes, it absolutely did. I mean, it probably was, as opposed to just specific classwork, what I did at Cornell that was most influential and the best training. The Skitsophrenics were really unique in that the shows were entirely written and directed and performed by the students. So we put these shows up, and it was stuff that we thought was funny, but we didn’t really know. You’d go up in front of people and really live or die by the material that you were putting onstage. It really was a crash course in what’s funny, how do I write a joke, what’s the rhythm of a joke that’s going to make people laugh, how is a sketch put together… Being part of that, collaborating with really great, funny people and traveling to other sketch shows and seeing other sketch groups perform, it really was a pretty excellent training ground for that kind of thing. I worked with a bunch of the Skitsophrenics that graduated my year in 1998. When we moved down to the city, we were doing a couple of sketch shows here as well, so that was also helpful to really keep that up. I think the writing at the Daily Show is very different from sketch writing because it’s all very topical and it’s a lot more sort of monologue-style. But that experience of just learning how to put a joke together and performing it and trying to make people laugh was really valuable.
Sun: So is the rhythm of the show more like stand-up than skits? And is that more a description of the opening material and when you write for, say, John Oliver, the Skitsophrenics experience might come in?
JR: I think its more general. I wouldn’t say that writing headlines as opposed to writing for the correspondents, that being in the Skits helps one more than the other. When you’re working with Jon or when you’re working with any of the correspondents, they have a particular voice, and it just comes over time working with them seeing how to write for them and what kind of material they can do best. But in a very general sense, writing a joke and telling it to someone and seeing if they laugh at this thing that you wrote is this really great experience. It teaches you what works and what doesn’t and how to deal with bombing, which we did fairly often in Skits and in my comedy experience after the Skits. [Laughs] So the show itself, its not really sketchy at all because its so closely parodying a news broadcast, but that experience in general was really great.
Sun: I hear you saying a lot that the bombing informed you a lot. Did you ever bomb so bad that its kind of a funnier story now than it even would have been if you had gotten it right?
JR: The Skits were nice because if you weren’t doing that great — first of all, the audience was wasted half the time, and second of all, if you weren’t doing that well, you could just say something snide about the Human Ecology School, and people would laugh. [Laughs] But standup and other sketch shows, I wouldn’t necessarily say the stories are funny but it does teach you to deal with rejection. I’ve gone down in flames onstage a few times. It is a learning experience, I will say that.
Sun: Is it nice to be behind the camera, in that respect, or do you miss being onstage in front of a bunch of people?
JR: I still like doing standup; I still do it from time to time. I like the performance aspect of it. I also like that you can do it for like, ten minutes and then its over. [Laughs] I wouldn’t want to be regularly on camera like a correspondent or the host of a show. I like being able to sit back and write it and collaborate with people and work with Jon and make sure that he comes across as best he can. So I’m getting my performance jones taken care of by doing a little stand up here and there, but I never really had the big performance bug to do anything more than that. I kinda like being behind the curtain.
Sun: Do you have any particularly fond or funny memories from Cornell that you might want to share?
JR: I have to say that working with the Skits is a very fond memory. I have great memories of just two days ‘til the show, and staying up in Risley theatre until three in the morning, trying to rehearse the skits. Everybody hating each other [laughs] and wanting to claw each others’ eyes out and arguing over jokes and which jokes were going to be in the show, and those are some of my fondest memories of Cornell. That was the first time I remember thinking, “Man, this is probably what it’s really like in an actual writers’ room! People yelling at each other and everybody eating junk food and staying up unitl three in the morning, this is it. And this is great.” And there are all these funny, talented people to share that with. Especially in my last couple of years, when I spent a lot more time working with the Skits, performing for them and writing for them, that was a really defining moment of being up at Cornell.
Sun: Are any of your peers from your years at the Skitsophrenics doing anything, even tangentially related, to that kind of comedy work?
JR: Yeah, definitely. A very close friend of mine is producing a pilot for Comedy Central and she’s had a show at the Fringe Festival here in New York, does a lot of stand-up, is a very funny comedian. She was also in the Skits. Actually, another former Skitsophrenic member was doing a lot of blogging and comedy writing for Clear Channel and for the radio stations that Clear Channel owns. There were a lot of offshoot comedy groups. There was another group that Skits, all guys younger than me by a few years, had another very successful comedy group that’s been traveling a lot and doing a lot of press here in New York. People manage to keep it up. Actually, a guy who, as far as I know, didn’t do any comedy at Cornell at all, but lived on my floor freshman year, is now a writer over at Conan, which was a nice surprise to run into him. It’s cool; a lot of people keep it up.
Sun: How did you go from Cornell to being a Daily Show writer? As a graduate, what was the in between stuff that you were doing?
JR: What happened was I started right after I graduated as a production assistant for a TV show called “Lateline,” which, I don’t know if that rings a bell, but it was a sitcom with Al Franken that was kind of like a news-magaziney … basically a fake 20/20 kind of thing, and the sitcom was about people who worked on a show like that. So I got that job through someone I had met through an internship that I did while I was at Cornell, and she brought me on as a production assistant. I did that for a year and then the show eventually was cancelled. Other people that I had met through those experiences brought me onto the Daily Show as a writer’s assistant. They happened to be looking for a writer’s assistant and I was unemployed, and I came on and started there. That job basically was communicating between the writing department and the rest of the show. Aside from the writers we have a graphics department and a field production department and a studio production department that’s involved in getting all the video and producing other segments like “This Week in God” and things like that. The writer’s assistant has to take what the writers are writing to all these people and make sure that it’s going to look the way the writer’s want it to look on the show. I did that for a couple of years, which was amazing on-the-job training. I got to read everything that the department produced, everything that came across my desk, I was always looking at. Eventually, I started writing very small segments of the show, kind of picking up little busywork assignments that people didn’t want to do. I got a couple of jokes on the show and was able to carry more material and pitch more ideas. Eventually it worked out to where I was carrying pretty much a full writer’s load and doing the writers’ assistant job at the same time. So eventually they decided, very generously, to promote me and bump me over to be a full staff writer. That is where I have been ever since.
Sun: Have you seen any big changes in the show over the years that you’ve been there? When you started there, was it a different place than it is now?
JR: Oh yeah. Absolutely. It’s a sea change. I started as a writer’s assistant only two months after Jon did. It was March 1999, and Jon had come in January of that year. So at the time, even Jon was still getting his footing. It was a really exciting time because people really didn’t know what to expect. Under Craig Kilborne, the show was very snarky and kinda bitchy and a lot more celebrity-driven. It didn’t have the gravitas, to use a word that we like to kick around in the office, that it has now. It was like that for a little while and we were sort of trying to figure out what the best way was to use Jon and what the best way was to use the correspondents. And then the election of 2000 happened, and that was really, I think and a lot of people at the show would probably agree, a real turning point because it was such a mess. We’re doing this fake news show and we realize that the actual news shows don’t really know what’s going on either. Everyone is just wandering around in the dark. It put so much attention on the show that it’s when it really became our stock and trade to say, “Our job is to make fun of the way the News is covering the news.” And that, I think, is what we really do best. The headline jokes are funny and we get to sort of communicate the news to people and make jokes about it, but I think where we really shine, and what’s really sort of ramped up over the last few years, is this idea of making fun of the way that news is actually covered on the so-called legitimate news networks. That has really changed the way the show is put together. We cover a lot fewer stories; our coverage is a lot more in depth. We use the correspondents a lot more. Our point of view is a lot sharper. Even the field pieces that we do tend to be related to current events rather than just being about like, some freakshow guy out in the Midwest who has a UFO welcome center or something like that. It’s really changed. Every once in a while, we’ll watch some of the old tapes or we’ll decide we want to see an old piece and we’ll pull out tapes from six years ago and it’s unbelievable. It’s unrecognizable.
Sun: Indecision 2004 was another huge thing for you guys, but this election just seems really different. Are you going about it a different way, or have you already since it’s sort of already started?
JR: We’re planning right now for everything. It is starting early and we’ve already started covering it in a very general way, covering debates and things like that. But we’re still in the planning stages for the big 2008 blowout. We’re planning our convention coverage now, so its hard to say that things are going to be different or the same. I hope they’ll be different than 2000 and 2004. I think they will be. We have a whole new set of correspondents with different strengths. I think the coverage will be really interesting. In terms of working on it, the main thing is that we’ve been making jokes about the same guy for eight years. [Laughs] And he’s not going to be around anymore after this election. That’s just something that we haven’t had to deal with, pretty much since I’ve been on the show. That’s what’s really interesting to me. As for the candidates, I think we’re really waiting for them to show their true colors and really start to emerge as significant personalities. Right now, there’s really only one or two that people are really aware of, so its hard for us to really gauge at all until the campaign picks up a little bit more and the general public starts to get a little more aware of what’s going on. But I think it’ll be good; I think it’ll be a fun campaign. I mean, we’ve had a lot of fun with the candidates so far, and it’s just refreshing to write new jokes about new people and a new set of circumstances.
Sun: Do you ever miss the freakshows? [Laughs] I know I always loved those pieces, and though the show’s sort of too big for that now, it just seems like … they were really funny.
JR: You know, they were really funny and I do miss that. To be totally honest with you, there are some really hilarious pieces, stuff that Stephen Colbert did in his early days at the show and just so many pieces that are just three minutes of pure silliness and just being ridiculous. And I do miss that from time to time. We’re certainly still open to silliness and it’s a nice challenge for the writers and the field producers to pick something silly and get something silly on the show, and its just a total blowout of silliness within a fairly serious parody. Those are great moments and I really shoot for that on the show. I think my pieces tend to run toward the silly and absurd to begin with. I was never a news guy at all before I started working on the show. You just sort of have to be. But I do miss that stuff and I appreciate your fondness for that as well. [Laughs]
Sun: Did the writers have the same amount of input then and now or were the freakshow field pieces more the correspondents’ own thing? Did the writers and correspondents collaborate on those as well?
JR: Not really. I think there’s more input now in the sense that the departments on the show work better together. Formerly, someone would read a wacky story in a local newspaper and say, “This guy’s crazy! We gotta get him on tape.” They’d just go out and shoot it and that would be that. I think now the field pieces are a little more thought out and there’s a lot more attention getting paid to who are the characters, what is the story, what’s the conflict, which is great. So the writers are able to participate in that a lot more. We’ll have meetings with the correspondents and the field producers. The producers and the researchers are the ones who find the stories, pitch the stories, book the stories, put an initial outline together with the correspondents, and then they’ll meet with a writer before they go out and shoot and say, “Do you have any ideas? What are some questions we can ask? What are some jokes we can do with these people?” So it’s nice. It’s cool to be a part of. I really like that part of the show actually, to work on something that happens outside of the studio.
Sun: Are the correspondents both writers and actors or are you guys writing the majority of their stuff? How much collaboration is there between who is onscreen and the writers offscreen?
JR: There’s a lot of collaboration, and it varies between correspondents. Some write more than others, some have more screen time than others or are in the field more than others, but generally, the correspondents are all excellent writers. They write a lot of the show and then we work very closely with them, which is great because if you’re writing something for John Oliver or for Sam [Bee] or Jason [Jones] or whoever it is, its super helpful to be sitting with them and hearing them pitch your jokes or pitch other jokes back to you. They have so much to contribute. Rob Riggle is a perfect example: we’ve had Rob Riggle on for a while and the guy was a marine, so we tend to use him for a lot of military-themed pieces. I don’t know what to say about being a marine but Rob does, so when you’re sitting and writing with him, he goes into this like, awesome drill sergeant mode because he knows it so well. You can pretty much take dictation with the guy and let him talk and just write down what you think is hilarious because he knows it so well and he’s so funny about it. Those are great. I love that stuff. I love really being able to work closely with the correspondents.
Sun: What’s it like behind the scenes at the Daily Show? What’s the typical schedule and how do you guys come up with the material?
JR: The typical schedule is we come in at 9, we’re usually drunk by 9:30
Sun: [Laughs]
JR: We have a meeting at 9 with all the writers with the studio production department, which is kind of like a video production department, the researchers, the head writer, and the executive producer all come in. We’ve read the news, looked at the headlines to familiarize ourselves with what’s going on. We get a feed from the Associated Press, which has a lot of footage we use on the show. Basically we can tell there are maybe three or four stories that are really dominating the news, so that’s the meeting in which we say, “Okay, what do we want to do with these stories? What’s a headline? What’s something that maybe, John Hodgeman could cover? What’s something that maybe Lewis Black could cover or a correspondent could cover? Or maybe we just want to have it with Jon telling a couple jokes about that particular story.” So we’ll talk about that kind of stuff if we want to get correspondents involved, we’ll think about, “Where are they?” (quote, unquote) and what’s going to be the theme of their commentary. Once we have this kind of stuff figured out, we know generally how much material we need for each show. There are ten writers and people will be divied up among those things. We’ll have maybe four people writing headlines, two people working with a correspondent, two people working on a longer-term piece, like I mentioned “This Week in God” and we’ve been doing a Dick Cheney quiz lately, someone might be assigned to that. Everyone kinda goes back to their office and writes. The meeting is really the collaborative part of the day and most of the rest of the day is really you writing alone or writing in pairs, usually not more than that. Most of the material, I’d say, is in around maybe between noon and 1. It will go to Jon and our head writer and our executive producer. They’ll read all the material and decide what they like and what they don’t like, and if something needs to be rewritten, they’ll call the writers in and say, “Here are our notes about this material.” Then once the scripts are finished, they go into our computer system. Meanwhile other people are working on this stuff: graphics designers designing the graphics we need, and the studio production people are putting the footage together and cutting any montages we need or creating footage graphically in a way we might need, other general production things. Basically, once everything is kind of in working order, we rehearse the show, then there’s another rewrite session with Jon and a bunch of the writers. We’ll make final revisions on the script, cut a lot of material for time, then the audience comes in and we tape the show. That’s pretty much the tic-toc of the day.
Sun: I’ve always been particularly impressed at how the researchers find the random, obscure C-SPAN clips from three years ago where Bush contradicts himself. How do they do that? Is there some sort of database?
JR: We do have a database and his name is Adam Chodikoff. He has this unbelievable repository of knowledge of everything. It’s amazing. He is responsible for a lot of the material that we use in context, finding the quotes that we use and going back to the archives, finding where people have contradicted themselves. He’s like a human computer. And also, the studio production department has like, ten TiVos running at any one time. They’re watching all this stuff and they’re really great about catching those little moments that you might have missed. Something somebody said during a press conference or in an offhand way during a speech on C-SPAN on the Senate floor or something like that. There’s a whole team of guys monitoring this stuff. It works really well. People just know what to look for and everyone’s ears perk up if it sounds like someone’s about to say something dumb [laughs] that we can use on the show. Plus on top of that, we’re watching the news during the day, at home in the morning, Jon is a real newshound so he always comes in in the morning with something he’d seen the night before that’s funny that he wants to use on the show. There’s a lot of people paying attention to what’s going on. Despite that, like you, I’m still amused that we’re able of find as much great material as we do.
Sun: Is it difficult or surprisingly easy to find that stuff?
JR: It depends what we’re talking about. It’s a tough question to answer. It’s easy to find things to use on the show. We’re rarely hurting for material or quotes that we can use, or something Bush said in a press conference or during a speech. That kind of thing is easy. What’s harder is if Bush says something, and you have a vague memory, “Oh, I think he said maybe the opposite … but I don’t really know when it was, or what exactly he said.” Trying to find that, and then writing a whole piece around it and hoping that the quote is the way that you remember it can be really difficult. So that’s a real challenge for us, making sure we are accurate also when we’re writing, and being able to find that stuff. I think in general writing for the show is really pretty easy but its finding those moments that really shine that people remember, those hypocritical moments or off-the-cuff mistakes that people make. That’s the real challenge, tracking that stuff down, but that’s the real gold.
Sun: Does anyone help Jon with things to ask the guest on the show or does he mostly do that himself?
JR: Jon really does his homework. He always reads the books and all that stuff. The writers do help out. We get an advanced copy of the book or whatever else the person who’s on is there to plug. A couple of the writers will sit with the material and just generate a bunch of questions, hopefully funny ones that Jon can ask. It’s really up to Jon in the heat of the interview whether he wants to go that way, if he wants to be silly or very serious depending on how he feels and what he wants to ask them. So Jon really drives it but we like to give him a bunch of material that’s a good backup in case he needs some questions to fall back on.
Sun: When you hear something that another writer wants to put on the show and you laugh, or at one that you write yourself, how do you know whether it will be funny to all the people that watch the show and not just the few people writing it?
JR: You know, sometimes we do and then sometimes we don’t. I am constantly surprised at how wrong my instincts can be, even with so many years under my belt. We have a pretty good sense of the temperature of the audience and what people are going to think is funny. And sometimes we just screw it up. Usually we can catch that stuff in rehearsal if something really just falls flat and doesn’t feel right. We can cut that stuff. But it still happens every once in a while, we’ll bring something to the taping and the audience will just not dig it. [Laughs] It’s the risk you run. The nice thing is that we generate so much material that there’s so much that gets cut everyday. There’s so much extra material. Jon is so great on his feet and so great in front of an audience that his instincts are, I will say, much better than mine at what an audience is going to laugh at when he’s actually down there sitting in front of one. We usually catch that stuff, but it does still happen. I’m always impressed and surprised, like, “Oh I thought that was funny…No way anyone wasn’t even going to crack a smile…” It becomes the most watched clip on YouTube the next day.
Sun: What would you say is one of your most memorable contributions to the Daily Show that we might be able to look for?
JR: Something that I like is that there’s not a lot of ownership of particular segments or pieces or correspondents or topics or anything like this. So its not like So-and-So always writes with John Oliver and only John Oliver. Or this person only writes “This Week in God.” Everybody really gets to do everything, so you really feel like you’re making a contribution to everything. Being part of the convention and the election coverage the last few election cycles has really been great. That’s been a big thing for me to be a part of. There are a couple of specific pieces that I’ve worked on that I think were particularly good and were particularly well-executed. There was a piece I worked on with Stephen when it was hurricane season and it was Stephen in a weather center, but he wasn’t tracking hurricanes. He was tracking coverage of the hurricanes. He was yelling and screaming and putting himself in harms way like a correspondent might do that in Miami getting battered by a hurricane, which was something I really liked. Another piece I worked on with Stephen was a very ornately written piece where Stephen was sort of implying that there was this evil Republican conspiracy, and the production team just did a really awesome job with sound effects and graphics and made this really creepy red sky behind him. That really was a lot of fun. One of the things I’m proudest of, actually, is going back to just doing something really silly on the show: in the 2004 campaign, there was a joke about Wesley Clark and how he had said in an interview that he likes Journey’s greatest hits, and I managed to get on the show two interns slow-dancing to Journey’s “Faithfully” under a disco ball for no real reason other than that I thought it was funny. For better or for worse [laughs], that’s the kind of stuff that actually I am proud of.