Thursday, March 24, 2005

My Exclusive Interview with Bob Wiltfong

Daniel Solzman: What's it like working on one of the best-rated shows out there where people get their news?
Bob Wiltfong: It's like being a kid in a candy store. Here you are surrounded by some of the best, funniest people working in comedy today (I compare it to attending the Harvard of comedy) and you have all the technical tools to execute your ideas. It's wonderful -- especially when you consider that I spent 10 years slaving in real news as a local television reporter and anchor. It's great to have the opportunity to finally make fun of all the crap that frustrated me for so long about the media and current affairs.

DS: When does the coup to overthrow Jon Stewart take place? Who all is involved in that or is it a conspiracy theory that was started online?
BW: Yes, I'm sorry. There is no coup that I know of. Maybe Corddry? He seems capable of a violent coup. Just like the kids from the movie Taps, I can see Corddry at a window shooting a machine gun and screaming, “Isn't it beautiful, man?!”

DS: Any thoughts on the Draft Stewart for President 2008 movement?
BW: Flattering but never gonna happen. You think the country is in bad shape now? Wait until a comedian is in charge.

It was cool a couple of months ago someone in the office posted a photo of Morrissey on one of our bulletin boards wearing a T-shirt that said something like “Jon Stewart for President.” I've been a big Morrissey fan since my high school days so that was really cool to see.

But as far as it actually happening...yikes. I don't even want to imagine.

DS: How many alias have you gone by? Any thing that we should know before the bloggers try and out you for anything you've done in the past?
BW: I have reported under three different on-air names: my real name (Bob Wiltfong), Bob Alan (when I worked at KPLC-TV in Lake Charles, LA) and Bob Butler (when I worked on Long Island).

As far as any bad stuff from my past...I have knowingly kept my body out of shape to make any nude photos of myself undesirable to look at AND any dirty phone conversations I've had (ala Pat O'Brien) have always included the phrase, “I'm just kidding” in them. So I should be safe.

DS: Speaking of which, what is a “Goober” anyway?
BW:A “goober” -- my childhood nickname -- is, technically, another word for a peanut. But I think, in my family, the word had a different connotation: one who slobbers a lot.

DS: You grew up in Tornado alley, correct? How many tornadoes have you witnessed?
BW: I have never seen a tornado in person. However, I have chased several tornado-type storms (from my television reporting days) and have seen the devastation left over from them. Omaha, where I grew up, had a big tornado go through town in, I think, 1975 and I remember my dad driving me through the parts of town that got hit. Also, part of my childhood memories is routinely going to our basement for tornado warnings.

When my wife and I were moving to New York (from Wichita, Kansas) in 1998, the guy who was driving us to the airport asked, “So you're from Wichita...how many tornadoes you seen?” and I said in response, “None. It's kinda like asking, ‘So you're from New York City...how many murders you seen?’” Meaning: they happen but it's rare you actually see one in person.

DS: How did you get a job posing as a UCLA student? Is there a secret to that?
BW: We were college age kids and we just told the security guy who was controlling who could come and go to see the internship listings at UCLA that we were summer school students there who had forgotten our student IDs. Oh...and we also carried surf boards with us.

DS: Of all the cities you've lived in, which one did you like the best? Do you ever go back there to perform?
BW: I've liked all of them -- in varying degrees -- for different reasons. In other words, I'm glad I lived in all the places I have. But, at the same time, I'm very glad that I live elsewhere now.

I, by far, like living in New York -- of all the places I've lived so far. There's an energy here that you can't find anywhere else and there's so much stuff to see, do and experience. It's awesome. Growing up in Omaha, I always wanted to live in a place where the action was and this is definitely that place.

Outside of that, I really liked growing up in Omaha and living in Wichita (very similar in size and feel to Omaha). The town I liked the least living in was Lake Charles, Louisiana. It's a nice, little (population: 70-thousand at the time) town but it wasn't for me. When I worked there, me and my co-workers would sometimes call it "Lake Puddle Chuck" or "Lake Charles Manson." With that being said, the people there were extremely friendly and experiencing Mardi Gras in Louisiana is one of my most fun life moments.

DS: How does your investigative reporting for the actual news compare to that of the fake news?
BW: The overall tone of the finished pieces is similar I guess. In that, when you watch them, you get a sense from the correspondents that it's "time to get these bastards!" And I guess the performance of "I'm here being serious about something very important" is the same. But, outside of that, there's really few similarities.

Our goal on any Daily Show shoot is just to make people laugh. We're comedians making fun of a story. That's not the case in a real TV news shoot.

DS: Speaking of the fake news, where do you get your news?
BW: We pull our stories from anywhere and everywhere -- the Associated Press wire, newspapers, magazines, ideas we have in our heads for funny stories, etc.

DS: How long was it before you considered switching to a career in comedy?
BW: I knew I was miserable in TV news after only one year in it full-time (I worked in real TV news for 10 years). I also knew that I desperately wanted to try comedy -- specifically, improv comedy -- as an alternative. Problem was:

1.) I was never in a city big enough to really pursue that dream.
2.) I didn't view comedy as a career choice. To me, it was always a hobby, not a job.

It wasn't until I moved to New York -- and started taking improv comedy classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) Theater -- that I started to view comedy as a possible career choice. Then 9/11 happened, a photographer friend of mine died, and I knew I had to get the hell out of the business and do what really made me happy: comedy.

I was miserable in TV news for all the reasons that we make fun on the Daily Show:

1.) Most days I wasn't reporting the news. I was reporting crap that passed as news.
2.) I never felt like I had adequate time or resources to tell the stories that needed to be told. To me it felt like assembly-line journalism most days.
3.) How you looked and performed on camera became much more important than the content you actually reported.

DS: Your bio says you wanted to go to law school? What happened to that idea? I say that because I wanted to go law school but my mind plans to comedy in 2003 after Bob Hope died.
BW: I only wanted to go to law school because I wanted a "legitimate" excuse to quit TV news and start taking improv comedy classes. I applied for, and got into, Loyola of Chicago and Marquette law schools in 1997/98.

The thinking was my wife and I would move to the Chicago/Milwaukee area, I would attend law school and also start taking improv comedy classes (on the side) at Second City in Chicago. As fate would have it, three months before the move I got an offer from a TV station in Long Island, New York that was too good to refuse and I ended up sticking with news for awhile longer and attending comedy classes at the UCB instead.

DS: How does UCB differ from Second City? What made you choose the one over the other?
BW:I've never taken classes at Second City so I really don't know how they differ. The only reason I ended up at the UCB -- over anyone else -- offering improv comedy classes in New York was because when I called Second City in Chicago and said, "Hey, I'm in New York. Are there any groups that offer classes like what you do here?" they recommended the UCB.

I was very fortunate in that I had great teachers at the UCB – Armando Diaz, Ian Roberts, Amy Poehler, etc. -- who taught me the basics of good improv. And that I got on at the theater pretty much at the ground floor (if I tried to get on a performance team there now it would be much harder simply because of the amount of people going through classes now). Regardless...

I highly recommend all performers take a variety of classes to learn their craft. In other words, the UCB is not the only way these days to get where you want to go. Believe me, there are a ton of other really good schools and teachers out there. The P.I.T., for example, where I perform now, has an excellent curriculum of classes and teachers. All top notch.

If you start taking improv comedy classes because you want to get on SNL or The Daily Show, that's the wrong reason. The joy should always be in the journey -- not in the end goal.

That something that concerns me here in New York. I see people going to the UCB now just because they think that's the place you have to go if you want to get "discovered" as a comedic actor in New York. No. That's not the case. Yes, the UCB has some really good people but so do several other places. The industry doesn't care if you came from the UCB or somewhere else. They just care if you're good.

Bottom line: if you're looking for some place to take improv comedy classes. Do your research first. Find the place that fits you best and then dive into it! Sample other styles and teachers as you move along. Do it -- not because you want to get a job on a TV show -- but because you love it. The rest (paying jobs, etc.), trust me, will take care of itself.

DS: What do you tell people that want to get on the Daily Show as a cast member or writer?
BW: Don't set that as your goal. Set your goal as: I want to become the best writer and performer I can be. A job at The Daily Show -- or elsewhere -- will start to take care of itself after that.

The reality is there are very few job openings, relatively speaking, at a place like The Daily Show. Chances are most people who want to work there, won't. So is that a bad thing? No. Because if you keep plugging away at your craft, good things will start to happen regardless.

Get up and perform your craft/material as much as possible. There's no substitute for experience. The more you can get up in front of an audience and try to make them laugh (and fail or succeed) the better. Practice. Practice. Practice. Perform. Perform. Perform. I don't care where you're at. Perform. Perform. Perform.

DS: Any movie or TV deals coming soon or are they top-secret like the plan to invade Liechtenstein?
BW: There's always a lot of talk in the business about potential future projects but very little of it ever materializes. Yes, I have some stuff in the mix down the line but will that actually lead to anything you'll see or read? Probably not.

Keep checking my web site -- www.bobwiltfong.com -- for the latest. ;-)

DS: What goes into making The Daily Show work?
BW: G-d. I don't know. Jon is the mastermind behind the whole thing. He pulls the trigger on everything you see on air so I would have to say take a whole bunch of Jon Stewart and a little bit of everybody else you have a Daily Show that works.

DS: How come The Daily Show does not have any mention of you as a correspondent online?
BW: I'm not 100% sure but I believe it's a contractual thing. I just keep plugging away doing stuff when they ask me to. When they feel like it's time to list me on the site, they'll do it I guess.

DS: Has anyone told Steven Carell that it is not a wise idea to re-make a British show for American viewers? How long do you predict that show will last?
BW: I hope The Office becomes the new Gunsmoke of TV (on air for decades). I've talked to a couple of friends who have seen the pilot episode already and say it's great. Now the question is will the American public think it's great? This is, after all, the same public that's killing Arrested Development (a brilliant comedy) in the ratings.

I'm with you though. I'm concerned anytime an American network tries to import a smart British comedy. They always seem to end up mutilating them. Let's hope The Office - U.S. is an exception!

DS: What was the best moment of your news career? Fake news career?
Anyone ever threaten you over a story at all?
BW: I have two best moments in my real TV news career:

1.) Winning 4 Emmys for my work

2.) Doing a good job on a story that really mattered or had something to say to people. When it's done well, TV news can do great things.

The best moment in my fake news career is when people genuinely laugh at something I do in a story. During a story screening or in the studio during a show taping, you can feel when a laugh is genuine and when it's not.

The only time I was ever threatened over a story (so far) was when I worked in real TV news. I had a couple of stories where people threatened to sue me or the station I worked for over a report I did, but, to my knowledge, that never happened. The facts of the story stood up.

DS: So is Jon Stewart really 11 inches tall?
BW; I don't like to talk about penis sizes in pubic...er...public.

DS: What is the process of selecting guests for the show? I'm chairing the Draft Bayh campaign but we don't have a song like the Draft Condi Rice folks do but I'm not a celebrity...at least not yet.
BW: I don't know what the process is. I'm not involved in that. I often times have to go to the Comedy Central web site to see who our guest is each night. Good luck!

DS: I know you have a hectic career and all, but before you go, how much television, whether it be real news or a sitcom/drama, do you watch? Thoughts on reality TV?
BW: I watch far too much TV really (I have TiVo so I have even more than I can handle watching). And, yes, I am one of those people addicted to reality TV -- even though they're killing jobs for actors and comedians like myself.

My rationale for watching reality TV (and, therefore, supporting it) is if Hollywood forced themselves to get more original, creative and quality ideas for make-believe shows (like Arrested Development; like Angels in America; like Daily Show), there wouldn't be such an attraction to all this reality stuff.

The bottom line is I think most of the fictional programming on TV these days is predictable and not entertaining. At least with reality TV I feel like there's some truthful insight (however minimal and manipulated it is) into the human experience. Stuff that speaks to me somehow.

With that being said, I really like watching Survivor, Project Greenlight, The Starlet, American Idol, etc. Yes, I am one of those people who watches that stuff.

I also watch A LOT of movies/films. I rationalize doing so by saying, "I'm doing it for research on acting, writing and directing." This is, in part, true. But mostly I do it because I like to sit on my ass and watch movies.

DS: One final question--Aside from your web site, is there any show that you would like to plug?
BW: Yes. The Neutrino Video Projects. It's an improv form that my improv comedy team here in New York invented a few years ago and has now been licensed to other groups around the country -- and the world – to perform.

The NVP, as we call it, is basically an improvised movie. We start the show by taking suggestions and/or items of inspiration from the audience. Then we run outside the theater into real locations nearby and improvise short, comedy scenes with real people on mini-DV cameras. Once the scenes are shot -- all edited in camera -- we run the tapes (as soon as their shot) back into the to theater and show them to the audience (basically) as they happen. The end result is the audience sees a short film (inspired by their suggestions/items) take shape as they sit and watch it. It's a pretty cool show.

Last year, we performed it at HBO's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado and The Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland (among other places). Feel free to check out our group web site for more information. As of right now, there are improv groups in Chicago, Seattle, Washington DC, Detroit, the U. K. and New Zealand who are performing the NVP (or variations of it).

DS: Thank you for your time and hopefully our paths will cross sometime...maybe at the Louisville Improv Festival or when I move to New York City in 2007 or 2008. I look forward to your next appearance on The Daily Show.

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