Sunday, November 25, 2007

Exclusive Interview with The Daily Show's Rob Kutner

Daniel Solzman: Thanks for joining the Kentucky Democrat today. You're on strike at the moment. How is that going for you?

Rob Kutner: Very strange. Believe it or not, the past three weeks I've been so much busier than at work. Between the mandatory picketlines, I've been working on a number of campaigns to try and get this resolved. It really is like a political race, except we know it has to be won now, or the studios can wait us out and we could face a much longer strike.

DS: What is a day in the life of a writer for The Daily Show like?
RK: A hazy memory right now. :)

It's surprisingly businesslike. We work 9-6. We come in the mornings and watch a few packages of video footage from the AP wire service, decide which stories are the most Headline-worthy, then some people go off and write those, others work on the Jon-and-Correspondent dialogues (or "Chats"), and others take on whatever free-floating assignments are around (field pieces, special correspondent pieces like Lewis Black and Demetri Martin). You almost never know from day to day what you're going to be working on.

DS: A few years ago, there was talk of a Draft Jon Stewart for President campaign. Was it all a cover-up for Colbert's failed campaign?
RK: I can't tell you, b/c the NSA might be monitoring these e-mails.

DS: When did you decide to become a comedy writer and why did you make that decision?
RK: When I was in college, one day I realized that everything I was doing extracurricularly was comedy-related: editor of the humor magazine, founding member of the improv troupe, writer for the musical-theater group. Then, my friend's brother got a job writing for the Simpsons and I was like, "Wait, you can get paid for this?"

DS: While I'm asking about comedy, what's the percentage of Daily Show writers with a stand-up or improv background?
RK: Actually, probably the minority. A few of us go up now and then, but largely, we come from different writing worlds (journalism, Web humor, other TV shows, etc.). But our correspondents come out of improv: UCB or Second City

DS: So, um, what's the fourth male lead of Death to Smoochie like? Is his acting that bad?
RK: Seeing as how I would like to have a job to come back to if this thing ever gets resolved, I'm leaving this blank.

DS: If the strike does last till early 2008, how are we supposed to get our news for Indecision 2008?
RK: Fortunately, there's still a lot of good, entertaining blogs out there -- mostly what we read when looking for stories. I'm a big fan of andrew sullivan, wonkette, josh marshall's talking points memo, and mediabistro.

DS: Over the past few years, people tell me that they got their news from Jon Stewart. Now we are getting it from Nikki Finke at Deadline Hollywood Daily. Is that how the writers feel?
RK: Pretty much. No one seems to have the inside scoop faster or "insider" than she, and also she mostly attempts to straddle the middle.

DS: Have you gotten to know your fellow writers better while on the picket lines and have you met any big-names from years past like Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks or Woody Allen? Or are they not part of the WGA-East?
RK: Absolutely. In fact, this has been maybe the silver lining of the whole thing. We NY writers didn't really know each other at all before, and now we're much closer. I have gotten to spend some quality time with Seth Meyers, for instance, a terrific guy who's been out there everyday at the pickets. And yes, a few comedy idols: I met veteran SNL writer Alan Zweibel and Nat'l Lampoon founding member (and "Ian" the manager in Spinal Tap) Tony Hendra. Also Gilbert Gottfried and Robin Williams have been out with us. Obviously, the picketers in LA get a much better range and depth of celebs (not to mention weather). grrr!

DS: How did the Not The Daily Show video on YouTube come about?
RK: We saw the video put out by the writers and actors from The Office ("The Office is Closed"), and saw how quick, low-tech, but still sharp, funny and on-point it was. And we were like, "Why can't we do that?" So we set about constructing a Daily Show story by e-mail, which was actually kind of fun. The actual video was shot on the picket line at Battery Park by Eric Drysdale, TCR writer otherwise known as "Bobby."

DS: For my readers that are not familiar with why the writers are striking, can you explain?
RK: Sure. Two main issues: DVD and New Media. When you buy a DVD, know how much the writer gets? 4 cents. We're asking for 8, as that deal dates back to the 80s when the studios implored us to not ask for much money until home video became proven business, then they'd make it up to us. They never did.

Now we're concerned they're trying to pull the same game with New Media. As your readers may be aware, the future of movie and TV distribution is shifting over to digital media (iTunes, cell phones, sites like ABC.com where you can watch full episodes of shows). Even though all of that is just burgeoning, the studios are already making money off the new platforms. We're asking for a modest 2.5% of whatever revenues they make off our work when shown digitally, the same re-use fee that's been in effect for TV and radio for decades.

Their opening/closing offer was "0." We felt we were at an impasse, so 90% of us voted to strike (and we never agree on anything, so that tells you something).

Hopefully, the new talks beginning will start off in a more deal making fashion this time around.

DS: Why do you think it is that so many Jewish people chose comedy or comedy writing for their profession?
RK: I think it's a combination of hyperverbality, our distance from the mainstream culture that lets us observe it, and the idea in our genes that everything could be taken away from us at any moment (hence, no attachment to sacred cows or institutions)

DS: I usually ask those that I interview to choose between Jon Stewart or Bill O'Reilly but seeing as how you write for Jon Stewart, I'll try something different here...Jack Benny or Groucho Marx?
RK: Give me a minute... I'm thinking.

DS: Have you ever collaborated with Judd Apatow in the past. If you haven't, would you like to?
RK: No I haven't. But I absolutely would like to.

DS: What are the odds of President Bush ever appearing on The Daily Show before January 20, 2009?
RK: They seem infinitesimal, but on the other hand, this guy has shown a penchant for doing whatever he feels like, and maybe as he's in the final waning days, he'll be like "What the hell?"

DS: Now, if it's called The Daily Show, why is it not on seven days a week and only four? Did I miss the memo and the fourth day is actually longer than 24 hours?
RK: I'm not really sure, but I believe it has something to do with dog years. And possibly Halley's Comet.

DS: What do you tell people when they say they want to go into comedy?
RK: Make sure there's nothing else you'd be just as happy doing first. It's really really hard breaking in, and there are so many talented (and untalented) people clamoring for every opening,

It could be a long road. It took me five years to get my first break, and although I have no regrets, that's pretty average.

DS: The media has pretty much said Clinton will be the nominee for President. Has The Daily Show jumped on the bandwagon or will Stephen decide to run in all 50 states and become the dark horse?
RK: We try to stay as far away from bandwagons as we can. We'd much rather stand back and mock everyone else jumping on board. Although some of those wagon-groupies... quite enticing.

DS: When does the coup to overthrow Jon take place? Or are the bloggers making that up?
RK: You really are trying to get me fired so I can come and blog for you full time, aren't you?

DS: Is the writing room similar to that of Caesar's Hour, which is arguably the smartest room since Thomas Jefferson dined alone at the White House?
RK: We don't have the same kind of traditional 'room' that you'd find on a sitcom, as we do some work individually, in pairs, or in smaller groups. That said, our morning meetings are pretty raucous, fairly unfocused, and extremely un-PC. Pretty much everyone there is a comic genius and it's equally exhilarating and intimidating to just try and keep up.

DS: Thanks for joining us. Before you go, is there anything you would like to plug?
RK: Yes, I'd like to urge fans of our shows, other scripted TV shows, and just those who support creative people being paid for their work to help make our case to the studios to join up with fellow fans who are taking action, at www.fans4writers.com and http://community.livejournal.com/wga_supporters/108254.html.

All joking aside, we are very concerned about who we're up against -- so a strong show of support from the public (sooner rather than later!) might be the critical factor that pushes the studios to give us a fair deal.

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