The Ben Karlin Interview

Today is the day to get it while it's good.

Sound off or Steve D. will sound off for you.

Today's interviewee worked at the Onion from 1993-1996, holding the title of Senior Editor, and he's currently the Executive Producer of a little half hour on cable that you might have heard of called "The Daily Show." You can also find his writing in the "The Daily Show's" new tome America (The Book). Do you really need further introduction or are you impressed already?

The Ben Karlin Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

Which Daily Show guests have been some of your personal favorites?
Val Kilmer always seems on the verge of either breakdown or breakthrough to a much, much better world. Joe Biden, based solely on one TV appearance, would have been the greatest president in this country's history. Sarah Vowell knows how to tell a good story.

Who are you still hoping to have?
I have a crush on Samantha Morton. I'd like to have her on as a guest then make her fall in love with me.

You say that Bob Dole has a great sense of humor: I thought that he was mostly used as a punchline. What's so funny about him?
Bob Dole has a great sense of humor in the same way that, say, Russell Crowe is a great musician. Even though it's not what he should be doing, it's very entertaining to see him try.

How did you start humor writing and what was your path to the Onion?
As a white male from a middle class suburb, my career options were very limited. What else could I do besides anything I wanted? When I got to Madison, I thought I wanted to be a journalist. I wrote for one of the student dailies where a whole bunch of other Onion people started. An emigration started. I followed.

How does the Daily Show select its correspondents?
Sometimes we go to a city and have a local person put together a showcase. It's like a giant uncomfortable talent show. That's how we found Samantha Bee. (In Toronto) Other times people are recommended to us through friends or agents. We found Stephen Colbert on our doorstep in a basket with a note.

How did you make the transition from print to television? Was it a fairly easy one to make?
I made the transition by moving from Madison to Los Angeles, where they don't give a shit about print. That lesson quickly learned, me and some friends from the Onion started pitching and writing TV shows and movies. It's hard to say whether it was easy or not. Mechanically, it was quite easy. Coming up with good, funny, sustainable ideas is hard in any medium.

What's been the most difficult medium to work with thus far in your career?
Wax cylinder recording. The conditions have to be perfect and the technology is at once crude and fragile. The result from a successful recording, however, is breathtaking. After that, I'd have to say film, because it's so expensive and there are so many people that have to say yes.

Does it hurt or is it just good publicity when Wal-Mart won't carry America: The Book in stores?
The book was never going to be sold in Wal-Mart because it wasn't made in Laos by 11-year-old children. It is the number one selling book on Wal-Mart's website, however. Either way, we don't care.

Is it possible to work for the Daily Show and keep many political beliefs still close to your vest, or do you give that all up once you come on board?
If you're asking whether we require a loyalty oath, the answer is perhaps. There is a collective sensibility that, when filtered through Jon and the correspondents feels uniform. But hey, if you have a legitimately funny joke in support of the notion that gay people are an affront to God, we'll put that motherfucker on!

What have been some topics that you knew begged for commentary, but based on content or simply writers block, you couldn't get any good jokes from?
Enron. A huge scandal. Really hard to make funny because of all the confusing details. We tried many times. Struck out mostly.

What's made you laugh of late (that's not politically-based)?
There's a new show off-Broadway - kind of rock musical in the vein of "Hair" or "Jesus Christ Superstar" - called "People are Wrong!" It is hilarious. Can't recommend it highly enough.

Since you and head writer David Javerbaum both previously worked for The Onion, do you think it and the Daily Show share any common styles or sensibilities?
Absolutely. Rampant anti-semitism, authoritarian/fascist streaks, hatred of the common man. Love of a good joke about slavery. I could go on. I was actually hired to bring some of that Onion attitude, sorry, "bad-itude" to The Daily Show.

Do you ever get burnt out cranking out so many episodes of The Daily Show?
We have a large staff of writers and creative people to safeguard against the burn-out factor. I know I can spend a day, a week, a month, a year, a lifetime, really, not being funny and many people here have me covered. Basically, the hive takes care of its own.

What do you do to maintain freshness?
I hang out with non-show biz people.

You've written for "Space Ghost Coast to Coast." Does it seem that the Adult Swim variety of cartoons has gained more popularity of late? Why do you think that is?
The line between cable and network TV is fading, so more and more people are just finding shit they like, not necessarily going to NBC first. That will continue to be the case until its just one vast channelscape of meritocracy.*
*(That last part of the sentence was co-written with Todd Gitlin.)**
**(And if you know who Todd Gitlin is, you're a nerd and I love you.)

Will we ever see "Popular" or "Mr. Dog" in theaters? If not, can you tell us what we're missing?
"Popular" is a teen comedy in the vein of "Heathers" that will never get made. It's about a high school where the social hierarchy is reversed - intelligence and geekiness is rewarded and athletic and physical prowess is shunned. As a script, I don't think it ever realized its potential, though there is some very funny stuff in there. "Mr. Dog" is basically "Moby Dick" but with an obsessive dog catcher and cute little dog. It would be very expensive to make as written, but it is very funny. The world is unquestionably being denied an essential film.

How did you plan the 2004 Daily Show election special?
If you saw it, then you know, the answer is "not well." We basically had a flow chart of possibilities and scripts and ideas based on all the possible outcomes.

Did you have many backup plans in case of 2000 reduxes?
Not really. The show is so reactive we just kind of deal with things as they happen.

And what are you going to do to relax now that the election is 'over'?
I'm going to kill a homeless person.

What did you do with your Emmys?
I wear one around my neck, Flavor-Flav-style. The others I hide around my apartment, then when I have people over, I casually ask, "Has anyone seen my multiple Emmy awards?" (It should be noted that I don't have very many friends.)

How does it feel to be the 110th interviewee for
Better than 103rd, not nearly as good as 107th.