Tour “The Daily Show” with writer J.R. Havlan ’87 as he contemplates college, comedy, and where to keep all his Emmys
BY MONIQUE BEELER
Need help getting people — more than a million people — to laugh every night, often at seemingly unfunny subjects from a bad economy to the worst oil spill in U.S. history? Call comedy writer J.R. Havlan ’87.
Through unorthodox career choices, irrepressible wit, and an uncanny ability to improvise, Havlan has supplied the words that have yielded laughs for big names in TV comedy including Bill Maher, Steve Carell, and Stephen Colbert. His current boss is Jon Stewart, mock news anchor for the Comedy Central cable network hit The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Every morning at The Daily Show writers meeting, Havlan pitches his cleverest jokes, ironic word play, and fantastic scenarios based on breaking news, not-so-current events, and antics of the famous and infamous to Stewart and colleagues on the 12-member writing team, more often than not causing an eruption of laughter in the room.
A satirical news broadcast, The Daily Show pokes fun at politicians, celebrities, and authors but mostly at the news media itself. Havlan, an original member of the Daily Show staff, has been penning jokes and crafting bits (they’re never called sketches or skits, Havlan advises) since the show kicked off in 1996 with then-host Craig Kilborn. On this steamy summer day, in fact, Havlan’s observing his 14-year anniversary writing for the program that’s one of the most popular late night TV shows with nightly audiences of about 1.7 million. During his tenure, Havlan and his fellow writers have won major industry honors, including six Emmy Awards for “Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program.” The writing team picked up a nomination for a seventh Emmy in 2010 but got edged out by The Colbert Report.
It’s just as well. With future wins, Havlan, 45, may be hard-pressed to find a spot to display yet another golden statuette in the Manhattan apartment he shares with wife Ellen and 9-month-old son, Parker.
“They’re in various places,” says Havlan, pulling an award from a duffel bag he’s lugged to work at a visitor’s request. “One is in my son’s room. My wife was pregnant last year at the Emmys, so I kind of think of that (Emmy) as his.”
By the book
It’s shortly before lunch — a catered affair at the Daily Show’s New York City studios — and Havlan’s on deadline. He turns back to his computer to peck out commentary about child labor laws, insurance, and higher education. His assignment? Write chapter entries for Earth (The Book): A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race, an encyclopedic guide that aliens might pore over in the future in their quest to understand what humans, particularly American humans, got right during their stint on the planet. The book is a follow-up to the 2004 bestseller America the Book: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction by Stewart and The Daily Show writers. While Havlan tosses in snippets of historic trivia — for instance, despite early tries, U.S. lawmakers didn’t pass serious child protection laws till 1938 — his overriding mission is to entertain.
“I had to write one up yesterday about college,” he says, reading from an early rough draft. “Are you standing in a quadrangle … (filled with) a sense of pride coupled with terrible, debilitating dread? Welcome to college.”
“My particular talent comedically has been, not just coming up with a funny thing to say or an idea, but being able to phrase it in a way that other people wouldn’t necessarily be able to do,” Havlan says.
When Stewart served as master of ceremonies for the 2006 Academy Awards, for instance, it was a pop culture reference written by Havlan that critics applauded in newspapers and broadcasts the next day. “I do have some sad news to report,” Stewart deadpanned. “Björk couldn’t be here tonight. She was trying on her Oscar dress, and Dick Cheney shot her.”
Editor’s note: At the 2001 ceremony, Icelandic singer Björk attracted global attention by wearing a wacky, white swan-inspired dress, while Cheney became the target of jokesters following his accidental shooting of a fellow hunter in 2006.
As Havlan types, a regiment of 50 colorful, plastic Simpsons cartoon figurines oversees his progress from a nearby window ledge. A silver lava lamp filled with yellow globs bubbles lazily on his desk, while at his feet, Charlotte, his well-trained Australian kelpie, dozes, ready to leap up and scamper after him when he heads down the hall for a rare trip to The Daily Show set.
Weaving through the show’s warren of offices, narrow corridors and occasionally sloping hallways, Havlan arrives at a nondescript door. Pushing past it, Havlan enters a short dark hall before veering into the brightly lit, red-and-blue themed Daily Show set familiar to viewers. “We just told the designers we wanted something that Ted Koppel would want for Christmas,” Havlan says.
The wall to the right features a large-scale scene of the New York skyline at night. Straight ahead, a platform containing an executive-style cherry wood desk sits like an island at the center of the set. It’s here that Stewart delivers his nightly parody of the news to a live audience. The gallery sits empty during the day, but at 5 p.m. each evening audience members stream in — often after an hours-long wait queued up around the block. An oversized, digitized globe dangling overhead flashes a nonsensical string of words. This week it’s Juneau, Junizawa, Junedale, and Junejani.
To the left, a green screen stretches toward the ceiling. During rehearsal a couple hours later, the show’s correspondents will act out a bit called “The Spilling Fields” in front of the blank screen. Audience members at home, however, will see a scene of Louisiana wetlands projected on the screen, as if the correspondents were reporting about the gulf oil spill on location. On air, Stewart wears a suit, just like a network anchorman, but while running through lines for the correspondents’ bit he sports a comfy gray T-shirt. Most days, the confident Stewart requires no rehearsal, but this afternoon the cast is helping correspondent Olivia Munn warm up for her first appearance on the program.
“A lot of times, Jon goes through rehearsals with his feet up on the desk,” says Havlan, noting that Stewart’s casual appearance and demeanor reflects a credible and easy delivery style that doesn’t require him to “sell anything.”
While the atmosphere in the office and on the set appears relaxed, the cast and crew take their jobs seriously — to an extent. And Havlan’s respect for Stewart, who took over as host in 1999, is evident.
“In the beginning of 2000, the content became far more political,” Havlan says. “When the election came up, we were in a unique position, and Jon realized this is what we’re here for. That’s when we started to focus on media coverage.”
Over several episodes, Daily Show correspondents spoofed politicians and press coverage of the presidential election campaign. Its take on “Indecision 2000” earned the show, including Havlan, the first of two Peabody Awards for excellence in broadcasting. (“Indecision 2004” received a Peabody in 2005.)
Given such accolades, perhaps it’s not surprising that the program also has become the subject of serious study. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, for instance, studied the show’s content for a year, comparing its agenda to traditional news outlets’. The center’s analysis included the following observation:
The Daily Show aims at more than comedy. In its choice of topics, its use of news footage to deconstruct the manipulations by public figures and its tendency toward pointed satire over playing just for laughs, The Daily Show performs a function that is close to journalistic in nature — getting people to think critically about the public square.
“Different outlets have been saying that for a while or claiming studies (demonstrate) the show’s influence on the public,” Havlan says. “We don’t sit around thinking about it … We don’t come in and say, ‘How are we going to affect the media landscape? Are we going to increase the number of kids who get their news from The Daily Show?’ There’s no insidious plan.”
East Bay beginnings
As a kid growing up in Danville, Havlan didn’t yearn for a career in show biz and never expected one day he’d get paid to be funny.
He didn’t take acting classes or perform stand-up comedy until after graduating from Cal State East Bay, although for Halloween one year in grade school he dressed up as mute comic Harpo Marx. By the time he enrolled in business courses at then-Cal State Hayward in the 1980s, Havlan assumed he’d spend his career at a typical office job.
“My sense of humor was there, but I didn’t think of being a comic,” he says. “My idea was to go to college and get a business degree.”
Havlan’s professional fate may have come as less of a surprise to his closest friend from college, attorney Bill Schott ’88. Schott remembers well Havlan’s standard response whenever anyone asked his major: “He’d say, ‘Finance. High finance,’” with a James Bond delivery.
“I was really busy,” Havlan says of his college career. “I was waiting tables all the way through and paying my way. I was taking a full schedule of classes.”
When he visited the Big Apple during his senior year, it was love at first contact. The vibrancy and variety fit Havlan’s own active, high-energy personality, as demonstrated by a quick wit that never misses an opportunity to slip in a humorous observation (“I suppose I was always a wisecracker,” he says) and a need to keep moving. Havlan stays fit by jogging to work each morning with Charlotte and takes regular runs through Central Park.
After Havlan earned his CSUEB degree, he moved to Manhattan with a suit, a few boxes, and about $3,000, barely enough to rent his first studio apartment. Despite knowing nothing about the cuisine, the suit, along with a polite demeanor, scored him his first job at an upscale French restaurant, he says. No entrée into the high finance industry, but it proved a fateful career move.
A stand-up guy
One night while working at the restaurant, a waitress friend shoved a catalog for adult education classes at him, pointing out a listing for a course called Learn Standup Comedy. She urged Havlan to check it out. He took her advice and signed up. (“I took her to dinner after I won my first Emmy,” he says.)
“The class was terrible,” Havlan recalls. “And the instructor wasn’t funny, which is kind of a problem.”
As an icebreaker, class members took turns offering introductions and sharing their motivations for participating in the course. “I looked at (the instructor) very seriously, and I said, ‘I think this is a mistake. I thought this was How to Strip for Your Man.’”
The teacher didn’t crack a smile. Fortunately for Havlan, future audiences appreciated his humor. He went on to work in comedy clubs, including the legendary Catch a Rising Star, honing his timing and witty way with words. Not only did he get better at his craft, he met fellow funny people. By 1994, a friend from Havlan’s stand-up days was working as a writing assistant for Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.
“I told him I wanted to — this dates everything — fax in jokes,” Havlan recalls. “He called me back and said, ‘Go ahead.’ They were using two to three jokes a week, which is really good because Bill did four shows a week, and he only used two to three jokes per week. Then one night, they needed a warm-up (comic).”
Thanks to Havlan’s regular contributions to the show, he got the call. Through his connection with Politically Incorrect, he went on to meet Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg, who were cooking up a concept for a new program called The Daily Show. They invited Havlan to apply for one of five writing spots. He was among the lucky few to beat out some 100 applicants.
Havlan credits his good fortune to serendipity and serious dues paying.
“The way I got into Bill Maher’s (show) was making it happen myself,” he says. “I used my connections and wrote jokes. One opportunity leads to another.”
“It’s not only creating your opportunity, it’s being prepared once you get it,” Havlan says. “You have the responsibility of creating the opportunity for yourself, but you have to prepare to deliver. Then I got super lucky, because the show became what it is, and I enjoy what I do.”
It’s easy to see why.
Down the hall from his office in a conference area surrounding a big screen TV, Havlan takes a break on one of two colorful cushy couches with Charlotte at his side.
“There are a lot of good points of the day,” he says. “Every day of the week, I have the distinct honor and really enjoy the fact that I get to have a couple hour-long discussions and debates with a roomful of brilliant, hilarious people. Day after day, it’s the best conversation I’ve ever had.”
Overhead, a planning board lists the coming weeks’ Daily Show guests from Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Employees rarely meet the show’s famous guests, but by special request Havlan’s enjoyed introductions to Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Lance Armstrong.
“It’s a harsh work environment,” quips Havlan, who says he has no intention of leaving anytime soon despite a sense of unstated pressure to keep moving in an industry where no one seems to stay put long.
In the unpredictable entertainment business, Havlan can’t predict where his career will lead in the next 14 years. As a writer, he says it would be a professional dream to get a shot at penning his own show, à la Tina Fey and NBC’s 30 Rock.
However his career plays out, today he’s got a great, challenging job on The Daily Show educating viewers in unexpected ways. “The show provides people a lesson in skepticism … That’s the biggest service,” Havlan says. “We’re not even interpreting things. I think it’s more truthful than that.”
“Network news — not just cable — has to be constantly questioned,” he adds. “Our show is uniquely positioned to do that.”