A Chat with Ben Karlin, Ben Karlin interview, Writer for the Onion and The Daily Show

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Ben Karlin was the head writer and editor of the “Onion” from 1993 to 1996, then moved on to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” There he helped skewer authority figures and the mainstream media in general – not to mention help shape popular comedy as a whole – before stepping down from his post in December 2006. Since then, he’s been working on “Things I’ve Learned from Women Who’ve Dumped Me,” an anthology of comedic heartbreak featuring contributions from Stephen Colbert, Nick Hornby, Neal Pollack, Andy Richter and others. Days after the book’s release, Karlin talks to Bullz-Eye about his experiences with the book, the “Onion,” “The Daily Show” and beyond.


Bullz-Eye: The book came out this week – how’s it going so far?

Ben Karlin: It’s going pretty well. It’s kind of hard to tell, you know. You think when you’ve got your book title on Google Alert that it’s all over the place. My mom just sent me an e-mail saying she found it at Borders in the self-help section, which kind of bummed me out. Really? Self-help?

BE: Have you done half a million interviews yet?

BK: (laughs) Not really, no. I’ve been pretty successful at convincing most people to do e-mail interviews, so then I can just type my responses. I like it when I can control exactly what I’m saying. When you’re talking, you never know what’s going to come out. I could say something racist right now.

BE: The book started as an idea for a TV show, right?

BK: Well, I started out a long time ago thinking that this would be a TV show about one guy, and every week you see a different failed relationship. One week, it would be a date that went horribly wrong. Another week, it would be a seven-year relationship – you know, an on-again, off-again thing – and then another week, he’d be 13 years old and getting his first big crush. So, you know, the idea would be that his life is like this string of bad relationships, and he’s building up, like, this war chest of experience that will enable him to make it work when the ultimate relationship comes along.

That was the pitch for the TV show, and I pitched it to NBC in 2000, and they didn’t like it. Well, it’s not that they didn’t like it. It’s just that they wanted something…else. (Laughs) So I ended up just pocketing that idea, and when I started thinking about doing a book – and I started thinking about this when I was still at “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” – I had basically two full-time jobs, and the idea of writing a book on my own was inconceivable, so I thought, what if I did a sort of anthology, and asked a lot of people that I’d worked with, and know, and then the title came back to me. I thought about taking more of a literal take, and instead of just one person, asking different people to talk about what they’d learned. It was a pretty organic process from there.

BE: I’m heading up a giveaway of your book at Popdose on Valentine’s Day, and during the two weeks leading up to the 14th, the writers are all sharing breakup stories of their own. I’ve been accused of getting off on their pain…

BK: (laughs)

BE: …How were the responses from the writers you approached? Did you experience anything similar?

Nobody accused me of getting off on their pain, but a couple of people were definitely, when I approached them to do it, a little more reticent about sharing. And I think that, you know, for a lot of people, they do comedy as kind of a bolster against the outside world. Asking someone to do something that’s truly personal – sometimes, that’s a place where they don’t want to go. But nobody put it in those terms. (laughs)

BE: Is there anyone you wanted to get for the book, but couldn’t?

BK: Well, I had this fantasy that a couple of my comedy icons, like Woody Allen, would write something, but I’m also aware of the fact that the amount of things that these people are asked to do is just impossible – if they even did a fraction of it. At a certain point, I just decided that I wasn’t going to – I don’t want to say waste my time, but I decided I wanted to concentrate on people I’d worked with, and people I knew who were funny. People who maybe had name value, but it wouldn’t be like I was trying to sell the book on their backs.

"For me, it’s not necessarily about television, or movies, or books – it’s more about working on ideas that I like, and then figuring out what the best fits for those are."

BE: Did you ever find yourself in the position of having to be more of an editor than you wanted to be?

BK: Nothing came in that was unusable. There were a couple of people – very few – who didn’t necessarily give it their best effort, and their contributions just kind of fell away. There were a few people where the contributions weren’t totally solid, but by and large, 90-something percent of the people who said they’d do something, they did something I was really happy with. There’s always an editing process. Doing “The Daily Show,” that’s one of the things that got hammered into me, was that you’re always making things better until the last possible minute. Nobody handed me copy where I said, “Okay, that’s it, done!” but most of the time, the stuff I sent back was just to get people to focus on certain issues, not because it wasn’t funny, but because it didn’t fit the theme of the book. I had a very specific idea in my mind that each chapter should be a story, and the chapter would be like a lesson – something you would take away from each piece – and sometimes when you’re writing your own story, you don’t think about that kind of thing.

BE: And now the book is a live show.

BK: Yeah, we had our second performance last night at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, and we have another one next Wednesday, and the next couple of Thursdays after that.

BE: Is it really only $5 a ticket?

BK: Well, you know, the idea was mainly just to promote the book. We’re not doing the show to make a lot of money, we’re just doing it to have a fun show, and hopefully to get the word out about the book.

BE: Any plans to film these live readings?

BK: Oh, we are, we are. It would be incredibly sweet and validating to me if this came all the way back around and ultimately ended up as a television show.

BE: How deeply would you want to be involved in television again? I know you’ve got a development deal with HBO…

BK: For me, it’s not necessarily about television, or movies, or books – it’s more about working on ideas that I like, and then figuring out what the best fits for those are. This live show, it just felt like the right thing to do. I could have just sold the rights to the book and made it into a movie, you know, adapted it into a screenplay…for me, though, I have a bunch of different ideas. Some of them are for television, some of them are for movies, some are for Internet stuff. So it’s really much more about the specific nature of the idea than being enamored with a specific medium.

BE: The live show is heading to Madison, right?

BK: Yeah – do you have a Madison connection?

BE: I don’t, but I know you do. How much time do you get to spend there?

BK: Well, you know, the “Onion” was based out of Madison, so I lived there for three years after I graduated from college. I’m not able to get back there more than probably once a year now, but it’s still got a nostalgia hook in me.

BE: You’ve said that after leaving the “Onion,” you moved to Los Angeles and ran into some initial difficulty, because no one there is interested in print.

BK: (laughs) No, they’re not.

BE: Reading that reminded me of all the difficulties that the “Onion’s” movie has had – you haven’t been involved in that at all, have you?

BK: No, not at all. I hear every now and then – because some of the people who were there when I was there have kind of phased through that project – I hear their stories. It’s not surprising, but it’s incredible that it’s still there, and something that people still talk about – and that it’s going to come out, and go straight to DVD!

BE: This brings us around to the topic of fake news, and the – for lack of a better word – movement you’ve been credited with helping start…

BK: (laughs) And rightly so!

BE: I’d like to get some of your thoughts about riding that wave, and about going to “The Daily Show” and being part of a…well, without putting it too strongly, an essential part of the television landscape during this point in the history of American media…

BK: Oh, you can put it that way.

BE: Perfect!

BK: Um, you know, the weird thing is, you don’t have that perspective on things when you’re doing it. Here’s a totally inappropriate analogy. Let’s say you’re Dorothy Parker or Robert Benchley, and you’re sitting around at the Algonquin Hotel. You’re sitting around this table and cracking jokes or whatever – you know, at no point did those people say (affects pompous voice) “Heyyyy, we’re members of the Round Table! What a major circle we are!” It was only after the fact, when they were dead, that people sort of anointed them that type of thing. You know what I mean? In no way am I equating my experiences to theirs, but when you’re in the middle of doing something, you don’t realize that it’s having that kind of impact. You don’t walk into work saying, “We’ve got to do our best at work right now, because we’re mapping out the future of comedy.” It’s really about just doing the work, and being in it, and how to feel good about the show you’re working on, or whatever you’re working on – and being funny, and staying true to your principles. You never get a back-row view of it. It’s only after the fact that you even remotely get a perspective on what it was, or what it is.

"When you’re talking, you never know what’s going to come out. I could say something racist right now."

And part of it, for me, was when the show kind of turned that corner and getting a lot of praise and attention, it became – I don’t want to say more difficult, but that was just this extra thing we had to work against. Whereas before, you’re just toiling sort of in the shadows. Certainly, when I was at the “Onion,” I knew it was my charge to get more people to know about it, because we thought it was so good. We’d literally stuff envelopes with the paper and send them to L.A., hoping that we had the right address for, say, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. It was so much more about standing on a street corner and shouting at the top of your lungs, and much less about kicking back and saying, “Yeah.” And for me, I never wanted to be one of those people who hits that point of, you know, cruisin’ on in to the station. That was one of those reasons I got antsy or motivated to leave the show.

BE: I wanted to ask you about that. In the “Onion” and “The Daily Show,” you’ve been fortunate enough to have two gigs that could have been considered career-defining for a lot of other writers. How much did you agonize over leaving?

BK: I didn’t. I actually agonized more about being there than I did about leaving, because – and it’s a terrible quality, too; I should just learn to enjoy more what I have – but after I scale one type of summit, I’m like, “Oooh, what are those other mountains over there?” It wasn’t about how long I could stay and take in the view. That’s a good quality and a bad quality, but it was definitely a thing where I felt like, being young and being in show business, I felt like there were other things I wanted to do, and it’s too hard to do other things while you have a full-time job. When I was doing “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” and thinking about these other things, I realized that time is a finite resource, and if I was going to give more to these other things, my time at the shows was going to suffer, and that’s not right, that’s not fair. It wouldn’t have been fair to Jon, who has been an incredible person to me, so it just made sense to leave.

BE: So you went from having, in effect, two full-time jobs to none – or just working on the book. Did you get the bends going from those high-pressure situations into one where you didn’t really have any?

BK: I did! It was more…for eight years, I had an unbelievably scheduled existence. I could look at a calendar and know exactly how the year was going to lay out. I knew exactly what I was going to be doing. Yeah, there was some variation, but every day that you have a show, that’s a show day, and you’ve got to do X, Y and Z – come hell or high water, the show’s got to come off. And to go all of a sudden from that to…nothing was a huge adjustment. I mean, it helped that I was in Morocco and Hawaii and, you know…(laughs) Italy for a month. That’s not difficult to me, to go away. But once all that travel ended, and it was time to go to work again, I was a little antsy. Fortunately, I was able to go out to L.A. and meet with some people, and kind of talk about what I wanted to do, and most people seemed pretty responsive, given the shows I was coming off doing. I kinda knew that as soon as I wanted to get back into something, I could.

BE: And now we’re in the middle of a writers’ strike.

BK: Exactly! (laughs)

BE: Which I hear is supposed to be ending today. Or something.

BK: Yeah, I hear they’ll be asking us to approve a deal. I guess tomorrow there’s going to be this meeting, and I guess there will be a bunch of reports coming out of that meeting and a settlement announced maybe Monday. I’ll tell you, the strike – the one totally unintended benefit of it has been getting to really focus on this book. I had made that deal with HBO, and sold a bunch of projects, a pretty healthy amount of work – and then the strike hit, and the book’s coming out, and I need to do a bunch of publicity for it, a tour, the live shows…so the timing of it has actually been pretty perfect. Don’t tell my brethren. (laughs)

BE: We’ll black out the words, like the redacted portions of Colbert’s chapter in your book.

BK: Perfect.

BE: Any parting words for the readers of Bullz-Eye?

BK: More pictures of girls in their underwear, please!

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