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'Daily Show' Producer Ben Karlin

Come up with a list of the dream writing jobs in comedy and at least three of them are likely to come up on one man's resume: Ben Karlin is executive producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and co-executive producer of The Colbert Report, both on the cable channel Comedy Central. Before that, Karlin was editor of the satirical weekly newspaper The Onion.

43:16

Other segments from the episode on April 4, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 4, 2006: Interview with Ben Karlin; Commentary on Dadaist art.

Transcript

DATE April 4, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Ben Karlin of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and
"The Colbert Report" discusses his career

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're about to hear what goes on behind the scenes at "The Daily Show" on
Comedy Central. My guest Ben Karlin joined the show as head writer in 1999,
shortly after Jon Stewart became the anchor. I know not all of our listeners
have cable or get to watch the show, so here's Jon Stewart opening an edition
last week.

(Soundbite of "The Daily Show")

Mr. JON STEWART: But right off the top, two pieces of just good news,
finally, from the Middle East. In Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman, the man who had
faced the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity 16 years
ago, safe tonight in Italy. And in Iraq, Jill Carroll, the American reporter
taken hostage a few months ago, set free. So you see what I'm saying people,
good news. (Soundbite of applause) It's not all bad stuff over there. For
every person killed just because of their religion or for being an American,
there's another person almost killed...(soundbite of laughter)...but then at
the last minute...(soundbite of laughter)...not.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show." My guest Ben Karlin is now an
executive producer of "The Daily Show" and the spin-off that follows it, "The
Colbert Report." "The Daily Show" has won two Peabody Awards and seven Emmys.
Karlin also co-wrote Stewart's material for the Oscars broadcast, co-wrote
"The Daily Show"'s best seller "America (The Book)," and is a former editor of
the satirical newspaper The Onion.

Ben Karlin, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a report that was about
the vice president shooting his friend while hunting. First of all, what went
through your mind when you heard the news, knowing that you'd have to come up
with some way of addressing this on "The Daily Show"?

Mr. BEN KARLIN: None of us could believe that it actually happened. It's
pretty much, in the eight years or so that I've been at the show, probably the
softest ball that has come across the plate, I would say. And there was no
shortage of ideas. It was one of those moments where you're sitting in the
room with everybody and, you know, there's 20 great things, funny things
flying around. And it was just a question of not letting our giddiness
overwhelm the process. And, you know, it's nice to let a little bit of that
in because it is such a big, meaty fun subject, but you got to be careful not
to, you know, just start laughing just at the mention of what happened, which
is what we ended up doing a little bit. But that was one of the more fun
days, I would say, of the job.

GROSS: Well, I want to put in an excerpt of the report that Nate Corddry did,
but I want you to describe the premise of this and how you came up with it.

Mr. KARLIN: Well, it was really one of those things where, as more details
came out, you kind of realized the story was a red herring because what was
most scandalous about the story, in our opinion, as we read reports, was not,
you know, what happened between Cheney and Whittington, but actually the fact
that the vice president goes on these particular kinds of hunts. The more
details were revealed, kind of like deep into the story as we were reading
them, we're just like, `Wait a second. People go and shoot like 70 caged
birds, and they're right there and then they're just released. That's not
hunting.' And we just couldn't get our heads around like thinking about
hunting as this, you know, pursuit which is involved with has some skill and
you have to go out in the brush all day. And you, you know, it's cold and
you're up at the crack of dawn. And all this idea that you have about
hunting, and we just kind of said, like, this here is really the scandal of
this story, that this thing goes on and is any way--this is the most furthest
thing removed from hunting you can possibly imagine. So we said let's
actually try to do--this is the closest to I think actual journalism we really
go right up to that point. And so we tried to find a place that would let us
come on and do one of these hunts.

GROSS: Well, let's hear the opening of this piece and then we'll talk more
about how you put it together. So here's Nate Corddry on "The Daily Show."

(Soundbite of "The Daily Show")

Mr. NATE CORDDRY: When the vice president went on a private hunting trip
last month, he took a lot of heat for shooting his friend. But the truth is,
he's actually a crack shot who's downed as many as 70 pheasants in a single
day. And he's done it on canned hunts, where birds are raised to be shot. I
wanted to hunt pheasant like the vice president so I made a reservation at the
Tobacco Stick Hunting Preserve in North Carolina.

Unidentified Man #1: We release birds per order of the customer, and the
customer is able to go to the field and hunt for these birds.

Mr. CORDDRY: It's like regular hunting, but with a menu.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Man #1: Quail are $7 each.

Mr. CORDDRY: OK.

Man #1: The chucker is $13 each. The pheasant is $16. And we use pointing
dogs for 75 each.

Mr. CORDDRY: Can I shoot the dog?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Man #1: That would be a very serious issue to shoot the dog.

Mr. CORDDRY: So I can't shoot the...

Man #1: Can't shoot the dog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CORDDRY: I was pretty sure that the vice president would get to shoot
the dog, but 140 pheasant would have to quench my bird lust. But would my
thousand dollars ensure this was better than regular hunting?

Man #1: Well, here the birds are in the field for you. You know they're
there. It's a sure thing. The birds are here. Now, in a wild bird hunt you
may find birds and you may not find birds.

Mr. CORDDRY: And who really has time to hunt and track prey anymore?

Man #1: It's a sure thing.

Mr. CORDDRY: One thing I've always hated about hunting, the challenge.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: So that's an excerpt from "The Daily Show" of a Nate Corddry report.
My guest is Ben Karlin. He's an executive producer of the show, former head
writer of the show, been with the show for eight years.

So, Ben, explain a little bit more what goes on at this ranch and how the
birds are actually shot by the people who've pay to hunt there.

Mr. KARLIN: Well, I mean, they're basically kept in a coop. And you walk up
and you look at what they have to offer in terms of the menu and you pick out
the amount of birds you want to shoot. And what they do is, they take the
birds in a crate and they put them in the back of a truck. They drive you and
the birds in the back of the truck. So you're--it's like this awkward, you
know, dead bird walking moment where you drive to the field. You're in the
front seat, the birds are in the back.

The guides, if you can call them that, will then take the crates, go out into
the brush. They will then dump the bird upside down so it's disoriented into
the thicket. OK? You will then get in position. And then the guide will
nudge the bird, like roust it basically, and it will, you know, being confused
and disoriented, it will attempt to fly. And it flies up and you shoot it.
So the one, like, nanosecond of freedom that this animal, you know,
experiences in its life is the nanosecond before it dies. And that's what the
vice president does.

And we literally could not believe it. We sat there in the editing room and
we could not believe that people do this. Because, truthfully, you know, I
went to school in Wisconsin. My roommate was a hunter. I very much liked the
idea. I don't hunt myself, but I liked the idea of, you know, deer season and
you go out. His dad was actually a bow hunter, and we'd go out every year and
we'd bag a couple deer. And we would, later on that year, we would eat
venison steaks that his dad had shot with a bow and arrow. And I thought that
was fairly, you know, in comportment with the order of the universe as we know
it. And I don't have any type of ethical with that at all. This, to me,
seems like very cheating.

GROSS: How did you get permission from this hunting ranch to shoot there?
Did they know what you were really up to? Do they know "The Daily Show"?

Mr. KARLIN: Well, I mean, yes and now. I mean, I don't think--I think when
you go and say we want to do a profile of, you know, your operation, you don't
necessarily have to say, `And, oh, by the way, we're going to belittle it.' We
don't need to necessarily offer that kind of disclosure. We don't lie about
what we're doing and who we are, but we also don't necessarily say, `Here is
the joke that we're going to tell at your expense.' So it's kind of a balance,
but we always are truthful to the degree that we don't deny, you know, where
we work, and who we are, and what we're doing.

GROSS: But with the questions that Nate Corddry asked, they have to assume
that either he's a satirist or he's learning disabled.

Mr. KARLIN: Yes. Yeah, but I've got to tell you more often than not, it's
learning disabled. It's not, you know, people don't, especially when you get
into a world that is, you know, fairly esoteric and not necessarily one that's
drenched in a lot of exposure to media or in a media center like New York. I
don't think that there is necessarily that same skepticism that "what's this
person's angle" necessarily. You know, we do a fairly good job, better now
than we used to, of trying as much as possible to put the onus of stupidity
and creepiness on our people and not...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KARLIN: We don't want to make anyone look bad unless they are doing
something really horrible. And, in this case, these people that we were
interviewing weren't, I wouldn't say, the perpetrators. They were just people
that were working there. So we just kind of used them to kind of get the
information out and to kind of make some points in general.

GROSS: So what was your role in writing that sketch?

Mr. KARLIN: Well, in general, what we do is Jon and myself and David
Javerbaum, the head writer, and then, well, Connie Korn up until recently--she
just went on maternity leave. But we kind of form the core, kind of creative
nucleus at the top of the show and the pitches come in. Sometimes the
researchers and the field producers and the writers come up with ideas.
Sometimes we have ideas and they're put into a packet and we discuss them.

And when we identify an idea we really like, the first thing we do is kind of
just talk it out, try to give it a hard test to see if there is a full piece
there. And a lot of times that's when some of the best jokes come up, when
you're just kind of brainstorming the overall structure of the piece. Once
you kind of feel like, `OK, we've got a solid idea here.' What we'll then do
is bring in a producer who will, you know, execute the piece. If it was their
idea, then obviously it will be that person.

And then we set about, you know, putting together the elements of it. The
researchers will go off and try to find that ranch, book someone who is
willing to talk to us. There's a whole component involves getting people to
these places. So there's a whole huge, you know, component that goes into
place in the booking of these things and logistical working out of it.

And while that's all happening, we're refining the idea. We're coming up with
basically what we call a "one sheet," which kind of breaks down the elements
of the story, the characters, you know, what the kind of soul of this opening
kind of sentence might be to kind of get you into the piece.

GROSS: There was something really funny recently set in Daytona Beach. What
happened was, you know, Jon Stewart is talking about how Fox News had a report
about a serial killer in Daytona Beach who is targeting prostitutes. And
Daytona Beach is, of course, one of the places that a lot of students go
during Spring Break. And this was during Spring Break. So would you take it
from here and describe that report?

Mr. KARLIN: Yeah. This was something that--we have this one department at
the show who is kind of the master of all things video that is happening in
the world. And they bring us these just beautiful nuggets every now and then.
And this was one of the times that they caught this report about a serial
killer who is on the loose who was not targeting college students, was
actually targeting prostitutes. However, the producer, because it happens to
be Spring Break, the producers of Fox News thought that it would be great in a
double box when the reporter...

GROSS: In split screen.

Mr. KARLIN: ...the split screen, when the reporter was speaking about the
serial killer who was on the loose and the three murders have been
prostitutes, to put in footage of these just dancing, drinking, you know,
women, of course, in bikinis doing, you know, faux striptease dances on stages
and on the beach, kind of MTV Spring Break style. And so you have this
reporter giving this deadly serious report about a serial killer, and this
just completely gratuitous, in no way relevant to the story, footage in the
other box distracting--and more than distracting--completely, I mean if she, I
would imagine, she would have just felt ashamed that this is what they chose
to run in there. And then they go to this police expert who's talking about
prevention and talking about things that you can do when something like that
is happening, and they just continue. You know, and it's not just shots like
a wide shot. They're showing like up close shots of cleavage and jiggling
butts and everything. And it went on for about a minute a half.

GROSS: So are there people on the staff of "The Daily Show" whose job it is
to just like monitor TV news and look for the most absurd things going on?

Mr. KARLIN: Yeah. We call them studio production, post production. It's a
group of guys led by someone named Rory Albanese who's just incredible. And
they will find these things. And in the morning when we have our morning
writers meeting, they will come in and say, `Look at this great thing we saw
on Fox, or check this out.' The other night we had this footage from CSPAN of
Les Kinsolving of Baltimore, a radio personality, who was on camera
unfortunately during the White House press conference, while the person next
to him was asking a question. And he decided at that point it was time to dig
in and bite a, I guess, a hangnail that had really been bothering him. And he
spent a solid 10-15 seconds on camera, like, basically eating his nail. And
then just when you think it couldn't get much worse, he then, like, kind of
reaches into his mouth and like takes it out and flicks it. And they, again,
they caught this and brought it to us. And that's our equivalent of manna.

GROSS: My guest is Ben Karlin, an executive producer of "The Daily Show" and
its former head writer. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Ben Karlin, an executive producer of "The Daily Show with
Jon Stewart" and its spin-off "The Colbert Report." He joined "The Daily Show"
as head writer in 1999.

I know another thing that you often do on "The Daily Show" is take clips from
past interviews or past press conferences that completely contradict what that
same person has just said and play them back to back. So you take a current
clip of somebody in the news, often somebody in the Bush administration, and
juxtapose that with a clip of them saying exactly the opposite thing weeks or
months ago. And I'll tell you an example of that. And this is, I think, this
is called "Bush vs. Bush." And it's President Bush from the time when he was
governor and campaigning for the presidency, juxtaposed with what President
Bush has said about Iraq. So let's here a short clip of this.

(Soundbite of "The Daily Show")

Unidentified Man #2: Mr. President, you won the coin toss. The first
question will go to you. Why is the United States of America using its power
to change governments in foreign countries?

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We must stand up for our security, and for the
permanent rights and the hopes of mankind. The United States of America will
make that stand.

Man #2: Well, certainly that represents a bold new doctrine in foreign policy
Mr. President. Governor Bush, do you agree with that?

Governor GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah. I'm not so sure the role of the United
States is to go around the world and say this is the way it's got to be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Man #2: All right. Well, that's interesting. Well, that's a difference of
opinion, and certainly that's what this country is about, differences of
opinion.

Mr. President, let me just get specific. Why are we in Iraq?

Pres. BUSH: We will be changing the regime of Iraq for the good of the Iraqi
people.

Man #2: Governor, then I would like to hear your response on that.

Gov. BUSH: If we're an arrogant nation, then they'll resent us. I think one
for us to end up being viewed as the ugly American is for us to go around the
world saying, `We do it this way, so should you.'

Man #2: Well, that's an excellent point. I don't think you can argue with
that.

Mr. President, is the idea to just build a new country that we like better?

Pres. BUSH: We will tear down the apparatus of terror. And we will help you
to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free.

Gov. BUSH: I don't think our troops ought to be used for what is called
nation building.

Man #2: Well, that's fair enough, governor.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's an excerpt from "The Daily Show." My guest is Ben Karlin, who
is an executive producer and former head writer of the show.

So, Ben, do you remember how this sketch was written and what the process was
like of finding the juxtaposed footage of the president?

Mr. KARLIN: Yeah. I mean, again, most things start with kind of a just a
concept or idea. And this was kind of born out of this idea that everyone is
saying so and so is a flip-flopper, or that this person is not consistent.
And that's a label that people always try, especially in the last couple of
elections, that people put on that was a very strong tactic that Republicans
used against Democrats. And we always, you know, believe that you are--it's
very difficult to be 100 percent consistent all the time, especially when
cameras are always going to be on you. You're always going to be caught one
way or the other. And we felt very strongly that Bush had kind of gotten this
relatively free ride on this whole idea that he himself hadn't changed
positions pretty radically on several things. So the idea then becomes to
find the best examples to animate that.

The challenge there, more than anything, is to try to make them funny. You
know, you want to make a point, but you've got to really be very careful not
to kind of dip into being super didactic. So I think, for us, it was about
finding the balance of making the point, which we thought was a valid point,
but also injecting enough humor into it in the way that it was edited and
structured so people didn't feel like they were being, you know, poked in the
chest.

GROSS: Now, you've said that there are things where you think that the
straight press has given a free ride to people in the administration or in
Congress. How do you see the role of "The Daily Show" as a kind of adjunct to
the press?

Mr. KARLIN: By definition, we exist as a reaction to the press in terms of
commenting off of what they are doing or what they're not doing. But as far
as like a defined role, we really try not to get into that too, too much, only
because of the desire and the need to just produce something funny everyday.
And the kind of what it means or what are we doing exactly, doesn't really
come into it like that philosophically, I would have to say.

You know, when you study it or, not study it, but when you look back and say,
`Oh, this was this.' Or, `This was that.' Then you kind of can say, `Oh, well,
we were actually being a commentator in the same way that an editorial cartoon
would be, you know, a comment on the day's news.' But, I don't think we
necessarily ever start a meeting by saying, `OK, well, here's what the press
is doing. Here's what they're not doing. Let's do this.' That just can't
enter into our process just mainly because of efficiency. It just wouldn't
work to add that added level of mission.

GROSS: Ben Karlin will be back in the second half of the show. He's an
executive producer of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert
Report."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, "Great Moments in Punditry." We continue our conversation
with Ben Karlin, an executive producer of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"
and co-executive producer of "The Colbert Report."

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ben Karlin. He joined
"The Daily Show" as head writer in 1999, shortly after Jon Stewart became the
anchor. Karlin is now an executive producer of "The Daily Show" and its
spin-off "The Colbert Report."

Are there a mix of, like, liberal and conservative writers on "The Daily
Show"?

Mr. KARLIN: I don't think it would be fair to say that there's a very
strong, what do you want to call it, conservative or Republican voice on the

show. If anything, it's probably streaked more with more of a Libertarian
take. I mean, the idea of liberal is such a weird designation at this point
because if you're thinking about kind of old guard '60s idealists, kind of,
you know, kind of Utopian thing, I don't really think a lot of us believe that
anymore. I do think that when you think about Libertarian, you know, ideas of
individual freedom and, you know, the government not really getting too, too
involved in your life, for better and worse, I think that that kind of
probably is the strongest strain throughout the staff.

GROSS: Now, one of the regular features on "The Daily Show," or irregular
features, is called "Great Moments in Punditry," in which you basically have
two children reading transcripts of pundits slinging mud at each other. And
before we hear an excerpt of that, how did you come up with this idea?

Mr. KARLIN: Again, you know, sometimes, you know, necessity being the mother
of invention, you know, the show is very monolithic in terms of the field
pieces are three or four minutes, and the headlines sections of the show, you
know, tend to be three or four minutes long, and the interviews, you know,
five or six or seven minutes. And what we really need on the show are shorter
pieces, a minute long, that will--you can put in or take out based on how
heavy or light the show is on that particular day. So we, you know, spend a
lot of time trying to think of ideas that kind of lend themselves to short
treatment, and one of the things that we really noticed in watching so much
punditry is that it really devolves very quickly into this kind of zero sum
game of, `I saying this. You saying this. And I'm the Liberal and you're the
conservative.' And the host says, `OK, thanks a lot. That was a productive
conversation.' And you're no where further or closer to any kind of truth or
understanding. So when you just think about that, we just think, `Well,
that's just children saying, nanny-nanny-na-na. So why don't we get actual
children and read these transcripts.'

GROSS: Well, let's hear an excerpt of "Great Moments in Punditry" from "The
Daily Show." So, again, it's two children reading a transcript of two pundits
speaking, and the pundits who are being read in this case are conservative
radio and TV talk show host Sean Hannity and radio talk show host John
Sylvester.

(Soundbite of "Great Moments in Punditry" from "The Daily Show")

Unidentified Child #1: If they have a different view than yours, why do you
belittle them? Why do you demean them? Why do you insult them and use
incendiary language, except to help yourself and your failing ratings because
you're not doing particularly well?

Unidentified Child #2: Well, you know, that's funny because you had much
lower ratings. That's why I took you off my station. All right? You know
what? You're pathetic.

Child #1: I'm on 500 stations. You are on one.

Child #2: You are pathetic. You are pathetic.

Child #1: You don't do very well, do you?

Child #2: You're pathetic.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's an example of "Great Moments in Punditry" from "The Daily
Show," and my guest is Ben Karlin, an executive producer of "The Daily Show"
and of "The Colbert Report."

Look, you know, there's a famous television moment where Jon Stewart was on
"Crossfire" with Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala. And he basically said to
them--he basically begged them to stop hurting America. And he said to them,
`The thing is, you're doing theater when you should be doing debate.' He said,
`It's not honest. What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan
hackery.' And this ended up on the Internet. And the Web site I saw it on, I
went back to the Web site last night, there's already been like over three
million hits just on this one Web site that has the clip. You were with him,
I think, at CNN when...

Mr. KARLIN: Yeah, we were down in Washington. We'd done a book event
earlier in the day and had gone over, and it was actually something that, you
know, in our private moments, Jon, D.J. and myself would talk a lot about how
great it would be to just call those guys out on what they do. But it was
always this thing talked about in the laboratory of our private sanctum. And
then when it was brought out into the world, while people responded to it in a
positive way, I don't think that Jon--I know that Jon did not feel great about
the way that all went down.

And, being in the room while it was happening, I can tell you, was probably
the most awkward thing that I've ever, you know, witnessed because, you know,
it was real. It was, you know, there's this kind of veneer that everyone puts
on when you go on television, and this was someone, you know, just being
unbelievably, painfully honest to people's faces. And it was--there was just
you could feel the air just being...(soundbite of air whooshing)...sucked
right out of the room.

GROSS: Well, what kind of thought went into it beforehand? Did you and Jon
Stewart sit down and say, `Here's what you can do to lampooned the "Crossfire"
type of debate?

Mr. KARLIN: No, because that wasn't a lampoon. That's the difference. I
mean, that was just a naked reprobation. And, I think, that we had always
just talked about that as what would happen if you just went on there and just
refused to play their game. And it was something that, you know, even in the
car ride on the way over there we talked about it, and there was considerable,
you know, back and forth, `Should I do this? Should we do this. This is, is
this, you know?' And we didn't know how it was going to go. And we thought
that maybe, well, that could just be one small part of the conversation.
Maybe say something either at the top or at the bottom and then just the rest
of the show will be the rest of the show.

What was not foreseen was that it became, you know, the whole show. And then,
certainly afterwards, when we were--the conversation continued for about an
hour afterwards, you know, back in the green room. And then the president of
CNN was in there, I think, or the head of programming at the time. And it was
fairly heated afterwards, as well. And we just felt, going back to the hotel,
that that was just a disaster of the highest order. And we had no idea it
would then become this thing that would, you know, have a life on its own.

GROSS: So were you in the audience when this was happening? Could Jon
Stewart see your face?

Mr. KARLIN: Well, I was in--instead of standing back stage, I wanted to
watch it from the auditorium. So I was kind of in the back of the auditorium
watching it with a producer. And, you know, the lights are down so I don't
think he could see me because I was standing way in the back.

GROSS: Thinking, `Oh, no.'

Mr. KARLIN: Well, it was awkward because I was standing next to the producer
of "Crossfire," or one of the producers.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. KARLIN: And I just kind of...

GROSS: Very awkward.

Mr. KARLIN: In the commercial break, I was just like, `This is going well.'

GROSS: My guest is Ben Karlin. He's an executive producer and former head
writer of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Ben Karlin. He's an executive producer of "The Daily
Show" and of "The Colbert Report," and is a former head writer of "The Daily
Show." He has been with the show for eight years.

One of the segments that you do is called "This Week in God," and it's a
satire of news about religion. When the cartoon riots happened, was that a
really sobering thing to you to see how some satires can actually end in riots
and people killed and death threats?

Mr. KARLIN: Not really. I mean, it was an extreme and incredible example,
but it wasn't something that was that implausible given, you know, the kind of
growing tension that has just, you know, been out there for the last several
years. And whether it's been a stated thing or an unintended byproduct, you
know, it's become very clear that the way certain elements of the Muslim world
see the West of the US and whatever you want to call it, you know, that is a
real tension that, you know, some people exploit, some people try to downplay,
but it's there. But as far as "This Week in God" goes, for us it's an example
of, you know--I think five years ago, six years ago, it was very difficult
even on basic cable to do a lot of jokes about religion, especially, you know,
"South Park" can get away with it because it's under the guise of being
animated. But when you have real people talking about religion, that is the
one thing that lights up the phone boards. You know? People really don't
have a sense of humor about their own faith. Or many people don't, I should
say.

Ironically, Stephen Colbert, who originated this segment, is quite religious
himself. And somehow has this magic gene that allows him to retain, you know,
his faith, and retain, you now, his relationship with God and his religion and

still, you know, make jokes. Because, I think he can see the absurdity
through, you know, through what's happening.

GROSS: Now, you and Jon Stewart are both Jewish. And Stewart sometimes uses
the word "Jewey" on the show.

Mr. KARLIN: Yes.

GROSS: Only a Jewish person could get away with doing that.

Mr. KARLIN: That is very true. That is very true. It's very funny, though,
because a lot of times we'll write--the other night we did one where Samantha
Bee, who is not Jewish, was in Israel reporting on the Israeli election
results, and that's so in our, kind of, Jew wheelhouse,in terms of where we go
for humor on that subject. And we had five or six jokes that really could
only be written by Jewish people. You know, I think we're talking about the
number of parties, and there's 12 parties. And we were listing off some of
the lesser known parties, and one of them was the "Chutzpahcrats" and another
one was "Lefkowitz Party of Four."

GROSS: That's right. That's really funny.

Mr. KARLIN: And to have a non-Jew, I mean, have to recite those words, it's
very funny to see. And every now and then we'll put in Yiddish, we'll put in
a little Yiddish. I think someone called her--she said that she was being
called a "shikseh." And to see someone who isn't just familiar with that kind
of language and that kind of speech pattern have to say these words, it's
really not--it's not fair.

GROSS: So what's the consensus among your Jewish viewers? Is "The Daily
Show" good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?

Mr. KARLIN: I have no idea. I have no idea. I think it's probably in the
tradition of Jews who are ambivalent or hesitant to really embrace their
religion, but very much want to acknowledge it.

GROSS: Now, you started your career at the satirical newspaper The Onion.
Did you ever write news for real before writing satirical news?

Mr. KARLIN: Yeah, I did. I was a feature writer for a couple papers in
Madison, Wisconsin. I mainly did arts coverage, stories about bands and movie
reviews and play reviews. And I also did some sports writing, as well,
because I went to the University of Wisconsin and so I covered the University
of Wisconsin as a freelance journalist for a couple of smaller papers in the
state of Wisconsin, the LaCrosse Tribune, being one of them.

GROSS: So how did you start working on The Onion?

Mr. KARLIN: I was in college and I was writing for the newspaper, one of the
student dailies, there were two. And a bunch of writers from the paper I was
working for, which was The Daily Cardinal, had migrated from The Cardinal to
The Onion, and The Onion was still very young and new on campus, and was kind
of becoming more and more popular. And it just seemed like such a more fun
place to work. And you could kind of apply what little you did know at age 21
about journalism in a far more creative environment. So once I kind of got a
little bored with writing for The Cardinal, I contacted the guys over at The
Onion and they had me submit, and I joined as just an idea contributor and a
writer my senior year of college.

GROSS: What are some of the favorite headlines that you generated during your
years with The Onion?

Mr. KARLIN: Well, probably my favorite was "Christ Returns to the NBA," and
that was done after Michael Jordan returned to the NBA. And we had this great
photo on the cover, which was Jesus just viciously dunking over a bunch of
players with this just horrible look on his face. We got a guy who looked
like Jesus. And the great thing about that story was, as I wrote it, we put
in all these details that Jesus, actually in college, wasn't really that good
of a basketball player. Like, he was second team all conference, and he
scored 19 points a game. Like, we had all these great little details that
kind of undercut this idea of Jesus being this omnipotent being. That was
probably one of my favorites just because the picture is so unbelievably
dramatic.

GROSS: And what was another?

Mr. KARLIN:: Another was probably, keeping on the religion theme, I did a
story called "Jews to Release Box Set."

GROSS: What was that?

Mr. KARLIN: And it was the Jewish people were going to try to summarize
their 10,000 year existence in a six CD set that included a picture book of
some of the highlights of their existence in the history of man.

GROSS: So was writing for The Onion good preparation for "The Daily Show"?

Mr. KARLIN: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, The Onion, writing for The Onion
was just good preparation for writing comedy in general because, you know, The
Onion is such a strict format and such a strict voice, and you kind of learn
that that structure gives you freedom. You know, you kind of know the
limitations so you have to make something funny within the limitations of this
news voice. And you have some options because we do, you know, we used to do
a lot of character pieces. So if you had an idea for, you know, for something
that was more in the first person voice, there was not, you know, you could
write it in the form of an editorial.

Or if you had something that was truly conceptual--like one of my favorite
things we used to do, which I think they still do every now and then, is
writing these segments which were "Ask a..." and then you fill in whatever the
funny thing is. So the first time I saw it,-- didn't write the one that
really got me loving the segment--but the first one I saw, I came back from
vacation and some of the stories were already pasted up on the paste-up boards
because this was back in the day before true desktop publishing. So the story
was "Ask"--I think it was called "Ask a Jazz Man" or "Ask Scat," I believe,
and it was a typical advice column. So someone writes in and says, you know,
`My wife and I have been having some problems, blah, blah, blah.' And it's a
typical kind of advice question. And ten the answer was done entirely in
scat. `Zippy, bibidy, bibidy, boo.' Like the whole thing. And so it was
coming up with things like that and breaking out of the news format but still
finding a home for it in a newspaper really kind of teaches you that, you
know, that no creative challenge really can't be met.

GROSS: So do you end the day by actually watching "The Daily Show" and "The
Colbert Report" at home on TV?

Mr. KARLIN: No. Definitely not.

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. KARLIN: That's one of the most amazing things. And if it was true about
Larry Sanders, the idea of the host or the people who are involved in the
production of the show actually going home and watching the show on air that
night after five hours earlier watching it being taped is--I can't imagine
doing that. The last thing I want to do when I leave the studio is to
revisit, not that it's unpleasant, but just because you just need that
separation. You just need that.

If you're leaving at 8:00 or 9:00 at night and you know you're coming back in
the next morning at 9:30-10:00 the morning, the last thing you want to do at
11:30 is to watch the show again. If, every now and then, if there's
something amazing that happened and I want to show it to a friend or something
like that, I'll, you now, and I'm with them, I'll do that. But I absolutely
do not make a practice of watching the show at home.

GROSS: Ben Karlin, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. KARLIN: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Ben Karlin is an executive producer of "The Daily Show with Jon
Stewart" and "The Colbert Report." If you want to see videos from "The Daily
Show," you can find a link on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcement)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Music critic Lloyd Schwartz describes the Dadaist art
exhibit at the National Gallery of Art

TERRY GROSS, host:

The first major show of Dadaist art is currently on exhibit in Washington.
Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz went to see it and has this report.

Mr. LLOYD SCHWARTZ: The avant-garde ain't what it used to be. I was in
Washington to see the colossal Dada show at the National Gallery of Art, and
was stunned by the inventiveness, the sexy irreverence, the satirical passion
of a doomed civilization, and even the luminous beauty of these often fragile
objects that seem hardly made to last. This anti-art movement that started as
a response to the devastation of World War I, eventually turned into the art
of the future. Our contemporary avant-garde doesn't seem even to have begun
catching up with what artists, poets and musicians were doing in Switzerland,
Germany, France and New York between 1915 and the early 1920s. Pop art, op
art, found art, conceptual art, chance music and even the language poetry of
the last half of the 20th Century were already old-fashioned by the time they
started.

In the show are some of the most notorious icons of the Dada movement. The
"Mona Lisa" with the moustache and goatee Marcel Duchamp added, and a
porcelain urinal he called "Fountain." Man Ray's "Flat Iron" with a row of
tacks glued to the ironing surface. Scathing political images by George Grosz
and Max Ernst.

Printed on the steps going up to the second level of the National Gallery's
East Wing are these instructions written by Tristan Tzara, one of Dada's
daddies. "To make a Dadaist poem, take a newspaper, take a pair of scissors,
choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem, cut out the
article, then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them
in a bag, shake it gently, then take out the scraps one after the other in the
order in which they left the bag, copy conscientiously. The poem will be like
you." This was written in 1920, long before refrigerator magnets.

Much Dadaist art is even more radical. A lifelong project of the German
artist Kurt Schwitters, who is probably best known for his collages, is a poem
called "Ursonate," inspired by a 1918 poster poem by the artist Raoul
Hausmann, which consists just of the letters F-M-S-B-W. Schwitters made this
recording in 1932. You can hear it as you walk into the Schwitters room at
the National Gallery, and it infiltrates your thoughts.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: One treat took place in the lobby just outside the entrance to
the exhibit. Sixteen baby grand player pianos, four base drums, three
xylophones, three fans with plastic interring fingers that rattle like cards
in bicycle spokes, a gong, a siren, and a brace of bells were lined up for a
performance of perhaps the most important pieces of music of the Dada period,
the American film composer George Antheil's "Le Ballet mecanique," music he
created in 1924 to accompany a surrealist silent film by the French artist
Fernand Leger.

Synchronizing 16 player pianos proved impossible before the age of computers,
but Tufts University's Paul D. Lehrman has devoted himself to reviving "Le
Ballet mecanique" and incorporating the score into Leger's film. Lehrman set
up this National Gallery event and triggered the computer. The crowd in the
lobby and in the stairwells were rocking to the percussive rhythms of this
impetuous, hilarious, exhilarating, colorful and chilling score, an ironic
hymn to the industrial world, its accomplishments and its menace. Here's part
of that live performance.

(Soundbite of musical performance)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Lehrman's dazzling synchronization of the music with the film
is included in a extraordinary seven DVD set called "Unseen Cinema."

People at the National Gallery seemed hypnotize, amused and overwhelmed by the
Dada exhibit. A few seemed puzzled and outraged, which proves that nearly a
century later the Dadaists are still challenging our assumptions about art and
politics and life in the world.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix. The
Dada show is at the National Gallery in Washington through May 14th, and then
re-opens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on June 11th.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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