11 min read
An interview with the four-time Emmy Award winning comedy writer.
Rob Kutner, born and raised in Atlanta Georgia, studied at Princeton University where he obtained his undergraduate degree in anthropology. With an Ivy League education in tow, he was on his way to becoming a successful Jewish professional, no doubt making his parents proud. But upon graduation, he did something foolish -- he decided to become a writer, and a writer of comedy at that. 12 years after his graduation, and four Emmy awards later for his writing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, it turns out that Kutner's decision was a very intelligent one. Rob took time out of his busy schedule to speak with Jewlarious about his thoughts on writing humor, his Jewish observance, and his attempts to fuse the two together.
Did you always know you were funny?
As a kid, I wasn't exactly the class clown. I was more of a "spazz." I started getting sent into the hallway every day when I was in kindergarten. I didn't quite fit into the class environment. It wasn't until college that I realized that everything I was doing "extra-curricular" was tied to humor. I was the editor of our humor paper, I was in the on campus improv group and I was even in the marching band -- I played Shofar. It obviously wasn't a real marching band.
When did you realize you could be funny for a living?
A friend of mine got hired as a writer for The Simpson's, and I realized that you could actually make a living writing comedy. That's when I decided that I wanted to pursue comedy as a career.
Was it difficult to break into the comedy writing business? Did it happen right away?
There are a few shuls in the New York area where I feel like I can't go to anymore.
I moved out to LA and spent about six years writing, and not really finding work as a writer. Finally, a friend of mine knew of an opening at Dennis Miller Live as a writer's assistant. Basically, you sit in with the writers and get to contribute once in a while, but don't get credit for any of your jokes. But as I started contributing, Dennis started to like some of my jokes and promoted me to writer. But then his show got cancelled after being on the air for eight years. At the time I knew some people who were working at The Daily Show, so I interviewed with them, and got the job.
Was getting the job at The Daily Show like winning the comedy writer's lottery?
At the time, not really. In 2002 when I was applying, it wasn't as hot a show as it is now. It didn't really take off until about six months after I got there.
It still is a basic cable show. Our studio is next to a horse stable -- it's kind of in the middle of nowhere. It doesn't feel like a power glamour job or anything. We do our job like any other normal job. But when I am amongst other people sometimes I realize how popular the show is. There are a few shuls in the New York area where I feel like I can't go to anymore. Once, just after I had won an Emmy, I lained [read from the Torah scroll] at a particular shul, and afterwards the Rabbi said, "That was our Emmy award winning laining." That was a little bit too much pressure I think.
Is it me, or is there a lot of Jewish humor on The Daily Show?
Yes, there definitely is. I think The Daily Show has a strong pull for Jewish people. First of all it tackles some of the typical Jewish liberal issues. But also, our host, Jon Stewart is very up front about his Yiddishkeit.
I think The Daily Show has a strong pull for Jewish people. Our host, Jon Stewart is very up front about his Yiddishkeit.
So Jon doesn't feel that it is a liability that he identifies so openly as a Jew?
I think it's the age that we are in. It's a post identity culture that we are in, so we feel comfortable to identify. Jon, even though he isn't observant, feels comfortable relating openly to the fact that he is Jewish. It gives him an idiom, a frame of reference. In some ways I think he plays on the typical Jewish attributes: that we are outsiders, reflecting on the mainstream, and standing up to the establishment. Also Yiddish, the language, is sort of an easy laugh. If you can't come up with a punch line and throw in a Yiddish word, the joke can suddenly work. Our show is a parody of the news. News is very homogenized. By using ethnic Jewish phrases or Yiddish, it almost pokes fun at the mainstream media. These days I see many Jewish comics using their Jewishness as a hook for their comedy.
The Daily Show is obviously a political show. How do you deal with the perception that some people have that your humor has a partisan bent?
Personally, I embrace both opposites. I am not a fan of the current government's domestic politics, but appreciate its support of Israel. During the Lebanon war, Jon tried to take an evenhanded approach, and try to point out idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies on both sides, whether Israel or Lebanese. .
Come on, you aren't going to deny that The Daily Show is left leaning, are you?
There is definitely a leftward slant on the show. Before Jon took over, it was a lot lighter, goofier -- the Clinton era was a goofy era. I think the interesting question is had Kerry won the elections, what angle would we have taken? I don't know. But on both sides of the aisle, there is so much greed and narcissism that as a political satire show, I don't think there is any shortage of material.
By contrast, when I was on The Dennis Miller Show, he was switching from libertarian to Republican. It was hard to do political satire when you supported the party in power.
Your work on the Daily Show has garnered you four Emmys for comedy writing. Has it changed your life significantly? Is it everything you thought it would be?
The really funny thing is that the Emmy is basically a pesel (an idol). It's this winged figure. Yet all of the rabbis I know seem to want to touch it. I feel like saying, "Are you even allowed to do that?"
The Emmy is a very nice thing to have. It's a little bit permanent. With writers, there isn't a lot of permanence in our business, so it's nice to have a concrete reminder. But sometimes I feel like other people get more excited about it than I do. For example, when I visit my parents and go to their shul on Shabbat so they can have some "kvelling time," everyone wants to talk about the Emmy. For me it's strange because I am a little shy and don't really like talking about it. I feel like, because it's Shabbat, perhaps we should be focusing on more spiritual things. But and the end of the day, I am I still very proud and happy about it.
Do you ever hear people say,- "He writes for The Daily Show? He's not that funny?"
I get that from my in-laws a little bit, otherwise, not really. I don't think people would be rude enough to say that to my face, although they may say it when I am not around. But If I see people on Shabbat, and they ask me to tell them a joke, or say something funny, I just say, "Sorry, I don't work on Shabbos."
Speaking of Shabbos, have you found it difficult to maintain your standards of Jewish observance while writing for the show?
I take off some holidays that other people don't take off, and the management at Comedy Central is great about that. Shabbat observance is not an issue because we don't shoot on Fridays which is great.
Jon has joked that his writing staff is in that it is only 80% percent Jewish. With so many Jewish writers, is it a Jewish atmosphere?
A lot of the people I work with are Jewish, but they don't really share the same interest that I have in the religion. You know, on Sukkot, I am thinking about where the nearest sukkah is where I can eat, but they aren't thinking about that. All of the writers have a certain vague Jewishness though which is part of the atmosphere of the show. And if there is a specific Jewish question about something in a joke or for a story, then I am usually the authority.
So you're the token religious guy in the office?
Anything you do that is different in our environment gets amplified and is almost an invitation for guys to make fun of you. For example, when I bought a lulav and etrog last year for Sukkot, I didn't have time to pick it up, so I had it delivered to my office. I was so concerned that I was going to get some comments, asking if I was going to be playing Jewish baseball, or if I was going to be building a sukkah in my office or something, that I had them deliver the stuff like they were Mosad security agents. In the end, no one mentioned anything.
How have you been able to fuse your love of comedy and love of Judaism?
When I was in Israel studying for the year, I ran my first Purim Shpeil (play). The amount of support that I got from everyone was overwhelming. It showed me how deeply humor is ingrained in the Jewish tradition.
When my wife and I moved to New York, I started doing a Purim Shpeil which I have been doing for the last four years. It's kind of like a variety show with sketch comedies explaining the Megillah in a modern context. We did a skit called The Apprentice, where Achashverosh chooses a Queen. We did a parody of the reality show called The Biggest Loser but instead we did "The Biggest Faster" -- Mordechai and Esther were fasting to see how many Jews they could save. We did one show with Daily Show Correspondent Rob Cordroy as the host of the "O'Roiley Factor," a talk show in the Persian Empire where he had on his favorite guest – Haman. We had a skit called "The Iron Treife" where the chefs had to make a dish which is kosher but tastes treife. It's great because I can put in all of these Jewish references that I can't make on The Daily Show.
So as a comedian, Purim must hold a special place in your heart.
It blows my mind that we have a holiday practically dedicated to humor. For example, in one of our Shpeils we had a non Jewish friend of mine who is a comedian do a shtick called "Goyim say the darnedest things." He pointed out how amazing it was that we have a holiday dedicated to humor -- you don't see that in other religions.
It blows my mind that we have a holiday practically dedicated to humor.
We have so little reverence. Going back to Abraham negotiating with God for the safety of the people in Sodom. The name Israel means to struggle with God. Talmudic argumentation leaves everything open to questions -- humor is the exact same thing.
Is this part of the reason why Jewish people are so funny?
Jews have also had the outsider perspective. There is also a certain impermanence in our existence. As a Jew you sometimes feel like everything you have could be taken away from you tomorrow. And if that's the case, it causes you to ask questions. Even if you don't come up with the right answer, you still have that Jewish psyche that asks and probes. There is still an awareness that this world is not all that it seems, and often times the resulting observations lead to humor.
What are you looking forward to accomplishing in the next few years?
2008 will be interesting times in politics, so The Daily Show is going to be a great place to be, and I am really looking forward to it.
For more information on Rob Kutner's Purim shpeils visit www.shushanchannel.com