Ex-'Daily Show' Writer Reveals What it's Really Like Working for Jon Stewart (Q&A)
J.R. Havlan, the Comedy Central show's longest-serving writer, talks early days with Craig Kilborn and the George W. Bush joke he's most proud of.
Nobody knows The Daily Show quite like J.R. Havlan—not even Jon Stewart.
When he retired in late June, Havlan was the only writer who'd been with the show since day one, credited on 2,821 episodes from 1996-2014.
"He has—like the show—evolved. Grown from a comic-turned-writer into an accomplished writer with just a lovely wife and family," Stewart said of Havlan.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Havlan via email, where he talked about the early days working with Craig Kilborn, his proudest moments and what's behind his retirement.
Do you remember the first joke you got on air?
No, but I'm willing to bet it was the greatest joke I ever wrote. I remember the first joke I wrote that got mentioned in print outside of the show. George W. Bush had a meet-and-greet on a beach with women's volleyball champions Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. There was a photo of May-Treanor bent over in front of Bush literally inviting him to pat her on the ass "celebration style", but clearly he decided to pat her on the lower back with the back of his hand. I wrote that it was probably the best decision of his presidency up to that point. Entertainment Weekly printed it along with the photo. I was prouder than I care to admit. I still think it's a pretty solid joke.
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What was your initial reaction when you learned Craig Kilborn would be leaving and Jon Stewart would be taking over?
I didn't really know Jon from stand-up. He was WAY ahead of me in many ways. So I only knew him from Short Attention Span Theater and The Jon Stewart Show, where he wore a leather jacket a lot, talked to celebrities and introduced bands. He was also very funny and clearly good at what he did, but I wondered what he would look like in a suit delivering "the news"—especially in an ill-fitting Zegna suit or whoever the hell was providing the show with their obviously discarded "David Byrne Collection" at the time. I wasn't freaked out about it or anything, but we had a good thing going and I liked my job and was hoping to keep it for another ... oh, I don't know ... 1-to-15 years. Obviously, it turns out I had nothing to worry about. I've always been amazed at how well Jon handled the transition. He didn't rock the boat. Instead, he used that first year to gradually make the adjustments necessary to create the foundation for what the show would eventually become. I've always marveled at his patience, focus and foresight during that time, and I can assure you that I'm extremely grateful for it.
Are you able to pinpoint an episode or segment you worked on that you are most proud of?
That would sort of be like finding a needle-sized joke in a haystack of jokes.
My original submission to the show (written in early 1996) included a pitch to have Lewis Black surf this relatively new-fangled thing called "the Internet" in search of odd stories that he could rant about. Who knew that idea would outlast even me! Over the years I've worked on all but a handful of the "Back in Black" segments, and it was always a great pleasure and fantastic experience to work with Lewis, the most gentle, thoughtful and hilarious maniac I've ever met.
Is there any joke or segment you regret or would change in hindsight?
All of the "Back in Black" segments.
"Regret" is not a word I even remotely associate with any aspect of my experience at The Daily Show. I often play a cocky A-hole in real life (often to rave reviews!) but deep down I'm modest and unassuming, which I realize means basically the same thing but for some reason I felt like using two words there. Not sure why. Anyway, this has kept me from ever daydreaming too seriously about "all the great things I could have accomplished had it not been for this deadweight called The Daily Show with Jon Stewart". The fact is I truly am humbled by the show as well as all the amazing people I've worked with there over the years.
As for what I would change, the answer is "nothing that didn't get changed on a daily basis," which was pretty much everything. That's comedy writing.
Havlan with The Daily Show writing staff on his final day of work.
What would you say changed the most about your job or the show during your time there?
The set and my salary. Both in shiny, exciting ways.
But more importantly, the show itself. Jon frequently and consistently modified our editorial focus as well as our daily "process", but never simply for the sake of change. It was always for the purpose of keeping the show fresh and genuine, and making sure the content and staff never got stale. It worked. Over and over again, it worked.
Why was now the time to move on?
That's like asking, "Why did Van Gogh cut his ear off?"
OK, bad example. That was for a woman, right? But I guess in a way, so was my decision. It was for two women, really, and one boy: my family. Yes, like a politician who's lying about why he abruptly decided to leave office, "I wanted to spend more time with my family." There was also a laundry list of other reasons that sort of snuck (sneaked? snookered?) up on me over the years, but in the end the decision was based largely on taking a well-timed breather before focusing on other things I might be able to accomplish in this business. Also, I want to become a professional rock climber. Too late?