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Earlier this year, the ABC and CBS News veteran was tapped to run the former Daily Show host’s new current affairs series, The Problem with Jon Stewart, set to premiere Sept. 30 on Apple TV+. Her most notable interaction with Stewart prior to that was as the producer of some silly weather segment that once landed on that night’s Daily Show shame reel. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is going to end up on The Daily Show,’ and it fucking did,” she recalls with a laugh.
Now, Adhikari and Stewart are in the trenches together daily mapping out the next iteration of his career, a deeper dive on issues that matter to them both. In late August, she took a break from prep to share her journey, both to and at the show.
Okay, take me back. You’re working at CBS News when you hear about a new project from Jon Stewart ….
It all happened very much by chance. I was at CBS at the time and I got word that there was a current affairs show that Jon Stewart was going to be starting up and, like so many, I was a huge fan of his. At the time, I was interested in seeing what some next steps for me could be but I never thought of anything other than traditional news because, quite honestly, news is very much its own universe and you don’t think there’s anything else outside of it. You just keep going and talking to the same people about the same opportunities. But I got word that they were interested in looking beyond just comedy, that they were looking at all different kinds of people with all different kinds of experiences, and so my name got thrown in the ring. And then I talked to Jon a couple of times, and we had some really, really good discussions and we laughed a lot, and before you know it, I’m the showrunner.
In those conversations, what did you find yourself asking Jon? What did you want to know?
A big thing for me, even more important than what the objective is of the show is, was where’s the person coming from? What are their general values? How do they see things? And with Jon, the impression is you know exactly where he’s coming from, but what was nice is he engaged me in things that I thought about news. He was challenging some of my beliefs about the importance of news, and how it can be most effective. We had a really healthy debate about it and what I left feeling from that was that he and I actually have a very similar worldview, we’re both seeking truth and we’re interested in listening to the things that make us mad or upset or sad or outraged. We’d just been approaching the “why” from a different place: he’d been using comedy and satire, and I’d been using the tools of news.
Ironically, he and I both come from a similar daily news background, just in a different space. We both worked for 22-minute shows that reacted to breaking news every day — arguably, his was much more influential. He’d done it for almost 17 years. I’d done it for 18 years. So, in that sense, we were weirdly aligned in our professional paths, minus the 22 Emmys he had. And so it felt like, A, it’s Jon Stewart, and B, maybe we can move the conversation forward from a comedic space and from a news space with a voice like his at the helm. And these opportunities are so few and far between, and so of course I would do it.
You referenced the healthy debate you two had with regard to news. In what ways did he challenge your beliefs?
He and I had a healthy conversation about what it means to be truly objective and neutral and impartial, and whether or not there’s a difference between seeing all the facts and then going with the side where the evidence is clearest versus feeling like you are emotionally driven towards one side versus feeling like you’re just doing both sides, like, “On the one hand, and on the other.” For me, I see a lot of value in that 30-minute news program format — I still think there’s value to seeing the “what happened that day.” He and I will sometimes go back and forth on stuff like that. But what I love is that we are very much aligned on the fact that the press is a deeply, deeply important institution in this country. It plays an incredibly important role, and both of us are super invested in trying to make sure that it’s its best self. And listen, I will always be a journalist at heart. It’s who I am and how I approach life.
I remember reading your bio when you were hired — “Has worked closely with anchors such as Diane Sawyer, David Muir, Scott Pelley, Norah O’Donnell” — and I couldn’t help but think The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart would have had a really good joke about his name being added to that list.
Totally. He would have laughed so hard.
In your estimation, how different is the Jon Stewart we’ll see on this show from the one we watched for 16 years on The Daily Show?
Well, it’s interesting, I only know that him as a viewer, of course, but there’s a part of me that feels like this Jon Stewart was always there, we’re just amplifying it now. Like he says in the first episode, that 9/11 episode of The Daily Show for him was the catalyst for a type of work that he was really interested in exploring. And to me, I think labels are very limiting: news, comedy, whatever. He’s interested in doing any sort of content that sparks an emotional reaction, whether it’s outrage or upset or something else. He’s interested in hitting that visceral place. And comedy does that really well, but if somebody came away from this show not necessarily belly-laughing, I don’t think we’d view that as a failure. What we’re interested in is in putting together really good content that will spark conversations — and of course there are going to be laughs. It’s still who he is, and our head writer is a comedian. We very much want this to have that point of view, but, at the same time, these two worlds very much live in him and this show will be reflective of that.
In the premiere, Jon actually makes a few references to questions or concerns that he’s clearly heard about whether the show will be funny. He even ends the hour by joking that he’s “going to go to the table at the Comedy Cellar, and they’re going to go, ‘Ooh, look, Mother Teresa just came.’ And it’s going to be a fucking nightmare.”
What I’m learning with him is the expectation is so intense because he’s done what he’s done that at some point you have to just say, “Fuck it, we’re going to do the show that we think is great.”
I want to talk about how you approached the hiring process, and what you were ultimately looking for as you populated the office.
What was exciting was that we got to create something 100 percent from scratch. We didn’t inherit a staff. And both of us have had wonderful experiences with teams we’ve worked for [that we at least partially inherited], but it’s a crazy opportunity to be like, “Okay, you have to hire everybody.” And look, having different kinds of voices, people who look different from each other and sound different from each other, it makes a better product. It genuinely does. The conversation is more alive, people are challenging each other more, and you’re getting to decisions in a way that feels much more intentional and reflective of different realities. And Jon can speak for himself, but obviously he was a part of a show at a very different time when these kinds of things weren’t done and I think he really wanted to change that, and not in a way that that felt tokeny and aesthetic. And by the way, it’s not just racially or gender-wise — we have people coming from news, from comedy, from academics, from all different kinds of places. And the other thing is that we really wanted it to be open.
Open to applicants of all backgrounds, and not simply those with Hollywood representation, you mean?
Exactly. So much of hiring is often done through word of mouth, through you know this person who knows this person, and we wanted to see what it would be like to truly make it open. And we got a wonderful array of people. At one point, there was a truck driver who was writing comedy on the side applying. We have members of the military on staff. The blind submissions just produced an energy that was thrilling. People weren’t just doing this because it was the next thing to do; there was a genuine kind of, “I really want my shot.” And sure, it made for a lot of work because we were going through thousands of resumes but it was fun and we came out of it with this incredible team that was reflective of our vision.
You settled on eight writers, plus your head writer Chelsea Devantez. How many of them came from outside the traditional Hollywood system?
Most of them have never worked on a comedy show of any sort. A couple of them have. But it’s not like we’re just hiring writers who were at the Harvard Lampoon.
Sure. You’re tackling different topics, from the economy to vets. What does the healthy debate you referenced look like in that writers room? And to that end, is it a politically diverse room?
I’d say it’s a really thoughtful group of people who aren’t reactionary. It’s folks who’ve had experience, having worked in news or comedy or academics or somewhere else, and they’ll say, “Well, that’s an interesting point, but is that taking into account this other way of thinking?” And then we’ll have really healthy conversations about that. And quite honestly, Jon thinks like that and so do I. To me, it’s not a question of whether something is liberal or conservative, it’s what is the most satisfying way to present information and typically it’s in a complete way. At the same time, we’re also very cautious about falling into a both sides-ism trap. So, when something is happening that Jon feels or I feel or as a show we feel it really needs to be highlighted because there’s something fucked up about it, yeah, we’ll say it’s fucked up.
The first piece of material released from the show was the “Dicks in Space” parody, which was funny – but not particularly emblematic of the show you’re making. What conversations surrounded the decision to release that when you did? And did you have any concerns, which is probably too strong a word, about viewers coming to the show expecting more of that tone?
That decision was purely based on an opportunity that was too good to pass up, which is that Jeff Bezos was going up in space. And we had made this thing because we knew he was going up, but we didn’t know Richard Branson was going to beat him to it and we didn’t know that he’d be wearing a cowboy hat. So, the thing that we were parodying was becoming reality and we were just like, how do we sit on this for a month? We can’t. It was kismet.
I know you have to get back to work. What’s the only thing I have not asked that I should have?
The podcast! It’s something that we’re really excited about because it’s a chance for that more conversational Jon, who can maybe be a little bit more topical and also continue the conversation that the show starts. And we’re going to be using staff members on it, too. As you see in the episodes, we’re sort of tearing down that wall and letting people into our process a little bit on the show, and that’s something that folks can expect on the podcast, too. Also, our writers are so fucking funny, and their chemistry with Jon is off the chain.
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