By Greg Roth

Jon Stewart on the Creative Culture at The Daily Show

One of the books I got for the holidays was Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head, a remarkable compendium of conversations with comedians. Besides being an incredibly successful filmmaker and producer, Judd is a failed stand-up, who at the age of 15, used his high school radio station as an excuse to reach out to his favorite comics to interview these performers he looked up to.

One of the interviews is with Jon Stewart, former host of the Daily Show, and there’s a passage where Stewart talks about collaboration in the context of that show and his prior comedy writing job on the Larry Sanders Show. In the exchange, he and Apatow talk about creative culture on these shows and you would think they were talking about working at IBM or Dunder Mifflin.

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(emphasis mine)

JON: We work in an office. You know, it’s funny. People always say to me, Ah man, you guys — it probably must be so much fun, sitting around! And, it’s like Yeah, our morning meeting starts at nine. We have to pitch out our ideas — and in some ways that is the challenge of a show. It’s to create a factory that doesn’t kill inspiration and imagination. You try to create a process that includes all of the aspects of a mechanized process that we recognize as soul killing while actually not killing souls.
JUDD: That is the invisible genius that the world will never understand. We worked at Larry Sanders Show together as writers, and we’ve had friends who have worked on many shows. And I find that, on most shows, the result of a very difficult process with high standards is everybody hates the head guy. The head guy is not a beloved figure — whether it’s Gerry [Shandling], Roseanne [Barr], or [Bill] Cosby.
JON: See, here’s where I disagree. I think that’s not necessary. When I was working on those other shows, I felt like there were aspects to it that didn’t need to exist in order to maintain the creative excitement. It didn’t need to be Machiavellian. You could get everybody to have a common cause, and do it in a way that maintained a certain humanity. I always look at it like: Think of how much energy it takes to fuck with people. What if you try to use that energy to get the show done faster and better and get everybody out by seven? If I go into that morning meeting and I have clarity, and I can articulate that clarity, everybody’s day is easier. If that doesn’t happen, it’s my fault.
Every job has an element of grind. And every creative environment needs to forge its own identity and maintain a healthy environment that welcomes new ideas (and demands that they be good ideas, eventually). From the outside looking in, comedy writing seems like a vacation compared to other jobs. From the inside looking out, it’s just a other creative pursuit that will tempt you with adulation while smacking you down with the cold reality of hard work.
As a special treat, for those of you who read this far, I have an extra copy of Sick in the Head. If you’d like it, all you have to do is be the first one to email me your address and I’ll mail it to you.