The news two weeks ago that executive producer Ben Karlin was leaving The Daily Show felt a bit like finding out Mom and Dad are splitting up. Since 1999, Karlin has been the behind-the-scenes partner to Jon Stewart, the Larry David to his Jerry Seinfeld. Karlin also helped create The Colbert Report and led the writing of America (The Book). Before that, he was editor of The Onion, the much-loved satirical newspaper published in Wisconsin, of all places. But once he relocated to Manhattan, he really blew up. Basically, if you’ve laughed in the last ten years, Ben Karlin was responsible. Adam Sternbergh spoke to Karlin about what he thinks is funny (not much) and his future plans.
You’re still at your Daily Show office. I thought you were free.
I’m riding this bad boy out till the last possible minute. I’ve got a lot of office supplies, and they’re not going to steal themselves.
Looking back, is there a comedic philosophy that runs through The Onion and The Daily Show?
Only in the sense that it’s comedy that engages people with the world that they’re living in, rather than distracting them from it.
What are you planning next?
I have a book [about failed relationships] that I owe to a publisher that I’m going to finish in the spring. Beyond that, I have some meetings, but I don’t really have a master plan.
One occupational hazard of working in comedy is that you stop finding anything funny.
You definitely get more intellectual about comedy. The laugh impulse has been deadened. Certain kinds of forms, like the sitcom or certain types of written humor, I absolutely no longer have the ability to laugh at.
So what do you find funny?
Not a lot in terms of TV or movies. The things I find funny usually have some measure of subterfuge involved. Like, so much of what makes Borat funny is the fact that a full third of your brain is preoccupied by wondering, Wait? Is this real?
Is that the direction that comedy needs to go in?
As audiences devour more and more comedy, it’s going to take increasing innovation to make the most rabid consumer laugh. But there’s always going to be a place for physical comedy. I think pantomime will never go away.
Of course not.
You know what I mean.
Do you feel a pressure to be innovative, as well as funny?
I think when you’re in the middle of something, you’re not thinking, This is a new form of comedy. Though one of the ideas I have, which I can’t tell you about, isn’t a new form of comedy, but it is a new way of engaging an audience.
Really? Does it involve holograms?