In December 1999, I dropped by the Daily Show set for an interview with Jon Stewart for People magazine. My editors sent me with two very urgent questions that required an immediate answer, how Jon felt about his salary, and when he was getting married. Eleven seconds later, we were onto a new topic, the craft of comedy. It made for a great article, insightful and full of substance, which is why People killed the piece, I guess. It became the basis for Inside Joke, so enjoy a few quotes you should have read five years ago.
your pal & host,
December 12th, 1999.
Let's start with the Millennium special. I thought it was damn funny.
Yeah listen, we're real proud of it. I think for us, it was something really interesting to work on, it gave us another format to play around with and even though it was an hour show to do while we're still doing our show, I think it worked out nicely.
I was talking with Kurt Vonnegut for a piece and he told me that creating a joke for him was like building a mouse trap.
Let me call Kurt and find out, because that sounds absolutely ridiculous. He said it was like building a mouse trap? He's probably been living in his New York apartment for too long, that's why. It's like killing roaches, don't you understand?
I'm not sure what that means?
Well, what's your take on building a joke, how does it start for you?
It's 99% perspiration and 1% love and all that. I can't quantify that, it's an intuition, I mean you learn it, there are techniques. Sometimes they're inspired and they come up from the ether and sometimes it literally is A + B = C, you just throw in a different ridiculous reference. There are formulas, but there's also inspiration, and sometimes we're tapped out, we're throwing formulas out there but sometimes, we're doing it right. And when you're doing it right, it's just natural - it's unexpected, like where you can't - the best jokes are like, 'Wow, how'd they think of that?' and the worst are the ones where they go 'Right, David Hasselhoff, I knew that.' People say they saw it coming from a mile away.
How'd you learn it?
I went to the Institute in France, a small village in France, senior year abroad, from the mayor of Funnytown, Funnytown in France, he taught me, I studied with him for a year, then Soupy Sales and I...
I don't know, I think it's just one of those things you learn from doing it, and you know, the funny thing is even though I know how to do it in that yeoman sort of way, there is no, 'oh now I got it and so it now pours out.' But it still takes as much effort and all that, I can do it a little quicker than I used to be able to, but the great stuff still comes in the same percentage that it ever came. There are some guys whose 'in the clouds' shit is tremendous but for the rest of us, we're pounding it out in that manner.
What about the notion that comedians are bitter people?
Well then you've never been a part of the Funnybones group hug.
I mean, do you find you have a particular axe to grind?
I don't know, I found the bitterness factor a lot higher at the bar I used to work at in Trenton. From my experience, a lot of the guys and women that I've met are some of the smartest, nicest people. Yeah, you know, happy is such a relative term, but I've definitely heard that, that comedians are born of pain and what kind of clown are you, the cryin' on the inside kind. No, I know a lot of people outside the business who are miserable too (laughs).
I think life is hard, and that's what happens. You get let out of school and it's 'I gotta work for 70 fucking years, are you kidding me?'
But my experience with comedians hasn't been that they are any - you know, show business in general is somewhat filled with hubris and psychosis, I've seen that, but that's also in Los Angeles, it's like, go to Vegas, that's filled with the same single-minded psychosis that Los Angeles is.
Are you as comfortable as an actor as well?
Oh, absolutely, again, training at the Institute. No, no, I'm comfortable when they let me be exactly who I am, I can do that sort of, but no, I'm not comfortable as, like if they gave me a character and I had to encompass and inhabit, I don't even know what those words mean. When actors talk to me I sometimes literally glaze over because I have no idea what they're talking about in terms of 'I feel the sadness of my youth and I used that.' Basically, I go, 'Did I look angry in that? Yeah, I think so. Alright.'
So Playing by Heart, a strange experience?
It was strange. I think the thing that helped me most for that was interviewing people, because you've got the idea of 'Oh right, you say something and I listen to you then I say something back.' But, yeah, it was more weird because you're meeting all these people - I met James Bond, you know, that was pretty psychotic. But they all had the dramatic stuff, love and dying, and I just had to come in and crack a couple jokes and look at a dog's balls and get out of the movie, so it wasn't so bad.