J.R. Havlan – Writer for The Daily Show

January 28, 2014

This week Point of Inquiry discusses satire in politics and American life with J.R. Havlan, eight-time Emmy Award winning writer on The Daily Show. J.R. was previously a stand-up comic, including a stint doing crowd warm-up for Politically Incorrect which led to writing jokes for that show’s monologues. He’s also co-author of the New York Times best-selling books America: The Book, Earth: The Book, and wrote for the 2006 and 2008 Academy Awards. Most recently, J.R. began his own podcast called Writers’ Bloc, on which he interviews other television and film comedy writers about their backgrounds, beginnings and influences with a focus on the process of writing comedy.

Perhaps no other popular television show does more to defend rationality and to fight B.S. than The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. How do the show’s writers think about their role in American culture? Does the show actively seek to oppose Fox News and the religious right? How does it use comedy to defend reason and secularism? As the show’s longest-serving writer, J.R. Havlan has worked on the show longer than even Jon Stewart has. He gives us an exclusive glimpse inside one of the most culturally influential shows in America.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Monday, January 27, 2014. Before we get into the meat of today’s episode, we are delighted to announce that point of inquiry has a sponsor. And don’t roll your eyes and ears that you have to listen to an ad because this is a good one. If you’re anything like me, you’ve maybe been kind of meaning to get around to getting a Web site. Well, Squarespace is the way to do it. Get a free trial and 10 percent off your first purchase by using a point of inquiry, offer, code, inquiry or inquiry. You can pronounce it that way. I’m not going to judge at Squarespace dot com. We super appreciate your support. Let’s get this show on the road. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, the nonprofit that spreads reason, science and secularism. J.R. Harlan is a writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. 

He also co-wrote The Daily Show’s two New York Times best selling books, America, The Book and Earth The Book. 

And he was a writer of the Academy Awards in 2006 and 2008. Those are the two years when Jon Stewart was the Oscar host. J.R. has won eight Emmy Awards for best comedy writing, and he’s currently trying to swat his dog away in the living room. 

He’s joining us to talk about satire and politics and The Daily Show’s role in American cultural life. 

Thanks for being on the podcast. Welcome. Great to be here. Let’s see whether we can read. Here is my home. This is your living room. A glass of wine and a dog. And it’s already weird. You’ll make make yourself comfortable. Thanks for having me. 

If you’re right, for probably the most politically influential TV show that isn’t on Fox News, I would say interesting. Are you the longest serving Daily Show runner who’s still. 

Yeah, I’m the only one insane enough to just still be there. 


Well, then why? Why? I mean, you you could have loved loads of opportunities to go and do do comedy writing. It shows that a less political the way the show has evolved. 

It’s not like it doesn’t feel like I’ve been necessarily working at the same show for 70 years. Rice was. 

So when was that? When did that first trip? When that transition kind of happened, where you were like, oh, this is actually becoming part of a cultural guys. That is more than just backpack. 

Back when Craig Kilborn hosted, it was a show that was very much just about pop culture stuff. Right. I mean, it was jokes about celebrities. We all did it. 

We did our thing a little bit, but not nothing like we did once Stewart got there. And. Yeah, and nothing of course, nothing like we do now. 

But then I was mainly the thing was that nothing was necessarily in depth. So it was not like we would avoid, you know, health care story or something. But we also but we wouldn’t go in depth and unless it was a field piece potentially, which we used to do back then as well. But even though this had a goofier tend to them. 

But but I mean, the conventional wisdom among the comedy community is that the kind of the point at which people started paying attention and noticing in the show really got into its its groove was the 2000 election? 

Yes, Rick, it was Indecision 2000, right. When it bit it was part of the national conversation, the way that it hadn’t been before. What was that like? 

We didn’t necessarily see it coming, but we had been preparing for it for a while without knowing what it would become. 

So at the beginning of John came in in 1999, pretty early on. 

But definitely by 2000, beginning in 2000, John had realized there was more potential for him to do what he wanted to do with the show. And we started doing that. And that kind of prepped us for the election, which turned into this cluster fuck. And and the media reaction to the cluster fuck is what really kind of catapulted us into covering media as much as natural events. 

Whenever I hear John sort of say, listen, I’m not a commentator, I’m a comedian, you know, white guy. 

But we’re on after swearing puppets or something, whatever he says. 

Yeah, this is a comedy show, and that’s how Texas gets its 10 year old. Here is the 10 year old. Go to this where he got the heat. 

But he always you know, I always a little bit of my bullshit detector goes off in a way. It’s an easy out, but it’s a way of getting out of responsibility for the fact that the show is a major voice against bullshit in America. 

It tries very consciously, I think, to make a point of making satirical points that are the deepest and the most scathing satirical points that can be made rather than going for easy jokes. And does that not give him and the show some kind of. Status as a part of that national conversation that isn’t so easily written off by saying, hey, it’s just yuk yuks. 

Yeah, well, I think when you start winning Peabody Awards, you know, that excuse sort of goes by the wayside a little. Right. 

And I think that I don’t think that John doesn’t believe that that he’s a comedian. That’s what he is. And his. 

Really, his. I feel like the priority at the show is to be funny. 

To figure out a way to say what we’re saying in a funny manner and to have good punch lines and to make people laugh and. 

The fact that the show might also be intelligent or raise awareness of certain things, we’re completely aware that ourselves. 

But that’s just, you know, intelligent, aware people in a group who can’t kind of allow themselves to do something else. You know, I mean, we just we hold ourselves to to making a certain amount of sense. 

There’s a perception that the show targets the right more than the left. Is that just because the right is more batshit crazy at the moment than the left is? 

And it’s probably because the right is so much better at it than the left. 

They know that it’s better, more interesting. 

Better at war. They’re better at messaging. Message, message, message. Massenet’s message. You tell them that text message and messaging their message better at the same estimates. They’re better at their messages. Yeah. 

And well, I mean, I’m thinking for them like there was recently when there was that whole who was that Fox News host who was on whether what Santa like sent with a Santa with white. 

It was a Kelly. 

Yeah. Megan Kelly. Megan. 

And she and she said, you know, she said on her show on Fox News, like children, just so we can establish right up front. Santa is why. Oh, he is. Well, and Tanjung did this great bit about who is she talking to. 

Like, what child is old enough to be watching Fox News at 10:00 p.m., yet young enough to believe in Santa Ana and racist enough to keep the good? Is one of my favorite lines of the week. 

So is it is it because there’s so much more stuff like that that’s coming out, coming off of Fox News than crazy stuff like that coming out of MSNBC? That that is chosen as it is a purely apolitical. 

Well, I. No, no, it’s not. I it’s also that we just disagree with them so much more. I mean, we’re we’re not. 

It’s it’s definitely a, you know, relatively liberal. Cast that we have. 

Yeah. Attitudes in New York, it’s so. 

Well, I mean, we just are who we are. 

But I think, you know. What we are as much as being liberal or conservative, is we just try to be reasonable. 

And we tried to call out bullshit when we when we see it. 

It’s just that the bullshit that comes out of the right is far more interesting than the bullshit that comes out of the left. 

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I was actually accosted the day before yesterday by someone who is trying to preach the gospel to me. I just pretend that I was on the phone, OK? 

I run the other way. Yeah. What are what are your personal beliefs then in religiously? 

None. I don’t. I’m not a big fan. 

I’m not a big fan. Did you lose it? Did you ever have it? No. No. Never had it. Grew up in a secular family. Yeah. 

My dad mostly was the atheist or agnostic. Really? I think he always got himself as an agnostic. I don’t really describe myself as anything. I have a hard time saying like atheist, because it’s sort of like, you know, the reason that I have a hard time saying I would be an atheist is the same reason I have a hard time saying that I am a Catholic or something because I don’t know. 

Either way, I’ll find out at one point. 

I suppose maybe I don’t even know that there is a there is a faction of the sort of secular humanist community that doesn’t like the word atheist either. Because why should you have to lie? Like, we don’t have a word for people who does the other extreme to me? Well, we don’t have a word for people who don’t believe in fairies. And we don’t have a word for people who don’t believe in in any of the ancient Norse myths. And we don’t have a word for people who think that Elvis is still alive. Well, they call crazy people, but you don’t I mean, like it. But I would that would take you up on the on the claim that I isn’t necessarily is as dogmatic as a belief in religion, because you could be you can be an atheist. 

I think legitimately towards the claims of formal religion. Right. You can clearly be an atheist towards the claim that Mohammed flew to have another winged horse or that Jesus was very much every claim there is. 

Yeah. Really? Yeah, exactly. 

And then you could be agnostic towards the possibility that the cosmos is ordered in some way that it has behind at some fast, ineffable meaning. 

Right. Look, you know, look at it this way. Like there. There are tenets of religion that make complete sense if you take away the rest of what’s going on in the religions. In other words, do unto others as you would have done unto yourself. I don’t know if that’s exactly right. Something like that did a lot of unto. And that’s the gist. I don’t say unto a lot. So when I say it, it really fucks me up for the rest of the sentence. 

But what better message is there than that? And yet, you know, you hear it all the time. People rarely do it. Sure. And it’s a message that predates Christianity as well. I watch it back at home, rule the cult. 

I mean, the philosophically the concept that you should you should treat other people the way that you would want to be treated stretches a long way before they wrote it down. 

Now, I don’t know who first etched in stone. Yeah, well, I should say Judaism. I both rather and Christianity is the Ten Commandments was Jewish. Sure. Great. Fine. 

Do you given your non non religiosity, do you fear death? What’s your attitude towards leaving this mortal coil? 

Well, now that I have children, I think I do like consider it more, you know, in in the sense that I want to be around for kids to see them hopefully be decent people. 

But it’s purely that pragmatic concern. 

It’s not a vast, yawning Woody Allen esque count that, you know, these red no stupid fucking stupid was a stupid V. I. You know, it’s so it’s it’s a waste. 

You know, you can like I think more, but I think more about how it would impact me. 

People who I love dying rather than I think of my own self dying. 

You know, I feel like, you know, like when my my wife and kids drove up to Boston to see or to see some family for the weekend. 

And that’s why I seem rested. And the house is quiet with the exception of the dog. Yeah. 

So but you know what? 

I’m happy that they did. You know, they’ll go do their thing and they’ll have fun. But. 

But a lot of you know, I seem somewhat morbidly sometimes, I guess think like, oh boy, when if something happened to them, it would be just dreadful. Of course. 

And that thought enters my mind more than like point, you know what I mean? 

But I mean, that thought is a purely kind of selfish thought in the best possible way is like you went along with them. Oh, you love them so much that it would devastate your life. 

God forbid, if anything were to happen to them. And that’s just. 

Oh, now there’s a God. That’s OK. All right. We’ve got to the bottom. How you going about all of the sudden you’re praying, are you? 

When we’re talking about loved ones, passion and the truth comes out to God as a turn of phrase, if nothing else. 

But the need to pick a lane is what you need. I’d pick my lane. But the the idea of a universe without my consciousness in it. 

I do find a little bit perplexing, weird and possibly dread filled. 

Well, you know what? 

Look, my mom my mother died in 2000, five of cancer after a battle for the entire year. She died at the end of the year. 

And I spent a lot of time with her during that year and a few years ago. 

And she was 70. A few years ago also, like about, you know, 70, 75. My father died very suddenly of a stroke. 

And by the time I was able to fly to the West Coast to see him, he was, you know, in a bed and, you know, unconscious. He was hand squeezing. You don’t know if he can hear you, that kind of thing. And then a day later, he’s dead. 

And. So I’ve dealt with it on that level, you know? And. 

And it’s you know, it’s tragic, but it happened. He just fucking happens, we’re all going to die. I’ve already made it to. I’m forty nine. I’m turning 50 this year. I made it to 50. 

That’s pretty good in most eras and most societies. Oh, man. 

Yeah. So. So that’s not so bad. And who you know, I’m a little more concerned about living to how I’m going to be able to afford to live past midnight than I am about whether or not I live to 90. 

You just hope. 

And John says on the show coming come at that point when you hear about people who were like 115 is like, where the fuck is your money? I do have a paper route. What is happening? Are we a plus plus? Usually there’s nobody that lives 215 without smoking a pack a day. 

Some. Yeah. You haven’t had that at all. French, but they all smoke a pack a day or they are Indian or something. 

They’re instead they live in some place where most people live until the age of 50 and they’re hundred 15. But you know why? They have a load of grandchildren and great grandchildren and great great grandchildren. So. 

Oh yeah. Well, yeah. Well that is one of the reasons that I kid. They are free to take care of me later. There’s no question about that. 

Come on. You’ve been on The Daily Show for about over a decade. I think you do. You probably you must have a retirement fund that’s going to keep you alive. 

Right. Listen, John, I only got a few bucks. 

If all else fails, just sell the eight Emmys. 

I don’t think legally that you can do that. 

Really, they make you sign something. There’s a thing on the bottom. Because I was gonna hit you up for a couple now. Oh, I loaned them. 

All right. I just I would just walked out, walk through the streets of Brooklyn, holding them while off. 

Get some attention. Yeah. People ask you where you got your Oscar. 

Do you have that. Was it ever. I’m gay. I’ve gotten that on the way on a couple of times. 

Star signs and like horoscopes and people suspecting that vaccines cause autism and people. Do you. 

Are you bothered by the little bits of illogic and irrationalism that float through culture? Or do you just, Swofford, often think, oh, well, people with people, you know. 

Yeah. I’m biased. 

I’m bothered by it on, you know, on different levels at different times, depending on my own, you know, involvement and knowledge. 

Like most people, you know, most of it is that it is kind of again, like with religion, like I don’t think I would I would no sooner say that I know there’s not a God than I would say that I know there’s a God. 

You know, I don’t know either one. So when I don’t know something and and to say that, you know, something is a fact. You know, like two plus two is four. But most things are not that cut and dry. 

And so to be in less they are, then I’m quite comfortable with anybody who claims it is a concept in philosophy, which is condition that we conditionals our credence as meaning that acquaintances is philosophy or y by the way, I wish I’d studied. Oh it’s great. It’s so, it’s so fascinating. So epistemology is the philosophy of how we know things. Forget drop the big word. 

Hey I already you’re already invited. Didn’t mind. Give me that shit like I know what you’re talking about. 

I invite you to my home, I give you a glass of wine here. 

Maybe you write a fancy writer for The Daily Show. What do you mean by this? What did you say? You just pissed yourself or something. You pissed your allergy. What happened? 

Yeah. So but there’s this idea that, you know, we have credence is which are potential beliefs. 

And then as we get more and more, more or less have more, more information about them, we conditionals the meaning. We make them more or less probable. And that that’s the way that most of our knowledge works. It’s not a it’s not a flip switch of like, yes, I’m absolutely certain and I’m absolutely uncertain, like, I’m fairly certain that the Napoleonic wars happened. But there’s no reason really why I should be particularly certain other than the fact that there’s no reason not to believe it. And there are lots of historians who have credibly reported on it. And it seems to be true in the same way. I can’t be certain that the claims of any particular religion are false, and I can’t be certain that astrology is bogus and I can’t be certain that homeopathy is nonsense. But there are good reasons for conditionally giving these credence grievances the status of a belief, because that’s how we deal with the world. We don’t deal in certainties. We we we win. 

When I say that, I think that I know something or I believe something. It’s on the basis of of an understanding that some more information could come in and I could completely change my mind. 

Well, I think that it’s like, you know, when I was in business school, I read Carnegie’s like, how to influence people and win friends. Yeah. How to win friends and influence people. 

And and one of the things that really stuck with me in that book was the idea that he would always say that you you don’t say like this is this you say, I believe this is this or the you know, in other words, like when you are being definite, then you run the risk of alienating somebody else. Whereas if you open the door to the potential for you being a little bit wrong, then you also open the door for the person that you’re talking to. 

Went through your door right into your world. 

You work on a show that, as we’ve established, prides itself on on. 

I think that’s what he meant. I don’t know. Is the guy so to steal, I think. 

I mean, even when you you work on a show that prides itself on pointing out bullshit and calling bullshit when it sees it, how much bullshit are you willing to tolerate in your personal life before you call it? 

Because zero, because it’s all like I had a that I was at a party in the day and I had a conversation with a woman who came up and she was a homoeopathy. And, you know, homoeopathy is a lot of people think it is the same as, you know, just natural herbs or something. 

But it’s actually what they’re selling is water. It’s chemically indistinguishable from from water. There’s no scientific basis for it whatsoever. 

And she immediately started launching into how much she hates it at parties when she tells people that she’s a homeopath, this and that, that they then stop trying to tell her that what she’s doing is bogus because obviously she’s doing this for a living. 

So I don’t want to be the asshole who then starts doing exactly what she but she kind of assumed that I was onside. She was like, you know, isn’t here. 

I mean, everybody isn’t a bad hair up on Web. Yeah, exactly. I’m I’m helpless. And it’s terrible when people tell me that what I do is is terrible to be something that you have to announce to somebody. 

And they’re completely defensive posture. 

Know, I think that she assumed that I would that I would just be on side because I don’t know, I’m in Brooklyn. Maybe that word because you’re a human being beheaded or something. You’re a human being. I was hearing these words that she’s saying. 

So at what point do you. Because my natural temptation would be just to back away slowly and go and talk to somebody else. But then I also feel like, isn’t there a good fight to be fought here where you can create a kind of a conversational intolerance towards bullshit, like, am I doing the wrong thing, mostly allowing her to just wander through life thinking that everyone thinks that her thing is, is there enough? And that people who point out who point out what bullshit she’s involved in are evil. 

I have I have an answer to this. What what makes me happiest when I go home the other night, if I run into somebody who believes in something that I don’t believe in or or almost certainly will disagree with. Is to is to spend some time letting them tell me why they believe it and thing and just finding out where they’re coming from, because people are coming from a certain place. 

They believe a certain thing. 

Now, I can go home and say, like, that guy’s a fuckin nut and or I’d go home saying, like, that was kind of interesting. You know, I’ll give that a little bit more thought. 

Because I feel like unless you’re open to. In this, you’re open to hearing. You know what? When people tell you things, they they tell you those things because they believe in them. And so, like, they. I can go home at the end of night and think they’re wrong. And that’s fine. I’ll never talk to them again. 

But I don’t I don’t necessarily I rarely, rarely leave a situation where I feel like it was my place in the in the plant and on the planet to prove this guy wrong or put him in his place. I rarely think that I. I think that any time that I get into that position, I wish I never put myself in that position because it’s like, you know, you don’t often change somebody’s mind. 

Right. Like at a party. I mean, particularly if you’re kind of drunk or something, you know, it’s like. 

But when Bill O’Reilly says something that’s nonsense. You and your team and John do go after it. 

Well, I guess you got me there. 

But I mean, that’s maybe part of it. Yes. My job. Maybe never. Here’s maybe the difference. Here’s my got is separated from remember. 

Maybe the difference is what what you just said, which is that you’re not going to change their mind. But the point of your job on The Daily Show is to change other people’s minds. 

Right. But you’re reaching an audience where we’re not talking to somebody. Had to have. I have a reality. Does the crowd have to be that’s listening in on the conversation before you’ll take them on. Three big. Oh, it’ll be a million. Five million a night. 

You only fight the good fight. Yeah. You’ve got the Nielsen ratings. It’s all about numbers. All about numbers. 

Because I don’t know. I mean, I feel like if there are three people around, then, you know, when someone is a 9/11 truth or something that I just I have to push back. 

I can’t I just can’t let it go. I’m not I’m not a generous enough guy. And I know people like that who are, but. 

But, boy. But you don’t know. Going into something like that in particular that you’re not. It’s not a fight you’re going to win. 

So do you want to, you know, lose it? You know, we’re there with them, but. Well, you’re definitely going to win it with the audience, I think. 

Well, because the audience already believes it. So. So why do they need to believe it more from what you’re saying? 

In other words, you know, the I feel like as much as I would get myself worked up doing that and I’ve done it before, I it’s been taped. 

So please don’t look. What is this day? This was a it was a thing. What were you talking about. Was it was was it thing. 

Are you talking about. No. No. 

Was like it was it was it was a confrontation with like a you know, the two thirds and and the guy that I got into it with was talking about vaccines and stuff like that. 

And we just got it. It triggered me because I had just had my first kid and we were going through the vaccine thing at the time and he knew that. And so, like, I cut loose because, you know, he just you he was good at what he did, which is, you know, instigating. And and it triggered me. And I went off on the guy. But, you know, at the end of the day, I wish I would’ve just gone the other way because all he was doing was trying to, like, make a tape, you know? And so I just don’t I don’t necessarily feel like a winner when it’s just me and one other person or several other people. You know, I mean, I would I would admit that a lot of what allows me to have that in my personal life on a smaller scale is that in my professional life on a much larger scale, I get to do what you’re saying to to a much larger audience. 

Oh, a lot of whom are already on board. 

But you have that conversation with the vaccine guy and then you go you get to work the next day and you’re like, all right, John, let’s talk about vaccine one. 

Let’s do it. 

It wasn’t so bad that that kind of thing, buddy. You know, it’s just that we we get to get a lot of our chests, you know, there. 

And it’s a that’s one of the things I love about the job is that you we do have intelligent, informed conversations with each other and at the meetings and and at the end of the day, we get to unload, you know, our the things that bother us. And we get to do it in his funny ways we possibly can. I mean, if I can drink. 

Last question. I remember also asking for in the battle against bullshit and unreason and silliness and misdirection. How useful is satire a tool versus other tools at The Daily Show or. 

You know, we are. Our focus is how do we how do we say what we want? We we we’re looking at this stuff. We want to say something about it. 

How do we say what we want to say but make it funny. So the central focus is beef. That’s our focus. That’s that’s number one. 

But that’s not what you said, you said. How do we say what we want to say and be funny? Which implies that the central focus is saying something about this thing. 

Well, we figure out what we want to say, but then we figure out how to make it funny. So if we can’t figure out a way to make it funny, then we might not say it. 

Go. Yeah. Got it. I got out of that one. Didn’t know who that was. Lincoln. 

I still I made my brain is still trying to unravel those layers of meaning and humor. 

It just turned into like some kind of gotcha journalism thing that you really thought you nailed it. No, no. I was I was I was vastly confused. But that’s the only part that you’re going to put in the tease. That’s I don’t do teases you. Teases on your podcast. On my part. Yes. What’s the name of that pie? It’s called the writer’s block. Fantastic. I think it’s actually called the writer’s block with Jay. I have Laura, whatever you want to call. Yeah. 

Well, you’ve been listening to Point of Inquiry with Josh Zepps. Thanks to you for being with us. You’re welcome. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.