Funny business

It took 13 years, but Steve Bodow ’89 finally found a steady job. As head writer and now coproducer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, he has nine Emmys to show for it.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

Steve Bodow ’89, co-executive producer of The Daily Show, watches host Jon Stewart on a monitor during rehearsal. View full image

It’s a Tuesday afternoon like any other in the Manhattan studios of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and Steve Bodow ’89 is giving direction to a grown man holding a giant lollipop.

The lollipop is the least of it, actually. Dan McCoy, the Daily Show writer who volunteered for this humiliation, is also wearing knee socks, a red wrestler’s singlet, and a Santa hat and beard. Prancing in front of a green screen, he sings “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” in falsetto. “Let’s get another,” says Bodow when McCoy has finished. “Do you want to go ‘Rudolph’ or ‘Silent Night’?” McCoy launches into a rendition of “Silent Night,” cradling his lollipop like a baby, and Bodow convulses with laughter.

Believe it or not, this spectacle is part of tonight’s segment on immigration reform. And as with so many gags that have aired on the show for the last decade or so, it grew out of a bit of inspired riffing between Bodow and his boss, Jon Stewart. Earlier in the day, Bodow had had the idea of treating a reference to the DREAM Act—the immigration reform bill the Senate blocked back in December 2010—with the TV trappings of a dream flashback: harp music and a ripple dissolve. “Reading through, Jon saw the dream thing and wanted to take it further,” Bodow explains later, with a giggle. What if they “accidentally” dissolved to the wrong dream from December 2010, this bizarre mash-up of Christmas, Candy Land, and a high school wrestling match? The image “sprang from his head like a demented Athena,” says Bodow.

Four nights a week, some 2.4 million Americans tune in to The Daily Show, the late-night news satire on Comedy Central, to watch Stewart and his coterie of comedian-correspondents as they process our political scene in the sanest way possible: by making fun of it. A typical half-hour show includes a pair of segments with Stewart and company riffing on media coverage of current events, followed by a sit-down with a celebrity, author, or politician.

As co-executive producer, Bodow is one of Stewart’s most trusted collaborators. The title is a step above head writer, a position Bodow held for nearly four years before being promoted in 2010. Each Monday through Thursday night, whenever Jon Stewart’s whip-smart rants cause viewers to crack up in front of their televisions, it’s in large measure the result of several hours he, Bodow, and their other collaborators spent earlier that day developing and honing material. Over a nine- or ten-hour day, Bodow and Stewart are together about half the time in a variety of large and small meetings. When I asked Stewart how closely he works with Bodow, he said, “Usually he’ll tuck me in at night or I’ll tuck him in at night. Depending on whose turn it is to read the story.”

Bodow never planned on this career when he was growing up, but a pundit might have predicted it from looking at one of his youthful obsessions: as a high school student in Rye, New York, he was “fanatical” about Doonesbury, the often political comic strip drawn by Garry Trudeau ’70, ’73MFA. “The fact that Garry Trudeau was a Yalie was an embarrassingly big factor in my desire to go to Yale,” he confesses. He started college thinking he’d major in political science, but the lectures of Vincent Scully ’40, ’49PhD, turned him on to art history, and Bodow began to contemplate a career in architecture.

Unlike many who enter comedy or writing, Bodow eschewed the English or theater majors. “A lot of that stuff intimidated me,” he says. He tried out for the Purple Crayon, a student improv comedy group, but didn’t make the cut. Instead, he and a few other Purple Crayon rejects formed another improv group, Just Add Water. “We were really low-rent,” says fellow Daily Show writer Jo Miller ’88, who cofounded Just Add Water. “I imagine they tour all over the world now. Our big tour was all of us piling in a Toyota and going to Albertus Magnus for a show.”

After graduating in 1989, Bodow followed “a completely verkakte career path,” winding through temp work, hedge fund analysis, media studies at NYU, and freelance journalism. To his own surprise, he got involved in experimental theater, after getting reacquainted with John Collins ’91 when they temped together at a bank. Collins and Bodow wound up directing a troupe called Elevator Repair Service, which had a taste for the offbeat and for found text. (They once staged an unshot screenplay Salvador Dali had written for the Marx Brothers; Bodow played Groucho.) In time, the troupe’s Gatz, a six-and-a-half-hour marathon reading of The Great Gatsby, would become an off-Broadway sensation. (See “Gatsby, Every Last Word Of It, On Stage,” November/December 2005.) The choreographer at Elevator Repair Service was another Eli, whom he would later marry: Katherine Profeta ’91, ’99MFA, ’09DFA, with whom he has two daughters.

By 2002, Elevator Repair Service was touring and gaining renown, and Bodow was getting a few journalistic assignments from the likes of the New York Times Magazine. But he had interests beyond the theater, and he was finding freelance journalism “not extremely lucrative.” With his 35th birthday approaching, he decided to make a list of other things he might want to do. The list wasn’t very long. But somewhere near the top was comedy. Around that time, he became a fan of The Daily Show, and when he heard about an opening, he submitted a packet of material and was hired.

“Of course I was scared,” he tells me one night over Indian food near his home in Queens, New York (after ordering an exotic-sounding item that he assures me is only a “mild aphrodisiac”). “It was something I thought I might want to do for a long time, and here I was actually doing it.” For months, Bodow struggled to get jokes on the show, trying to figure out how writing for performance differs from writing for the page. And despite Stewart’s widely acknowledged niceness, he couldn’t help but find the boss intimidating.

“But then I started to relax a little bit,” Bodow recalls, “and take it on faith that if it’s gonna work out for me here, it’s only gonna be because I can relax and be myself.” As the 2003 invasion of Iraq loomed, Bodow found himself having stronger opinions about American politics, and they informed his comic leanings. “I think I found my footing as a writer during that time,” he says. An early success was a segment he cowrote on the flimsiness of campaign promises; in “Bush v. Bush,” archival clips of George W. Bush ’68, the candidate, squared off against clips from George W. Bush ’68, the president.

From there, Bodow climbed the ranks. “It’s funny, now that I think about it, how Steve always winds up in charge,” says Miller. “He gets involved in something, and five minutes later he’s directing it.”