Funny business

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

Bodow and Stewart have worked together since 2002. View full image

The taping of the Santa dream sequence complete, Bodow heads upstairs for the afternoon writers’ meeting. Roughly 20 writers and producers (among them a third Yalie, Hallie Haglund ’05) lounge in chairs and on couches while a segment producer runs clips culled from various news networks. For some reason, a number of networks have simultaneously decided to scrutinize the body language of Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Mexico.

“This is such a tabloid thing,” scoffs one writer. “They might as well bring in a psychic.”

“It looks like they both have an upset stomach,” riffs another.

“Well, they’re in Mexico,” points out Miller.

“I should never have invested in that Mexican bottled water company!” laments another writer.

Bodow erupts into laughter, something Miller told me was likely: occasionally something will so tickle him, she said, that “he’ll just dissolve in laughter for like ten minutes, and there’s just a very tall authority figure giggling helplessly on the sofa.” (Bodow, 6'2", describes himself as “a borderline–Marfan syndrome lanky Semite.” Height is a major reason he has appeared on the show a half-dozen times as Osama bin Laden and once as Zombie Undead Lincoln.)

Now other writers pile in on the Mexican water bit: “The tagline was, ‘Drink the water!’” says someone. “You can drink it!” says someone else. “Don’t not drink the water!” offers another. Gradually, head writer Tim Carvell begins to corral the room’s energies back toward the task at hand, a maneuver Carvell told me he learned from Bodow: a skilled head writer needs to know when to let the room goof off, but also “when to cut it off and say, ‘OK, now we need to go back to work and write the show.’”

The world of comedy is notoriously competitive, so I’m half expecting the room to be a comedic boxing ring, with writers throwing jokes like punches. Some of the more vocal writers do toss out jokes with an almost compulsive regularity, but Bodow is relatively quiet. As the meeting progresses, he smiles, he laughs. Occasionally he tosses out a very funny joke, but just as often it’s a focusing question that defines the next round of riffing. “I’m more trying to keep an eye on the picture of where things are going, rather than shouting out lots of jokes,” Bodow says later. “I’m not the big, loud guy. I’m never gonna be that guy, and I’m not gonna try to be that guy, either.”

Year after year, The Daily Show’s reach has only expanded. Whether or not it is true, as some studies have claimed (and as other studies have contested), that Daily Show viewers have a better grasp of the facts than those who rely on traditional newscasts, Bodow and the other writers strive not only to entertain, but also to inform. “We’re serving two masters always,” he says. “There’s a lot of things about which we say, ‘That’s more true than funny.’ The trick to doing the job well is keeping them balanced.”