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An Interview with Daily Show Writer Elliott Kalan
He shares a passion for history with father Marc, who teaches marketing at Rutgers
It’s just his day job. Eventually, says Elliott Kalan, staff writer on the The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, he’d like to fill the famous end-spot on 60 Minutes, left by the late Andy Rooney: “Ideally anywhere I can complain for 3 minutes, uninterrupted” -- because yes, he says: His ambition is to “get paid to be a whiny curmudgeon.”
Instead he’s stuck for now in what most would call a dream job: writing “faux news” for one of the funniest comedians on television, in an era rife with what Kalan calls the choicest material available: “hypocrisy in politics.”
Not many in the crowded Student Center on Douglass Campus Wednesday night had much sympathy to spare for Kalan. What they had instead was appreciation – the 200-plus, RSVP-only audience spent two hours listening eagerly, laughing, and asking questions – and maybe a little awe. After all, forging a big-time comedy-writing career from a foot-in-the-door intern job is no easy (ahem) feat.
It helped that he came, he says, from a family that is both funny and political. That, put together with an inability to “stomach arbitrary authority: gym teachers, substitute teachers” combined to give him what he calls “my powers.” In a nod to his love of action-adventure (he’s also written for Marvel Comics), the twenty-something Kalan says that finding a career “is like the X-Men: you don’t know what your superpower is until you’re in the situation.”
For the many students in the audience, such statements hit a nerve as well as a funny bone. They listened avidly as the New Jersey native described graduating early from NYU to move up from intern status to a full-time job as a production assistant. “The only difference was that we didn’t have to actually buy groceries for people,” he said -- with a twinkle in his expression that announced, “funny, yes, but all too true.” As a PA, he says, he bought supplies instead: “I became very knowledgeable about the Staples catalog."
Two and a half years of this gave him and another young PA “the kind of confidence you only get from doing menial work”: enough of it, anyway, to produce a short, snarky video about why they deserved to become segment producers. “It was full of mistakes and purposely bad edits,” intercut with pleas to be promoted, he says – and it worked.
“There is no tried and true way to get a TV writing job,” he acknowledges ruefully. “”The path is different for everyone.” That path may, as in Kalan’s case, “take six years to get there” – or more; and it may well be paved with not just grunt labor but disillusionment, too.
Describing his roots in a family that ardently supports the American political system – his mother once ran for local office, and he and his father (Rutgers marketing instructor Marc Kalan) share a passion for history – Kalan admitted that former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s fall from grace was deeply troubling to him … “Especially since we’re both Elliotts,” he couldn’t help adding.
Because that’s how it is for him: seeing the humor in life “becomes an unconscious compulsion … It’s like having a wild horse,” he explains. “You want to get there fast and you don’t have a car, so it’s great in that way, but in every other way it causes lots of problems.”
If so, they’re problems many a college student would gladly take on. And who knows: if Kalan got his wish and moved into that 60 Minutes spot, there might soon be an opening on The Daily Show.
EXTRA: About Elliott Kalan:
Elliott Kalan is an Emmy award-winning writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, co-writer of Earth: The Book, and a freelance comedian. He has written for Discover Magazine, Metro, the New York Public Library, and Marvel Comics, and co-produced the "Gay Cowboy" montage for the 78th Academy Awards. He is co-host of the podcast The Flophouse and wants to be Andy Rooney (check out FunnyorDie.com).