INTERVIEW: The Daily Show Writer Rob Kutner - Part 2

This is part 2 of a two-part interview that I had with Emmy-winning The Daily Show writer, Rob Kutner (part 1 can be found here ). He was kind enough to agree to be interviewed about the writers strike. In this part of the interview, we clear up some rumors, discuss how the strike is affecting The Daily Show specifically, and find out exactly what Jon Stewart has been up to since the strike started. We also discuss why Jay Leno should pretty much just tell NBC to suck it.

I saw your first [Daily Show-style] newscast on YouTube . What made you guys decide to do that?

Well, we were inspired by, have you seen “The Office is Closed” video?

Yes.

That was what inspired us. That came out and we thought, “we should go out and do something like this that’s low tech. We’ve got a camera, we’ve got YouTube, that’s all we need.” We’re The Daily Show, so we have to do one in our style. I guess you can say The Office one is kind of in their style of conversational meandering, so we decided to do a news story. We spent a few days basically hammering out a script through email, which was sort of funny for us, and gathering elements. Honestly, it’s good for all of us to have a sense of purpose and work together, so that was part of it too.

Is it something that you think you’ll do more than once?

I don’t know. I hear people asking us if we’re going to do another one. It’s kind of like we only have the one story to do, but if it seems like there’s a need or a clamor for that sort of thing it may be something we do to help sway the debate. But we’ll see how it does. It’s gotten 30,000 hits on YouTube since yesterday [note: the number is closer to 330,000 now], so if that keeps going and it becomes a big viral phenomenon then maybe we would be interested in doing that.

I think especially for something like The Daily Show, none of the late night shows have been airing since the strike and I think people are already desperately missing them and would like that.

Yeah, it’s a tricky thing because on the one hand people are saying, “yeah, I got my Daily Show fix,” but part of the point is we don’t want you to get your Daily Show fix. We want you to be so mad that you’re gonna harass the networks and say, harass Viacom until they make a deal so we can put the real show back on the air.

Well I think that’s the thing. It’s not a replacement, but it serves as a nice reminder of what we are missing.

Right. Well I hope that’s the function but we don’t want to get people used to thinking, “well that’s okay. I’ll just watch the archives of The Daily Show online that they’re not getting money for and I’ll be fine with that.”

I’m so glad you brought the Daily Show site up, because that was recently launched, thedailyshow.com , and it’s a gorgeous site…

Yeah, it’s great.

Your entire archives are online, so what is your feeling on that? Because on one hand, it’s got to be nice to have this permanent record where people get to see your work, but on the other hand, it’s got to be annoying that you’re not getting paid for it.

I think in some ways, it’s a great thing. It launched a few weeks before the strike and we were having a great time going through and finding old Steve Carell and things like that. It was fun for us, especially those who are new to the show to go back and see some of the stories. But it really proves our point, because people have been saying, and I agree with this, that it shows what the whole TV/internet convergence might be like in the future. It’s basically an On-Demand Daily Show. So that could conceivably be how it works in the future. But it proves the point that there’s a viable way to do that where they sell advertising for it, and we should get money for that because they’re getting money for that. If I know Viacom, they’ll structure it in a way so that in the future they’ll get even more money for it.

Absolutely. And I do want to clarify, since you are a writer on The Daily Show, are you currently getting any money from that site?

(Chuckles) What do you think? What would your guess be?

(Laughing) My guess would be “no.”

Right. You would be a good guesser. And that’s not even getting into iTunes, which you know has been successful for a while for us, but I don’t think it was ever mentioned. I think there are a few cases where there are some arrangements with some shows and they get some money for digital downloads. I don’t really know how it works, but it needs to be the industry standard. The same way there’s an industry standard for salary minimums and residuals. It just needs to be across the board that you get paid for this delivery.

Right, because for regular TV residuals, everybody gets the same percentage, correct? I mean as far as writers go?

Yes, everybody gets the same percentage. Well, that’s not completely true. We have a special formula for The Daily Show and the Comedy Central shows that we worked out. We just joined the guild like last year. So because the Comedy Central model is that they show multiple reruns, as opposed to the network shows that only show reruns sporadically, and the late night shows only show maybe one rerun, The Daily Show has so many reruns in its model, they came up with a different formula for it. So they pay us a flat rate for the first 24 hours then they pay us after that. So ironically, we may be getting more residuals now because they’re going to be running more reruns. As for the rest of TV, it’s more of a standard model because reruns aren’t as frequent.

Well, until now.

Yeah, they weren’t until recently.

Now, it was just announced a couple of weeks before the strike that one of your correspondents, Demetri Martin, was getting his own show.

Right, and it’s being produced by Jon [Stewart’s] production company.

Right, by Busboy. Now can fans still expect to see that? Has it been affected?

It’s in the same position as everything else. It’s a Comedy Central show and would be covered under guild rules, as I think all Comedy Central scripted shows are now. So like everything else, it’s ground to a halt. Demetri’s been out on the picket line a few days. I’ve seen him; but he’s in the same boat as everyone else.

Right, so as far as you know, it is pushed back, but not gone.

No, I don’t know that anything has been canceled that was in the works. I haven’t heard about anything anywhere in TV being canceled yet. I imagine that it’s going to happen sooner or later, but I would guess that the studios are probably holding onto everything that they possibly can right now and deciding what they want to keep and what they want to jettison if they decide to wait this out.

Before the strike actually happened, when it looked like it was going to, there was some speculation about the late night shows like The Daily Show, like Letterman, like Leno coming back without the writers. Have you heard anything about that specifically in regards to The Daily Show?

No, I haven’t. We know that Jon is very concerned about keeping the staff employed and in fact one of the reasons you haven’t seen Jon so much is that he’s doing a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure the staff continues to get paid. He’s worked it out with Viacom so that the staff will get paid through Thanksgiving and the week after that, so we’re trying to take it day by day. So that’s a big concern. You’ve probably heard that Letterman paid his staff through Thanksgiving too [note: the staff of The Late Show with David Letterman and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson are reportedly being paid until the end of the year]. So the concern of the host is that, and also I think they have contractual obligations or ways the networks can threaten them or cajole them into [returning] eventually. So it’s definitely a possibility, and that happened in 1988 as well. Eventually some of the hosts came back, but as far as specific rumors or indications, I don’t have any.

Okay, because NBC is already pressuring Leno and threatening to bring in guest hosts if he refuses to do it.

My guess is that Leno’s not going to do it because he already feels really bitter towards NBC about the whole Conan O’Brien thing.

Yeah, for good reason. The guy’s getting crazy ratings for them and they’re pushing him out.

It’s ridiculous. In fact, he made some kind of critical comment about the studios recently and someone said, “aren’t you concerned about angering your bosses?” and he said, “oh, they fired me anyway.”

Seriously, at this point, what are they going to do to him? NBC especially, they’ve been pulling some… interesting stunts lately.

“Interesting” is a nice way to put it.

You mentioned Jon Stewart working behind the scenes, because on the first day of the strike, there was an article in Portfolio that said there was this “well-placed source” that said that Jon Stewart was going to try to continue to pay The Daily Show writers for two weeks after the strike started.

Okay. That wasn’t for the writers; that was for the staff. The rumor was erroneous.

Yeah, the story kept on changing, and we never got a concrete answer.

All of us on the writing staff are perfectly fine with that. Obviously, we prefer to get paid, but we recognize that this was a risk that we took for our future earnings, but it wasn’t a risk that the staff took. They’re caught in the middle of it, so we feel like that’s something we took into account and that we’re going to take that sacrifice and that the staff should definitely be paid.

So just to clarify, when you say “the staff,” you mean the production staff?

Right. Everyone but the writers, basically. The scuttlebutt is that there’s a lot of Guitar Hero being played at the Daily Show production offices. There was some before, but there’s Halo 3 now, there’s Wii; there’s a whole gaming culture.

Well I think that’s all I have. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Before we go, is there anything else that you want to get out there?

Just keep checking United Hollywood , because they’ll have information about campaigns that the fans can do. Also go to the WGA East website for the numbers of the studio heads so you can call them.