From Playboy to The Daily Show
Maybe it says something about The Daily Show producers that they didn’t already know who Olivia Munn was before asking her to join their team of fake news correspondents.
Because if you’re a guy—as all but two of the Daily Show writers are—and you’re online, chances are you’ve stumbled across pictures of Munn on the covers of Playboy and Maxim. You’ve probably seen the videos of her chomping down on wieners (6.8 million views on YouTube don’t lie), or once, a cucumber that had just been down the pants of her co-host Kevin Pereira on G4’s Attack of the Show, a series that has also seen Munn dive into a massive pie wearing a French maid outfit, and parade around nerd herd convention Comic-Con dressed as Princess Leia.
“We lived in hell growing up and my mom was in her own kind of hell, so it was hard for her... but she couldn’t stand up for me,” Munn said. “The first time in my life I’ve felt true support is from my fans and I would never betray them.”
Then there’s the stuff that comes out of her mouth. Her thoughts about anal sex (Penises? No. Baby carrots? Sure), her nude ads for PETA ( Save the Elephants! Boycott the circus!) and tabloid-licious ex-boyfriend Chris Pine (Captain Kirk to the dudes) are all well-publicized fodder among the Web-savvy.
But no. Daily Show Executive Producer Rory Albanese said it was only recently that he and host Jon Stewart discovered cable network G4’s most prized possession: a hot girl who’ll do anything for a laugh. “We're stuck in a hard news cycle and we’re nerdy,” Albanese said. “If she was on the cover of The Economist, we would have been like, 'Yes! Of course!’”
And yet last Thursday, there was Munn delivering her first reported segment on the Comedy Central show about how the BP oil spill has affected Vietnamese fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. Stewart introduced her as the show’s new “Senior Asian Correspondent.”
Just how did the host of a fledgling cable-network series go from doing the truffle shuffle to The Daily Show? The gig was but a Holocaust joke away.
“In the first 10 minutes of my meeting with Jon, I made some kind of Holocaust joke—and by the way? It’s always too soon—and he died laughing. He was like, ‘Wow, you open up with the Holocaust?’” Munn recalled. “I said, ‘No, no, it's cool. I dated a Jewish guy!’” (That would be actor Bryan Greenberg of HBO’s How to Make It in America.)
“See I date different guys of different religions and races so I can always make the joke,” she continued. “I date the blacks, I date the Mexicans. I date 'em all for comedy. You can't buy that kind of gold. Having sex with a guy once is worth it.”
“We just wanted to make sure our sense of humor clicked with hers,” said Albanese. The show, he said, is always looking to add women to its roster of correspondents, having been accused in the past of not having enough female voices in its mix. “When we watched Olivia on G4, we saw all the things we need on The Daily Show. She’s got great comedic timing, she’s smart and she’s very good off the cuff. We certainly didn’t know she was just on Maxim, and it really doesn’t matter. We just needed to find out if she was into joining us.”
While her deal with the show is not yet final, it’s simply a matter of sorting out Munn’s packed schedule. “She’s like the female Ryan Seacrest,” Albanese said.
Munn will continue to host Attack of the Show in Los Angeles while filming segments for The Daily Show on both coasts. She will be busy promoting her book, a collection of essays titled Suck It, Wonder Woman: The Misadventures of a Hollywood Geek, which comes out next month. And as if she had room for anything else, she’ll star in NBC’s midseason sitcom Perfect Couples.
Jon Pollack, an executive producer on Perfect Couples, said Munn’s name was given to him by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, with whom he had worked as a consulting producer on 30 Rock. “What’s great about Olivia’s comedy is that she really understands herself and she just goes for it. She’s not self-conscious or afraid of being goofy, even though she’s obviously beautiful. She probably doesn’t even need to work as hard because of that and yet there’s no one more driven.”
Munn may be a sexpot online but she is no Tila Tequila. Nor is she like any of her fame-hungry peers who do little more than turn up to red carpet after red carpet in the hope of landing in the pages of Us Weekly. Munn, who turns 30 next month, has wanted to be a comedic actress since she can remember and her fame, while not yet entirely mainstream, has been hard won.
Munn was born in Oklahoma City, the daughter of a white father and a Chinese mother who had been raised in Vietnam. Munn, who grew up in a military family, moved back and forth between the U.S. and Japan. The moving was rough on her, as was growing up with a “horrible” stepfather. “I think that’s where it came from, this need I have to make everyone laugh,” Munn said.
While in Japan, her mom would have friends in the U.S. mail VHS tapes of Laverne and Shirley and I Love Lucy. Munn also took a liking to Saturday Night Live—“Chevy Chase, oh my God, yes,” she said—and named Punky Brewster as her role model in inhibition.
“I was the dirty kid, so of course I loved Punky, who was totally OK with herself,” Munn said. After studying theater and journalism at the University of Oklahoma, she flew out to L.A. and immediately landed parts in the Rob Schneider comedy Big Stan, a recurring role on the Nickelodeon show Beyond the Break, and lots of modeling and commercial work. Then she auditioned for G4’s Attack of the Show, a talk show for tech geeks that was seeking, well, a broader, less geeky audience.
“She’s totally unfiltered and our viewers immediately got and appreciated that,” said G4 President Neal Tiles. “These guys who watch the channel have seen it all before and Olivia comes in up for anything and I think that’s why everyone fell in love with her.”
Munn was an instant hit—and she’s stayed grateful to those fans these four past years. It did, however, take a beat to adjust to being well-known on the Internet.
“At first it was like an old man luring in little girls with candy... You go in and it’s like, ‘Oh, candy! They’re saying nice things!' And then it’s like, ‘Oh, God! Anally raped.' That's not what I wanted. I just wanted the candy. And I got candy, but oh, it's not worth it."
She’s now fully adjusted. Munn has personally organized mass meet-ups with herself and members of OMFG (Olivia Munn Fan Group), will spend hours signing autographs, and her website is custom-built to cater to her most ardent admirers. It’s filled with regular updates, lots of sexy pictures and her homemade videos of random silliness. (Among the most popular? A video of her dancing with stormtroopers in the streets of Shibuya. Why? No reason in particular.) She’s unafraid to keep things real when it comes to her level of celebrity, too.
“I cannot put my mind around celebrities who aren't thankful or who don’t take pictures with fans,” Munn said. “I will never be like that.
“You know what hit me yesterday?” she asked rhetorically. “I've never in my life had anyone say that they would stand up for me and defend me. My mother is the best now but my ex-stepfather was terrible. We lived in hell growing up and my mom was in her own kind of hell, so it was hard for her… but she couldn't stand up for me. I moved around a lot so I never had that one best friend that would stand up either. The first time in my life I've felt true support is from my fans and I would never betray them.”
Her profile is only going to rise. Even before she scored cameos in Iron Man 2 and Date Night, paparazzi had a field day with Munn when she went to Los Angeles’ Pleasure Chest on a condom run, or more recently when her rabid fans squeezed out Gossip Girl star Ed Westwick from the Roosevelt Hotel.
How she’ll juggle more attention and three TV series over the next few months remains unclear. Munn says her obsessive-compulsive disorder will come in handy. “It means I’m ridiculously overprepared for everything, but especially work. I work really hard and a lot of hours,” she said. “I also have the urge to clean a lot.”
Whatever happens, Munn isn't going be any less outspoken than she has been. "If I tried to please everyone, I'd please no one. So I might as well stick to saying what I think." (When Best Week Ever poked fun at her PETA campaign, she was not kind.)
Still, she gets emotional thinking about her journey. Less than 48 hours after her Daily Show debut, Munn found herself crying while alone on an airplane. “It’s the third time in my life where I’ve cried out of happiness. It’s just blowing my mind that I can do this NBC show—and f------ Jon Stewart. It’s like, are you f------ kidding me?
Denise Martin is a former television reporter for Variety and staff writer at the Los Angeles Times. She has also written for The Advocate, Premiere, and The Hollywood Reporter and has a degree from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.