Making ‘The Daily Show’ in the Age of Trump: ‘We Find Something to Distract from the Doom and Gloom’
Longtime Executive Producer Jen Flanz, who’s been around since the Kilborn days, opens up about the show’s storied history and what it’s like to adjust to breaking Trump news.
It’s a hot summer afternoon at The Daily Show’s Hell’s Kitchen offices, and I’m trying to explain to the security guard that I’m here for an interview. The confusion—he thinks I’m here to get a job, not ask someone else about theirs—stems from the fact that The Daily Show host Trevor Noah isn’t in today. So who could I possibly be interviewing?
Executive Producer Jen Flanz might not have Noah’s star power, but for those in the know, she’s one of a handful of Daily Show vets who played a crucial role in transforming the talk show from a missable half-hour on Comedy Central to the political and pop cultural powerhouse it is today. In The Daily Show (The Book), an oral history of the beloved fake news program, alum John Hodgman describes Flanz as “a profoundly important force in the show.” Flanz got a job at The Daily Show as soon as she graduated college, back in the Craig Kilborn days. While she’s quick to point out that there are a few people who have been at the show longer than her—a handful since day one—her rise from Production Assistant to Executive Producer is the stuff of Daily Show legend. In a far cry from her early days of ordering lunch and running scripts, Flanz is now an integral part of the production, with a wide-reaching list of daily responsibilities that ranges from giving writers notes and parlaying between the host and the staff to looking over graphics and making sure rehearsals and tapings run smoothly.
In addition to the skeptical security officer, Flanz is guarded by a dog who greets me at the door of her office—one of many “Daily Show dogs” roaming around the floor. After nearly twenty years here, Flanz has clearly earned the right to make herself at home. As an active witness to the Kilborn, Stewart, and Noah eras, Flanz has unique insight into the ways in which the show has changed and the ways it’s stayed the same. She watched as Stewart transformed the satirical half-hour offering into must-see television, lending The Daily Show both a singular sense of humor and a moral center.
As Flanz continued to rise through the ranks, Stewart increased his clout with hard-hitting political interviews and sharp takedowns, pulling in 23 Primetime Emmy Awards and millions of nightly viewers. When Noah, a long-time favorite of Flanz’s, took over hosting duties in 2015, he made the somewhat unusual move of re-signing The Daily Show’s top five producers. While Noah may not have brought in his own producing team to disrupt The Daily Show, Flanz vouches that the South African standup has entirely shaken up the status quo with a “totally different voice than Jon’s,” adding, “It’s a different person to write and produce for, and a different audience.” At the time of his casting, Noah was a relative unknown on a long list of candidates that included the likes of Amy Schumer and Chris Rock. And as an American transplant thrust into one of the most confusing and tumultuous presidential elections of all time, Noah had big shoes to fill and little room for error.
While the transition from Stewart to Noah wasn’t seamless, The Daily Show finished the first quarter of 2017 with its highest ratings since the host swap—validating the faith that Flanz put in the comic from the very start. Through frequent (but not unwelcome) dog interruptions, Flanz and I discussed scouting talent, working for Jon Stewart, and adjusting, both personally and professionally, to the Trumpian news cycle.
So how did you get here?
[Laughs] Well I got here by…you want the beginning?
I went to college thinking I wanted to be a lawyer. And then I quickly found out that I didn’t like to study. I had always been obsessed with MTV—music videos in particular, I was obsessed with. And then when I was in college I was watching a lot of the O.J. chase and I was like news, news, news all the time. So both of those things made me realize that I really don’t want to go to law school, and I really think I want to work in entertainment or television.
The idea of going to law school fueled a fire in me that I’ve never had before—I was like, I just can’t. I’ve got to get a million internships! So I did a bunch of internships, I did CBS local news and One Life to Live and Vh1 Storytellers—I was there for the first Behind The Music, which makes me feel old. The Rosie O’Donnell Show when Rosie was still on the air…I did all of these internships. I hardcore mailed my resume to like fifty productions in New York. There wasn’t anything open at the places I had worked for but I got two interviews for the same day, one was with The Century with Peter Jennings, and one was with The Daily Show—at the time, it was just The Daily Show. So I started here as a Production Assistant, and that was in January 1998.
I was a PA, Craig was the host, I ran scripts mostly, sat in the control room, ordered lunch—I really did just general PA work and really loved it. Then I was promoted to Assistant Production Coordinator, then Production Coordinator, then Production Manager, and then a friend of mine that had been at The Daily Show went to work at Nickelodeon, and she called me and offered me a job—that was 2002 I think. And while I loved my job at The Daily Show, I left for about six months to go to Nickelodeon, and I loved it. I actually liked the people a lot, but when The Daily Show called and asked me if I would come back, I was so excited that somebody needed me and wanted me that bad that I was like, “Oh yeah! Of course I’ll come back!” Like I didn’t ask for a raise, I didn’t ask for…I was just so excited that they wanted me to come back. So I came back! And it was the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.
The only thing I said to them was I felt like I was getting pigeonholed into production management, and I’ve really always in my life been a little more on the creative side, and I really wanted to work more with the casting and graphics and props and wardrobe, all the visual stuff and the creative narratives instead of necessarily budget managing. So that was an easy sell, they were like, “Great! We’ll tweak your job!” Ben Karlin who was the EP at the time and Jon—Stewart, obviously—were really open to letting me do the things I felt I was good at, and kind of crafting some of what I thought my job should be. So then it was a Coordinating Producer, then I got Supervising Producer, then Co-Executive Producer, then EP, and the EP credit was in the last two years Jon was here, then we transitioned to Trevor. And, you know, the show’s still running! And I still love it.
So you’re one of the only employees who’s been here from Craig through Trevor.
Yes, but there are people who have been here even longer than me. There are like a handful who have been here since day one. And I was not…but I came like a year in!
And I want to limit myself to one “as a woman” question, but as you obviously know, late-night television has historically been dominated by white dudes.
Yes, oh my God.
But I do feel like The Daily Show was one of the first shows to deliberately push back against that. Do you remember the moment or a moment when diversity became a part of the conversation?
I feel like that, too. I feel like, especially now, the show is so diverse now, and always striving to get every voice possible in the building. Jon really, I don’t remember what year it was, but at some point was really like, “Let’s make sure we’re getting different voices in this writer’s room, let’s make sure we’re getting different voices on air, let’s make sure our cast isn’t all white men.” Because there are so many more stories you can do! And there’s so many more people you connect with if you have that perspective. And the more voices you bring into it, the more people from different backgrounds, the more diversity you have in thought, not just in bodies. Years and years ago, Steve Bodow when he was the head writer started this blind packet process, which is our blind writers’ submissions. And we didn’t know who we were reading. So that was Steve’s thing, and it’s such a great idea, and I know other shows have adopted it since then. Basically anybody that is good at this can get this job. So that’s what makes that way of picking people really great.
But, you know, there have also been times when we actively want to say like, “Hey, we need more women in here.” And then the agents will send all their best women. Like, let’s make sure we’re really trying. And the same thing with race and sexuality, with everything. Just let’s make sure we’re diversifying here. But yeah, when I got here I think there was…Lizz Winstead had been the head writer and had just left, and when I got here as a PA there was just all white men. There was not one woman. Or anything! It was just all white men. That was it.
So I know you play a pretty big role in scouting and casting, and that you were an early fan of Trevor Noah’s.
I saw Trevor at a show years ago in the West Village. And I’ve seen a lot of standup comedy—I mean, I work here—you see a lot of shows. And I was just like, this person is so captivating. He has a stage presence with a live audience that is just unparalleled. And maybe a year or so after that, a few of us knew who he was, and we were casting for correspondents and we watched his tape in the conference room. We watched his Letterman set, and we were all just like, “Oh man, this guy is so good.” And we only called Jon in if they were like…we see a lot of tapes. Like, a lot a lot of tapes. And when you get to run into Jon’s office and you’re like, “We’ve watched a hundred tapes, but this is the guy”—it’s just so much fun. Also to be able to watch their expression when they’re watching them. And we’ve had that experience with Trevor now with some of our newer correspondents. But with Trevor, Jon watched, and his first line—I remember this because it’s an insane story—he watched him do his first joke, it was an Obama joke, and we stopped the tape, because you could always tell when Jon was like I got it, I’m done, because he would stand up. So he stood up, and he goes, “Yep, that guy is going to take my chair.” We were like, “What? Wait, are you telling us something?” He goes, “No, no, it’s an expression…I just mean that guy’s got it.” And I was like, “Ok…” And he left the room and everyone starts freaking out, like, “Is Jon leaving?” Because this was like a year and a half or so before he had made a decision. So it wasn’t that exactly, but it was a premonition.
So he spent a day with us and Jon was like, “Hey, if you ever want to do a piece on the show…” So we got him back three times, and after that Jon announced he was leaving, so it was not a lot of times on The Daily Show. But you know, I think it was a really good decision. Jon’s big thing was that the show needs to go in a different direction. Like, we did everything we could do with me as the host of this show. And listen, people argue now that Jon should stay on TV forever because of Trump, but I think that Trevor’s been a great direction for the show to go in; it’s a totally different voice. It’s a different person to write and produce for, and a different audience than we’ve ever had. When Trevor came on as a host, the show had an Instagram feed that I think we might have used…like, never. Twitter, same thing. We barely did anything. But when Trevor came on it was a big initiative of his to make sure that we’re reaching out on all social platforms, and I remember thinking, “We are racing the clock every day to get this show on the air four nights a week. How are we going to produce even more material?” And we hired a whole bunch of great people, and now it’s just part of the everyday. We’ve been able to reach totally different viewers and expand the audience to a lot younger. It was a necessary change, and it all came with Trevor.
I’m sorry! That’s not my question, but it is my category of questions. I went to a talk with Stephen Colbert where he explained that, on something like four different occasions over the past two weeks, he’s had to add material to the show when news broke in the middle of filming. I think one of those instances was the day James Comey was fired.
Us too. Oh yeah, it’s crazy. It’s funny because I’ve gone through a lot of election cycles with The Daily Show, and every time it’s within, say, a year of an election, life here gets really crazy. There’s a lot more news, and you’re constantly producing and writing to accommodate the news cycle. But there was always the sense of right after the election, it’s going to calm down. And I think that’s what gets a lot of people through. But when Trump was elected, ever since it has been even harder than the election cycle. Which is crazy! Having gone through so many election cycles here, I know that this is insane. This is supposed to be when it calms down—when we can do stories about race and women’s health. This was supposed to be the time when we were going to go and start talking about prison reform. We had plans to do theme months and start diving into all of these topics—including gun control, which is really important to Trevor. And then Trump got elected. And we have field pieces waiting to be aired that are ready, and things get bumped all the time, because you just can’t not talk about this president.
With Comey, we tape a little bit later than Colbert, so we’ve been in our rewrite room at that point in the day and it’s always somebody on headsets like, “Guys? Do you hear that? Trump leaked to the Russians? OK?” And it’s like, well, somebody go tell the audience it’s going to be a little longer, because the audience is always already seated at that point cause it’s five. And Trevor and the writers will take a little longer and rewrite, and get the script together and we get something out. Sometimes it’s the kind of story where we have to ask, is this big enough to keep our audience here? Because the longer you hold an audience, the less they may laugh. They’re getting annoyed, they have somewhere to go, they have dinner plans. So you’re like, is this sacrifice great enough. But when the director of the FBI gets fired? Yeah, we have to hold the audience a little bit. And on other nights it will be like, OK this broke, let’s tell one joke about it and then go into today and say we’ll cover it fully tomorrow. You have to start weighing what’s more important: getting the show together or getting the information out there.
The other aspect is, if something just broke, and everybody in our audience sees it on their phones while they’re waiting, and then we go out there and do a headline about, you know—I think the day [news broke about] Trump leaking to the Russians was a day that we were going to do a story about the South taking down confederate monuments. We had this headline planned, but then we were like, you can’t go out there and do that without addressing this first, because the audience is just waiting for you to do it. They’re not even paying attention at that point, they’re just like, “When are you gonna say the thing about the Russians?!” They’re waiting for you, so you have to give it to them at the top. So yeah, there have been a bunch of days when we’ve adjusted. It’s really crazy how much the show has to adjust and just be nimble all the time. It’s just been like, yeah, there might be news that breaks at five…every day...for the rest of time.
So I want to talk about the day after the election. At our office, our editor in chief gave a speech.
I did that too!
And there were all of these conversations about what it meant to do the work that we do. Were there similar conversations at The Daily Show? About how to move forward, or updating your mission?
That morning was particularly sad. When Hillary gave her speech, the little girls line, a lot of the women were crying. I cried. There were people crying all over. It was really emotional. And there have been a lot of emotional days. I’ve been here for almost twenty years, so I’ve had a lot of emotional days here, but that was high up there on the list.
I think the mission is just to continue to bring people laughter, and point out the absurdities in what’s going on; never lying about anything, never trying to create a narrative or make people think something in particular. Just making jokes about what is out there in reality. I think a lot of the mission, especially with Trevor, is just: keep calm, keep people together and remember that things will—I don’t want to say things will get better, but I think they will! I think ultimately people are good, and that will override evil. I think it’s like a superhero movie, and good will win. And I think the news cycle may run a lot of us ragged, but hopefully at the end of the day it will bring people together, and maybe everybody will get out there during the midterms and vote for their local officials and really get engaged.
The one thing that this has done that’s positive is really engaging a lot of people. I’ve always talked politics, but I’ve also worked here so long that it’s just part of everything. And I talk about it with my friends and I’ve had years where my friends are like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And now I barely come across anybody who’s like, “Oh, I didn’t hear about that.” Everyone hears about everything now. Everyone’s engaged and wants to make positive change—at least I think—in whatever way that means for that person. I think that’s an exciting part of this. I try and find silver linings. I’ve had a lot of, you know, life things happen to me, and I think that you have to try and find the good in every situation. You just can’t get bogged down in the negative. And I think shows like this keep people positive. It’s like, “OK, we can laugh about it.” We find something to distract from the doom and gloom.
And just thinking about silver linings: is there a way in which Trump’s election sort of gave you a second wind, or inspired you to rededicate yourself to this job?
Oh yeah. I love this place. They’re like my family. I literally grew up here. So there’s a lot of reasons I love this place—Trevor and Jon being two major ones, and the staff and the team here. There are a lot of positives here, but one of the most positive things is just that, I think that if I didn’t work here and went home every night and watched the news and then went to a different job every day, I would only talk about this stuff. So at least I am doing my job still! Because my job is to come here and talk about it. So that, for me, is a positive, because I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t talk about this at work every day. I think I would just talk about it anyway, and people would be like, “You…should go to lunch by yourself. Get her out of here.” I’ve never lost the fire here, because every day we figure out something new to do. I would have been totally OK with Hillary winning, and news as usual, and doing those longer-term pieces about social issues. But, given that this is what we’re dealing with, being able to come here every day and talk about it is a positive.