Hot List 2005: Ben Karlin

Jul 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Jon Stewart may be the public face of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” whose capacity for earning awards and exerting cultural influence seem increasingly boundless, but Ben Karlin is the show’s best-kept secret.

Mr. Karlin is the show’s former head writer and current executive producer. Mr. Stewart has credited him for a sizable chunk of the show’s success, and in February the two men formed Busboy Productions, an independent production company with a first-look deal at Comedy Central.

This fall Busboy’s debut effort, “The Colbert Report,” starring “Daily Show” correspondent Stephen Colbert, will be paired with the “The Daily Show.”

Mr. Karlin’s past 12 months have included co-writing “The Daily Show’s” history text parody “America: The Book” (which shot to the top of best-seller lists) and producing the show’s extensive 2004 presidential election coverage. The new series represents his team “trying to push up against our limitations until we break and fail.”

Yet so far failure has played only the most minor roles in Mr. Karlin’s career.

While attending the University of Wisconsin in the early 1990s, Mr. Karlin worked as a stringer for United Press International. “It definitely showed me I didn’t want to be a journalist,” he said.

Instead, Mr. Karlin funneled his UPI experience into writing news parodies for the humor newspaper “The Onion,” then a print-only publication based in Wisconsin.

In 1996 Mr. Karlin and several other “Onion” contributors moved to Los Angeles and formed a writing team, writing television pilots and doctoring scripts. “We failed everywhere,” Mr. Karlin said. “Our scripts weren’t really given real consideration, as they would [have if they had been] from heavy hitters. And we kept seeing projects getting made that didn’t have a script but had a star attached, which was frustrating.”

Mr. Karlin’s experience writing news parodies for “The Onion” and television series efforts were ideal, however, for one particular series: “The Daily Show.” When Jon Stewart replaced Craig Kilborn as host in 1999, he hired Mr. Karlin.

“I was looking for somebody to pin failure on, but he fooled us all by being competent,” Mr. Stewart said. “He had edited ‘The Onion.’ His writing was great. … He was a good match, sensibilitywise.”

For Mr. Karlin, the job was daunting at first.

“I was named head writer having never written for a television show staff in my life,” Mr. Karlin said. “Jon was definitely taking a leap of faith with me. I was 27 on the writing staff with people 15 to 20 years older than me. I was facing maximum skepticism; it wasn’t a fun environment.”

But the team led by Mr. Karlin pulled off the difficult trick of tackling increasingly serious political subject matter, especially in the wake of 9/11, while simultaneously drawing kudos for making the show more funny. “With people at war and people dying, how do you talk about it in a comedic way?” Mr. Karlin said. “That’s been a challenge.”

Since Mr. Karlin’s arrival, the series has been nominated for 11 Emmy Awards and has won five, including two Emmys for outstanding variety, music or comedy series. Mr. Karlin was promoted to executive producer.

“He’s a triple threat, your singer-actor-dancer,” Mr. Stewart said. “He’s able to mine the territory creatively while manning the ramparts administratively.”

This fall Mr. Karlin will learn if the success of “The Daily Show” can be extended to another television format with “Colbert Report.” The new series will be a parody of cult-of-personality cable talk shows like “The O’Reilly Factor,” complete with guest interviews. “The Daily Show” will change its traditional closer, a news video clip dubbed “a moment of Zen,” to instead segue into “Colbert Report.”

“[Colbert will] play a character, but it’s not going to be like Jiminy Glick,” Mr. Karlin said. “He’s a wealthy television personality, a populist man of the people who’s finally got out from under Jon’s thumb.”

As for future Busboy projects, Mr. Karlin said several ideas are being considered-and not all are for Comedy Central.

“Comedy Central has been very good to us; our first goal is to give them the types of shows they want and need,” Mr. Karlin said. “But obviously a lot of our ideas may not fit Comedy Central. We may get sick of having our swear words bleeped.”

Scouting Report

Title: Executive producer, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”

Date of birth: April 27, 1971

Place of birth: Montclair, N.J.

Big break: Being tapped as head writer by incoming “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart

Who knew? Mr. Karlin claims his father was the namesake inspiration for the neurotic Elliot Carlin character on “The Bob Newhart Show.”