Tim Carvell ’95 Keeps the Jokes Coming
By Katarzyna Kozanecka '07
Tim Carvell ’95 (far right) and his writing colleagues on The Daily
Show with Jon Stewart pose in the Hollywood & Highland Center in Los Angeles, which includes the Kodak Theatre, site of the March 2006 Academy Awards. Carvell and the team traveled to the show with Stewart, who hosted the event, and worked on his monologue. From left, JR Havlan, Jonathan Fener, David Javerbaum, Jason Reich, Josh Bycel, Rich Blomquist and Carvell.
PHOTO: Ben Karlin
I’m terrified of people,” admits Tim Carvell ’95, winner of three consecutive Emmy Awards (2004–06) for his work on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Thankfully, his presence is never required on stage: Carvell belongs to a team of 10 writers who write for this acclaimed half-hour satire, which has been on the air since 1996.
The show is structured as a news program, replete with “on-site” footage and correspondents. There also is a guest on each show who is interviewed by Stewart, who succeeded Craig Kilborn as host in 1999. The Boston Phoenix called The Daily Show “television’s most trenchant — and funniest — take on politics and media,” while Rolling Stone Magazine observed, “The target of the show’s scorn is not merely the mendacity, incompetence or corruption of our elected officials, but the media’s refusal to call them out on it.” According to a 2004 Pew Research Center survey, 21 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds said they got their presidential campaign news from comedy shows such as The Daily Show.
Carvell came to the College in 1991 from Bloomfield Hills, a suburb of Detroit, attracted to the energy and opportunities inherent in New York City. Since the Journalism School is only for graduate students, he majored in history. He cited as a favorite course Alan Brinkley’s “American History: 1945 to the Present,” which he says helped him understand “how we [as a nation] got to where we are.”
As a student, Carvell wrote news and features for Spectator and says, “That was as good a journalism education as you could get. It allowed you to learn by making mistakes, without suffering real consequences.” Some of his best friends to this day are colleagues from the paper, including Daniel Franklin ’94, Eric Roston ’93, Jessica Shaw ’93 Barnard, Leyla Kokmen ’94, Ben Strong ’94 and Jenny Lee ’95.
Of his entry into comedy, Carvell says, “It was an accident more than anything.” For nine years after graduation, he wrote for a host of publications in New York including Fortune, Sports Illustrated for Women and Entertainment Weekly. Carvell also contributed humor pieces to McSweeney’s and the op-ed page of The New York Times. In March 2004, just as the presidential campaign was heating up, Carvell joined The Daily Show.
The turnover rate on the show’s writing team is low, but Carvell heard about an opening from Steve Bodow, one of the writers. He sent in a writing sample that consisted of “headlines” (what Stewart reads at the desk) and “chats” (the conversations he has with correspondents), after which he was interviewed by the head writer and the executive producer. Carvell describes the subsequent meeting with Stewart as “surreal.” “It felt uncannily like I was suddenly a guest on the show, only without a book or movie to promote,” he says.
A typical workday begins at home: Carvell watches the morning news on CNN, which he deems “the most tolerable morning show on air.” At the office, the head writer presents the team with the latest Associated Press report and video package. “We put all that on the table,” says Carvell, “along with interesting items from the other networks. We pick out the two or three stories we’ll do that day, and break up to write on our own until about 12:30 p.m.” Then the head writer, the executive producer and Stewart “stitch the script together like some sort of Frankenstein thing,” after which they meet with the writing team to brainstorm to fill any gaps. They run a rehearsal at 4:30, after which the writers are free to go home, “so it’s a 9-to-5 job,” says Carvell. At 6 p.m., the show is taped before a live audience to be aired that night and repeated the following evening.
Sometimes Carvell watches the show when it is broadcast, “to see what jokes survived.” He stresses the revision process, saying, “Jon is an active voice on the show.” Where other anchors might sit back and read what they are given, Stewart is assertive. “He definitely has a point of view that determines the content, though a joke must be funny first and foremost.”
Jason Reich, Carvell’s officemate at The Daily Show, says, “Not only is Tim a very politically aware and opinionated guy, which is crucial for our show, but he also has this insane encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and trivia that makes his material really interesting. It can get tiresome writing jokes about the Bush administration day after day, but Tim’s stuff is always surprising and funny.”
In March 2006, Carvell and six other writers accompanied Stewart to Los Angeles, where Stewart hosted the Academy Awards. “It was fun to spend a week working on the monologue, honing it, throwing away material and bringing it back by turn. The audience was larger and the pressure greater. And we saw all these famous people and realized how short they are,” jokes Carvell.
The Daily Show, while not as large as The Tonight Show, has its share of loyal viewers. “We are a small phenomenon,” says Carvell. “We only have a couple of million viewers.” Many people are familiar with The Daily Show secondhand, through video clips that circulate on the Internet. When polled, politicians, the butt of many jokes on the show, often claim that they are unaware of its existence. Yet there is a devoted audience that relies exclusively on The Daily Show, despite the show’s own profession that it is “a series unburdened by objectivity, journalistic integrity or even accuracy.”
Says Carvell, “It makes me nervous when people say they get all their news from us. That’s not something to be proud of. We know how much we leave out.”
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart airs Monday through Thursday at 11 p.m. on Comedy Central.
Katarzyna Kozanecka ’07 majors in comparative literature and society. She is editor-in-chief of the literary magazine The Columbia Review.