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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2
   

On The Job: Sit Down & Be Funny

Rachel Axler, M.F.A. ’04
By Raymond Hardie

 
     

It’s nine o’clock on a hot and humid Manhattan Monday morning. Rachel Axler’s subway ride from Washington Heights has been sticky and uncomfortable. She barely has time to let the first wave of air conditioning wash over her before she is called to the morning meeting. OK, grab a coffee, sit down and be funny—for a living.

Welcome to Comedy Central’s Emmy Award-winning The Daily Show located in a nondescript red brick building at the corner of Eleventh Avenue on Manhattan’s West side—as Axler describes it “just one horse stable and a small highway from the Hudson River.” It’s the first meeting of the day for the ten writers and producers. Their next one is at three. And yes, brilliant though Jon Stewart is, there is actually a group of writers who construct this 4-night-a-week gleefest of social and political comedy. Fueled by caffeine and television deadlines these modern day jesters debunk pomposity and pretension wherever they find it—and they do find it, all across the political and social spectrum.

Rachel Axler, M.F.A. ’04, the lone female among the 10 writers, has been with the show since May 2005, and she says she knew she wanted to work on it since she was doing her M.F.A. in playwriting at UCSD. When she graduated her professor, Adele Shank, told her: “You’re just out of grad school. You want to be a playwright, go to New York.”

For Axler, who comes from New York, it was coming home. Axler started out on that familiar path to success in the arts—temping—but all the time she harbored the ambition to get on The Daily Show. “I promised myself that by tooth-or-nail, or hook-or-crook, I was going to get myself known in some way. I basically googled all variations of the phrase ‘writer for The Daily Show.’” Finally she found a class ingeniously called, “Writing for The Daily Show.”

“It would have looked like bullshit to me,” she says, “except that it was taught by this guy, J.R. Havlan, who has been a writer for The Daily Show since its first day.”

“At first I thought Rachel was barely a day over 15 years old and wondered what on earth she was doing there,” recalls Havlan. “I soon found out she was by far the funniest, most consistent writer in the class. In fact, the first assignment she wrote made me wonder if I had gotten her name wrong and was reading someone else’s work. Not because I thought she couldn’t possibly be talented, but because she just plain didn’t look the part. In hindsight, I’m not sure what the ‘part’ was supposed to look like, but in my head it wasn’t 5 feet 4 inches tall and cute. Based on the other writers we work with, she should have been closer to six feet tall and basically unpresentable to the general population.”

Havlan was impressed by the writing, very impressed, and a few weeks later asked her if she would collabroate on some sketches with him for the Dave Chapelle Show. “One of the things that threw me at first was how filthy she could be. And I mean filthy,” Havlan wrote in an email to @UCSD. “She looked like a doll and wrote like a sailor. No—a drunken sailor. No—an angry, drunken sailor on leave in Bangkok with $700 in his pocket . . . and a sense of humor, of course.”

The Chapelle scripts never reached Chapelle, who had just done his famous vanishing act to South Africa. Then a few weeks later, Havlan called her at work and told her that The Daily Show was looking for two new writers.

“I quit my temp job and I wrote for a week,” Axler recalls. “I had my first Red Bull, and it kept me awake for two straight days.” Apparently it worked.

Axler, who is diminutive and darkly pretty, has the ability to swoop in with deft witticisms while you are still pinioned by her smile. So it’s no surprise that she loves the anarchy of the morning meetings, when the overnight news is dissected and reinvented into classic Daily Show headlines. These headlines, the news stories delivered by Stewart at the top of the show, are assigned to three or four writers at a time, and each writer works on them individually.

“That’s the time of day where you’re all alone with your stress,” Axler says. “You’re writing as if you were the only writer on this show. You just have to tune everything else out and write until 12:45, when you hit print. You’re writing everything from ‘we turn now to Iraq, where blah-de-blah,’ joke intro, into trying to get through the entirety of the story, whatever the story is, explaining it, parsing it, and of course writing jokes off any piece of valid information you can, because you want to get as many jokes in there as possible.”

“It can be very stressful and intense when we’re on a deadline, which is a lot of the time, since we put on a show every night,” says Sam Means, another Daily Show writer, who shares an office with Axler.

These four sets of complete headlines, called “packets,” are then collected and delivered to Stewart and the other producers. That team then pulls jokes from each of the packets and cobbles them together into one headline. Often during the course of the day, several will get rewritten for any number of reasons—timing, relevance, or because some new story has just broken.

This is when the writers work in teams. Means, who is also a regular contributor of cartoons to The New Yorker, says Axler thrives in this collegial process. “Rachel is an extremely talented writer,” he says, “but she’s always happy to listen to an idea and help make it better. She’s really in her element when working with a colleague .... She always has great ideas, and is good at working together with other writers to put them down on paper.”

From the program’s whole series on Indecision 2004 (their skewered version of the election) to taking on Paris Hilton’s fleeting moment in prison (by “not” reporting it) the show has been on the critical frontlines as the witty conscience of the media. Some classic moments have included the Mess O’ Potamia series on the Iraq war “Finally, Iraq has become the country we thought it was when we invaded.” On the Scooter Libby jail sentence: “Scooter Libby gets 30 months in prison, a $25,000 fine, and a chance to discover Islam.” On the Attorney General’s Senate testimony: “Alberto Gonzales doesn’t know what happened, but he assures us that it was handled properly.” And on President Bush’s sixth State of the Union address: “On Tuesday, the State of the Union will match up two bitter rivals: the President and words.”

The summer found Axler and the writing team wrestling with the lead into the ’08 elections and as she describes it: “all the magnificent progress the Democratic party has made since taking over.” But she is also continuing with her playwriting. Her newest play Smudge is about a young couple whose first child turns out to be more monster than baby. It has already generated a lot of interest after readings at the Lark theater in New York and The Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco. “It’s about reconciling ideas about what constitutes ‘life’ with expectations about what it means to be a parent,” says Axler. “And it’s definitely funny, but I keep having to warn people: ultimately, it’s not a comedy.”

And perhaps that’s also not a bad description of The Daily Show.

 

RELATED LINKS

The Daily Show Online

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"Rachel Axler is the lone female writer on The Daily Show"