15 Q With Ben Karlin

The former executive producer of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report talks to FM about his new book, heartbreaks, and his mom.

Ben Karlin, former executive producer of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and former editor of The Onion, does not claim to be a relationship expert. But why should that stop him from editing an anthology of essays about relationships? With the help of comedy writers, actors, and one former U.S. senator, Karlin compiled “Things I’ve Learned from Women Who’ve Dumped Me.” At an event sponsored by the Harvard Book Store, Karlin spoke to FM about working with his mom as a contributor, his plans for new media, and where he keeps his Emmy Awards.

1. Fifteen Minutes (FM): Where did you get the idea for this book?

Ben Karlin (BK): I had a deal to do a television show with NBC some years ago and I pitched a show about a guy, where every week was a different failed relationship in his life...And they didn’t like it. But I liked it and [Things I’ve Learned from Women Who’ve Dumped Me] was the title of the show that I pitched.

2. FM: The book features essays from a wide range of writers—from Stephen Colbert to former Senator Bob Kerrey. Did you have any surprising experiences working with your contributors?

BK: The pieces in the book aren’t as bitter as I thought they would be. I thought people would have been carrying around anger or have an axe to grind and use this as an opportunity to work their shit out...But most people have made peace with their demons.

3. FM: You contributed your own essay on heartbreak for the book. Have you talked to the girl who dumped you about it?

BK: I have not and not only have I not, but after we broke up or after she dumped me or after it ended, however you want to phrase it, I never saw or spoke to her again. But we still have one friend in common and that person will eventually get married and the moment will come where we’ll see each other.

4. FM: You had your mom write the foreword.Did she give you a lot of break-up advice growing up?

BK: Not really. The idea for my mom doing the forward was to find the least objective person on the planet earth to defend someone. And a parent talking about their child, there’s no objectivity, to say, ‘Well, yeah, they probably had a point in dumping you.’ They’re just like ‘I’m your mother and I don’t have to be fair.’ So I thought it’d be funny if she wrote from the most biased point of view imaginable about how awesome I am.

5. FM: You’re tackling a really different topic in this book. Do you think people are more sensitive talking about the politics of their hearts than the politics of America?

BK: Definitely. Most people, like comedians, have material in one way or another about their personal relationships. Obviously people have taken creative leaps in terms of how they structure the story or the format it takes, but the core of every story is true. That’s hard sometimes to deal with as comedians who spend their life creating like a creative persona that, in some respects, is a response to bad things that have happened to them. So it was a little difficult at times, but several of the contributors afterwards said to me they were really glad they did it because it forced them to deal with this in a funny way, but in a real way that they hadn’t dealt with before.

6. FM: What percent of the book would you say is true?

BK: I would say 59.2 percent.

7. FM: Could you see yourself writing a sequel for women who’ve been dumped?

BK: Absolutely not. Comedy, or a book like this, is all about point of view and that’s not a point of view that I have, I think. And the other thing is if there’s anything interesting at all about this take, it’s that you don’t normally think of guys as being the introspective part of the gender equation.

8. FM: You’ve been doing live versions of the book at comedy venues in New York and L.A.What’s the inspiration for those?

BK: This book doesn’t lend itself to a book tour ’cause I’m not really the author. I’m just kind of the wrangler. So doing a book tour wasn’t really realistic. However, several of the contributors live in New York and several of them live in Los Angeles and several of them had Midwest ties. So we put together this four-city tour that could bring the contributors to the book onto stage, reading their pieces and performing their pieces. And it just was a very organic idea that happened to be kind of the perfect storm, because there was also the writer’s strike going on. So a lot of these people who would otherwise be busy doing shows or different projects had some time to actually come out and do these shows.

9. FM: So, this is what the comedy industry did during the Writers’ Strike—do readings on book tours?

BK: Well, people want to work. Especially when you write, one of the things...you realize is there is no direct interface with your audience. It’s just like this assumption that there are words on a page and someone’s reading them and hopefully enjoying them. But there’s no contact, so the idea of reading something you’ve written out loud in front of an audience and hopefully that audience is laughing, that’s like ‘Oh, yeah, this is why I do it.’ It’s very redemptive.

10. FM: Who do you think has been dumped more: Colbert or Stewart?

BK: I would probably say Jon, only because I think his comedy is so much more like the comedy of self-deprecation and deflation, and Stephen’s is much more one that comes of being like heir to a throne. 

11. FM: What’s the biggest difference between writing for TV and for print?

BK: You get to use words like ‘mellifluously.’ You get to use lots of fancy words that you somehow came across and thought ‘Oh, I’m going to use that.’ [In televison,] you’re always trying to cut down and make things more concise and tell things visually. When you’re writing, you have an opportunity to paint it exactly as you want it, knowing that the person is going to read it in their own way. 

12. FM: Do you have any advice for aspiring comedy writers at Harvard?

BK: Honestly, the best thing you could do is develop your skills outside of comedy writing because the thing that makes a great comedy writer is having an informed point of view. I find the most interesting people, even that we were hiring at The Daily Show, came from backgrounds of academia or journalism. They weren’t people that came up through college humor magazines or who had just studied exclusively improv. It was people who were like: ‘I was a molecular biology major and then went to Phillipines and did work-study.’ That informs your point of view so much more than just being really well-versed in early Monty Python.

13. FM: What are you working on next?

BK: This interview. I have a production deal with HBO, so I have a couple of TV shows with them. One about the UFO alien death cult. And another one about a man trying to become the richest man in the world. So just TV shows, a couple movies, some Internet stuff. I want to try to suck in every media.

14. FM: You’ve won six Emmy Awards for your work on The Daily Show. What do you do with all your Emmys?

BK: Are you familiar with Flavor Flav?  He used to wear a giant clock around his neck with a giant gold thing. I have one that’s just fashioned out of six Emmys. It’s heavy but it keeps your lats and your traps toned. And it keeps you grounded. 

FM: Personally, I would line them all up and have them fight.

BK: I’ve never had them fight, although one year, coming back, I had one wrapped in a towel and stuffed in the overhead compartment. And so we get up and everyone was kind of groggy and I open the overhead compartment and the thing just fell down, hit the person sitting in the chair, and got all mangled. The little globe thing got all squished in. I almost killed someone.

FM: That’d be a good way to die though.

BK: Exactly, brained by an Emmy.

15.FM: Anything else you want to say about the book?

BK: If you buy four copies and put them together, they form a super better book.  Like Voltron. Just putting that out there.