This year, the keynote speaker of DEMAN Weekend is Adam Chodikoff ('93). As senior producer of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Chodikoff plays an essential role in the daily workings of the critically-acclaimed nightly political comedy program. The Chronicle's Lauren Feilich spoke with Chodikoff about what exactly he does, and more.
The Chronicle: Thank you so much for your time and—
Adam Chodikoff: Well, I did write two movie reviews for The Chronicle when I was there, so...
TC: What else were you involved with on campus while you were here?
AC: Not much, I stuck with the studying, you know, I wasn’t good at any sports. I was at the radio station for a little bit, news reports, very little, I was a big brother briefly, I did film society stuff, but not much…This is not sounding good. I didn’t join a lot of clubs, per se. Maybe if there were a cable news for the future club...
TC: Why did you choose to go to Duke?
AC: It was between Duke, Penn and Northwestern. I grew up in South Jersey and Penn was very close. I wanted to spread my wings a little bit. Northwestern, the wind coming off Lake Michigan wasn’t too tempting.
TC: Do you think that going to Duke affected your career trajectory at all?
AC: Well, I think I’m going to try to talk a little bit about that [at DEMAN weekend]. I was a political science major, and in my job, it is helpful to know how a bill becomes a law, how the various committees work and the nuts and bolts of government. We track legislation and we’re not shooting from the hip, we have a knowledge of the system. Being a political science major helped in that way.
TC: And then you applied to various internships?
AC: Yeah, I interned/staffed CNN, ESPN, Conan when he was just starting out in year two. My first job was with a show called “Day & Date,” long since cancelled, a “Today Show” for the afternoon on CBS. Then I read an article in USA Today when I was at “Day & Date,” a profile of two guys from MTV who were going to take over Comedy Central. This was in 1996, and the USA Today life section said they knew Bill Maher was leaving the network. We wanted to do a sports center type show, but not about sports. Didn’t have a name yet, didn’t have a host, but something about that last paragraph, I thought, “That sounds interesting.” I was happy to be working, living in Brooklyn, but I wanted to pursue this unnamed show. It sounded like a good combination. I always loved comedy growing up, and I also liked current events and journalism. So I’d go to the “As the World Turns” rehearsal studio for privacy so I could make calls, and I would call Comedy Central.
“Hey, have you hired? Who’s producing the show? Who can I send my resume to?” And they told me eventually that Madeleine Smithberg and Lizz Winstead were the head writers and the co-creators of the show, and they were who I should send my stuff to. I sent a “funny” letter in with my resume and went into Comedy Central for an interview. I said I’ll do anything. Again, no title, no host at this point, they hired me as a researcher and they told me the host was Craig Kilborn. People forget that Craig Kilborn was the first host and then Jon [Stewart] took over in January ‘99. So I’ve been there since day one, through various title changes but still doing basically the same thing.
TC: So you provide the raw information for writers to actually write scripts for segments?
AC: Finding the funny…What is the funny angle in any given situation. A lot of these stories are dry. They’re dry as the Sahara, so it’s not like the lack of Medicaid expansion among Republican governors is brimming with comedy possibilities. You just have to try to find them. And it’s providing material for Jon and the writers for them to score jokes off of, or to make arguments. We also make points as well, it’s not just raw joke-telling. I’ve become more and more involved in the argument side of the story, but I also love finding pure material. Here’s a funny sound byte from Rick Perry that you can get a joke off of. It’s to make the writer’s job easier, the writers and Jon are under a lot of pressure. They have to churn out pages of jokes under a strict deadline. How do you make their job easier? By trying to find the best seven moments out of a four-hour hearing, or out of Ted Cruz’s 21 hour floor speech. I’ve become adept at that, going through, watching C-SPAN or going through debates, finding the 8 best comedically fertile moments. That’s a big part of the job, along with fact-checking, along with finding sound bytes. Going back in time to find the sound bytes that contradict what the person is saying now. Prepping for the big interviews, Debbie Wasserman next week, not so much, say, Sandra Bullock, more the big news-makers, politicians, pundits and things like that. Generally keeping track of everything that’s going on in the world, that’s it in a nutshell.
I’ll expand in the speech [this week], show some clips and segments from the show. Here’s what I did with this segment, here’s how I put this together, this is how I contributed to this one. It’ll hopefully give a decent idea of what the hell a senior producer on “The Daily Show” does.
TC: When you’re in such a relevant mode of art, it definitely affects the field you’re covering. I know Don Yelton resigned from his position…
AC: Yes, I don’t work with the field department that much. I had nothing to do with that piece. I’m more of the day-to-day stuff in-studio, working with Jon and the writers directly.
Some things that we do affect. The big example would be the 9/11 first responders bill in 2010, which we did a series of pieces on. In the end, I think we got some credit for pushing it toward the goal line, being that final push to get it passed in that last day in Congress. But that’s not what we set out to do. We set out to be funny and entertaining and provocative, and to make points and have arguments, not necessarily to impact the world at large. It’s more that we want to put together an entertaining half hour.
TC: What is the line between something subjective—like comedy—and something more ideally objective—like journalism—for you?
AC: One thing we have in common with journalism is fact-checking and maintaining credibility. Aspiring to that New York Times, Washington Post, NBC News level of credibility. I want to be as good or better. I have a little joke that on my gravestone, I want it to say, “Without credibility the jokes mean nothing.” If we’re just making up stuff, then why watch? We make a lot of points and arguments every night, and when we throw facts out, I’m like the stats guy, the facts guy. I don’t go to liberal blogs, I don’t go to conservative blogs, it’s all reliably-sourced. The mainstream media has become sort of a mockable phrase, but I still believe in reliable, non-partisan forces. I avoid anything with a hint of bias, or think tanks that have funding from conservative or liberal sources. I try to go straight down the line so our case can be airtight and as powerful as possible. No one can come after us and say, “Jon Stewart made that up.” It’s maintaining a bulletproof defense. That’s sort of the most journalistic part of the show.
TC: You’ve spoken in interviews a few years ago about the importance of print media over internet sources. Do you still feel this way?
AC: Those are broad brushes, but yes, I do trust mainstream, edited news rather than some crap that someone put on the internet. Well, the New York Times is on the Internet, but you know, Twitter, Drudge, those make me hesitant. We bear responsibility. We have our audience, we want to be true to the audience. I may be a bit old-fashioned, but I still trust the more traditional sources rather than some blog or some posting somewhere that someone put up.... That’s something to be especially wary of. I’ve debunked a lot of those in my day. Again, the credibility is all-important. I’m not just gonna take something off of Buzzfeed or Drudge and say this must be true. It’s not the same level as traditional pillars of journalism.
TC: Is there any one part of a finished product that you feel was the most important thing you’ve done for the show?
AC: One of the things I’m going to be showing is from the first show we did this year. It’s when the aid for Hurricane Sandy was being held up in the House, and Chris Christie was going off on Boehner, he couldn’t believe it. It’s a good breakdown of the hypocrisy of the GOP at that point and of their various defenses at the time… Showing how GOP reps were supportive of aid for Katrina but not so much for Sandy, that one is probably the best example of everything that I do. One of the things that I think is a hallmark of the show is to be original, to be unique, not to do a topic that all other late night shows are going to be doing, and also to aim high. For this one, we did aim high. We were aiming at Paul Ryan, the intellectual leader of the party, and we were unique in that no one else was going to be doing seven minutes on federal aid for Sandy. That’s the first show of the year, coming back from break. I had been tracking it for a while and was able to pitch all the various elements to Jon and it all came together really well... Working on a big interview like Donald Rumsfeld or Condoleezza Rice or Nancy Pelosi, those are all extremely satisfying, doing an interview that no one else…has done yet, that’s also probing and effective. That’s always fun and a challenge and exciting.
TC: I do have to ask you about this coming weekend. What is your goal? What do you hope to offer students who are interested in this field?
AC: I have a made-up job at a made-up show. It’s a unique job at a unique show. I don’t think there’s really anyone else out there who does what I do. Maybe it’s a good opportunity to see what this crazy job is. What does it mean to be senior producer at The Daily Show? How it’s different from being a writer or movie producer or agent? That’s all great, but this is something that there’s not much else like in the known universe. It’s sort of odd, but hopefully it’ll be not too boring and a decent window into this unique career path that a Duke alum took...
It seems like, the biggest thrill is working with these geniuses, Jon’s a genius, the writers are geniuses. I get to work with people who are at the top of their profession. How many people get to do that? Work with people who are renowned on that level on a daily basis? That’s a real privilege for me. I’m so proud of the show, and it’s rare to be in TV and be proud of the show you’re working on. I’m very fortunate but I hope I do my bit for the war effort.
TC: Was there any specific guest that you were really excited to have the opportunity to meet or interact with?
AC: You’re not supposed to go backstage and be gushy. Well, the most recent one…I met Aaron Sorkin. My parents had been holding out for HBO for years, they never signed up, they’d go across the street to watch "The Sopranos." I got them "The Newsroom" DVD and after that, they wanted to get HBO to get season two. They finally broke down after all that time. So I told Sorkin the story and he liked it and said [he'd] tell the president of HBO. Bob Costas, Woodward and Bernstein was fun to meet… Oh, Matt Groening was big. I’d say that was the top since I’m a huge Simpsons fan and he asked me what I did, “You’re the guy who finds those clips with Dick Cheney?” I was in heaven that Matt Groening was interested in what I did for a living. And Hank Azaria too, with the Simpsons thing… We just did a "Simpsons" reference on the show on Monday. I’m the go-to guy whenever we need one. that’s become task number 147 for me. Jon loves the show, most of the writers love it. Jon asked me for that show to come up with a "Simpsons" trivia question to stump Groening, which I did. I was palling around with him backstage, but then I gave Jon the ammo to stump him on the show.
TC: That’s great that you had the opportunity to do that.
AC: Yes, but again, you’re not encouraged to stand around the hallway and ogle Cindy Crawford, with good reason. When Jennifer Aniston comes by, they don’t want a bunch of comedy nerds with their tongues hanging to the floor, drooling over her as she walks into the studio. With good reason, you’re not supposed to go back and fraternize. But the people I just mentioned, Woodward and Bernstein, don’t have an entourage.
TC: That’s definitely a perk!
AC: My job is very multi-faceted and keeps me on my toes. I like being busy, I love having the challenge, tracking down things and putting stuff in the show that no one else is doing.
TC: It’s every single day, a nonstop process.
AC: Yes, I like it. Some days are very busy. When you’re helping the writers and helping Jon, you’re part of this incredible enterprise that you can’t help but be proud. You’re also helping people laugh after a long day, that’s underrated.
TC: We’re really looking forward to DEMAN.
AC: I am the keynote. I’m thinking of calling the speech “Annabeth Gish Cancelled.” You know, Annabeth Gish cancelled, that’s the reason you’re talking to me. I’m replacing the woman who replaced Gillian Anderson on “The X-Files,” that shows where it is I am on the showbiz totem pole.