Zhubin Parang, producer and writer for "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah", visited Duke Friday for a talk hosted by the Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service (POLIS). Before becoming an Emmy award-winning writer and comedian, Parang practiced law after graduating from Georgetown Law School. The Chronicle spoke to Parang before his Friday afternoon talk. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Chronicle: How did you first get into comedy?
Zhubin Parang: Like a lot of comedians, I was unpopular in middle school, and I kind of saw comedy as a way to make friends and not get beaten up. So from a very young age, I was into joking and trying to be a class clown. I was lucky that our high school had an improv team — it was very bad, but it was an improv team. I wasn’t expecting a career out of it, but I definitely knew that I wanted to have some kind of comedic performance or writing always be percolating in the background of my life.
TC: So how did you decide to go to law school rather than just going straight into comedy?
ZP: Well, I’m very risk-averse, which is not good for comedy, but very good for law school. If you’re the kind of person who is not very risky and who wants a steady, certain path they can go through in life with constant reminders that they are on the right track, law school tends to be a very easy and default choice. A lot of lawyers are miserable because they didn’t go into law because they liked the law; they went into law because they didn’t know what else they wanted to do and they didn’t like anything else. And I was like that. I loved debating politics and arguing, and I was smart enough, but not mathematically smart, so law appealed to me as the default option. I thought, “Oh, I’ll just go to law school and end up getting into politics somewhere.” I now know and learned very quickly that is not how you go into politics. You go into politics if you are very rich or know somebody very rich. It seems like it opens you up to a lot of career options, but really all it does is lock you into a lot of debt. Unless you really just love practicing law, you should not go to law school.
TC: The student body of Duke will be forewarned.
ZP: Yeah, good. Whatever I can do to reduce the number of miserable lawyers.
TC: How did you make the transition from law to comedy?
ZP: I practiced law in New York for about four years. There wasn’t a specific moment — it was more that as I was doing law, I was also doing comedy with the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater, which is — and I don’t mean to toot my own horn — the best improv theater in the country, and as I practiced law, I liked it less and less, and as I did more and more comedy, I loved it more and more, and I began seeing that peers of mine in comedy classes were getting comedy writing jobs, and that’s when I began to see that this was an actual viable career path. So eventually the balance tipped enough that I decided to take the leap and just try.
TC: How do you think that your experience with law transfers to "The Daily Show?"
ZP: It’s very good in two different ways. One is that I’m a bit more aware of legal developments. I bring that expertise to the show so I can help other writers if they have a legal question. Secondly, it really helps with writing comedy to have a legal background. A lot of comedy, really, is finding gaps and holes in logic and exploiting them for jokes. And you get trained very well as a lawyer to search for holes and weaknesses in arguments.
TC: A lot of the material you deal with is not comedic in nature, a lot of the news is really depressing and a lot of people don’t want to watch the news for that reason. How do you use comedy to explain the news?
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ZP: You can make a joke about anything. No matter how serious the subject is, no matter how complex or awful it is, there is a joke to be found in it. It depends on partly what your perspective is on that story. It also depends on if you have a different way to frame the story than what might be in the news. There are different approaches you can take to stories that on the surface seem very upsetting or dense or not funny at all. Our task is always to look at a story and to ask, “What is it about this story that emotionally excites us — whether it upsets us, makes us laugh, disgusts or excites us generally, and what is it about that that is generating emotion?" And then usually there, from that visceral reaction, there are either gaps of reason or thoughts that are interesting or at the very least unique, and that’s usually where jokes come from. Sometimes it requires going around the story, like if there's a story about a school shooting, there’s usually more to talk about around the story — the political or media reaction to it rather than the event itself. But there’s always something funny, and it’s our job to find what’s funny.
TC: What advice do you have for students who are interested in arts and media, or any kind of nontraditional field?
ZP: That’s a very broad range, arts and media, but I would definitely say that because of its lack of clear paths, arts and media especially requires a lot of knowing the right person. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you've got to hope that your roommate’s dad is the head of NBC, but it does mean that if you want to get into comedy, or if you want to get into news media, you have to go to the places where that is done, and you have to get in somewhere in the ground floor and get to be known by people. For comedy, that means moving to New York or L.A. For news media that would be New York or D.C. and becoming an intern or P.A.
But the important thing is that you have to do a lot of it for free for a while until you get better at it. You should get to know the people in the scene so that eventually when job opportunities come up, you are the first on people’s minds when they think about who to hire. There’s no guarantee that’s going to happen either — it’s really a matter of you just lucking out that you happen to have the skill set for it, you happen to have the talent for it and you happen to know enough people at the right time that you get it. But you can increase the opportunity of that by being in the right place and doing as much work as you can in your field so that you get better and people get to know you. Also, it’s very important to be a good person. People have to know you as being nice and collaborative, as someone who can take advice and notes. People who are jerks to other people or who are moody or unpleasant to work with don’t rise very far, or if they do they fall very hard. Being a good person is not just morally imperative — it’s also very good for a career.