The key to succeeding in some businesses is simple: be quantitatively better at your job than anybody else. What it takes to thrive in a creative field is more nebulous, though. In a career where success is a qualitative calculation, it can be difficult to measure performance. Whatever makes up such metrics, though, the powers that be at The Daily Show have always singled out Elliot Kalan as decidedly crushing it.
When he isn't busy being the new head writer at The Daily Show, Kalan also co-hosts a popular podcast about movies. For that reason, it's tempting to describe his meteoric rise at the beloved fake news institution in terms of a movie—specifically the Coen brothers' Hudsucker Proxy, in which a mailroom clerk played by Tim Robbins gets promoted to company president overnight, under suspicious circumstances. This comparison is sadly inaccurate, though. Kalan's ascent did not happen overnight—it took 11 years—and more importantly, there was nothing suspicious about it. Rather, Kalan's path is the result of an uncommon level of consistent creativity, combined with luck and preparation.
Kalan started as an intern at The Daily Show in 2003. Then he became a production assistant. After that, he was a segment producer, a writer, and now head writer. It's a practically unheard of trajectory for such a high-profile TV show, one which seems like something out of, yes, a movie. Recently, Kalan spoke with Co.Create about the kinds of choices he made, and general principles, that have helped him sustain such a high level of momentum in a career that requires a lot more than putting up numbers.
The summer before I worked at the show as an intern, I worked at Barnes and Noble, and I learned a lot there about the best ways to get ahead in a work situation. I created some rules for myself—not thinking like, ‘This is a secret formula that’s gonna get me hired,’ but more just, ‘This is the way a professional person operates.’ They’re pretty simple rules, like "Work as hard as you can" and "Always dress slightly nicer than you need to." I didn’t wear a suit to Barnes and Noble, but I did wear a tie, and that meant customers thought I was a manager and they listened to me more than the other booksellers. Later at The Daily Show, I didn’t wear a tie but I wore a button down shirt instead of a T-shirt.
I took any opportunity I could to show I could do creative thinking without butting in and doing inappropriate things. At one point, me and another PA took advantage of our familiarity of the place and how well we knew the system and the staff and we actually produced two pitch segments to show what we could do. We weren’t going to wait around for them to ask us, "Hey, do you wanna do a job that’s more creative?" We had to show them something. We shot these pitch segments with Ed Helms and Rob Corddry, who graciously agreed to be in them, and then we made copies on a videotape, and left it with a cover letter on the desk of the producers. Looking back now, it seems like a really passive aggressive move.
So much of it, rather than being competitive, is putting in the hard creative work of ‘What’s the best joke I can come up with?’ and ‘What’s the sharpest way I could word this?’ The people in charge should recognize when people are funny or not funny. It’s no guarantee, though, which is why the hard work is so necessary. I wish there was a comedy census that the government would send out that was like, ‘Write jokes on the following topics’ and then the government tallied the results, like ‘Here’s the top percentile of funny people in America. You should hire them.’ But unfortunately that program I think got shot down. Probably by the Republicans.
For about four years, I wrote a weekly humor column for the Metro newspaper, one of the free handout newspapers in New York that get forced into your hands whether you want it or not. I wanted to get as good as I could at writing so I wanted to write as much as I could. You kind of have to work out the bad material in you, and get it out so there’s good material getting in, and work out that brain muscle so that it’s stronger and it can do more.
One of my favorite things is having a side project that is totally unrelated to my job, but that complements it. When I was writing my newspaper column, I was not a writer yet at The Daily Show, so it felt like a different thing. And with the podcast, it’s about bad movies, and more often than not it devolves into childish nonsense and random gags. So there’s absolutely no topical news content to it whatsoever. I want something that’s fun and different enough from my main job that I’m using a different set of skills. And The Flop House uses almost no skills—it’s just talking off the top of my head about the stupidest things I can think of.
One thing that helps in comedy is being interested in a lot of things. Comedy is often about making connections, and if you’re interested in a lot of disparate things, it makes it that much easier because there’s more junk in your head to draw from. I read very eclectically, and a lot of that ends up being very useful in The Daily Show. I’ll be able to make references I otherwise wouldn’t think of if I wasn’t reading about Abraham Lincoln or watching Japanese monster movies. My brain is just set up in such a way that I have a very good memory for facts. And I have a very bad memory for personal experiences. My wife will ask me about a thing we did once and I’ll have no idea. But if you asked me about the backstory of the Red Ghost, a Fantastic Four villain who’s not particularly interesting, but he’s a Russian scientist who went into space with three monkeys and came back as a ghost and the monkeys all have powers, I can tell you all about that.
The more I move up, the more I pay attention to the news. When I was a PA, I paid pretty close attention, as a producer I paid close attention, as a writer I paid much closer attention, and now the news is something I’m involved with and thinking about even more so. I’m trying to think farther ahead than I did before. Each step, my perspective on the show has widened out. And so I’ve had to fill that by looking at the news from a wider and wider perspective, ingesting and digesting more of it.
Advancing in any job is about reliability. In this case, the people making the decision had 11 years of working with me, so I guess they had a pretty good sense of who I was and what I could do. So that’s my main piece of advice: Find the place you can work at for 11 years, and be young. Often people who are my age will ask, 'What’s the best way to get a job as a comedy writer?' And my personal experience is like, 'Start when you’re 20, and then have 10-11 years you can spend building your career at a place that stays on the air for 10-11 years because it’s a uniquely high-quality show.' That’s pretty much all you have to do. Easy. Anyone could do that.