The Daily Show With Jon Stewart And Me

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and Me

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart sneaked up on me. Not much for TV, I didn’t know what the hell it or he was.

When I came back to work in Manhattan, this time as an account executive for a tech support company, it was exciting to be selling to places like Martha Stewart/Omnimedia and Comedy Central. I dropped names like a shredded telephone directory in the wind with my friends still suffering in the cultural wastelands upstate.

Jon Stewart and The Daily Show were not in that league, then, even if he appeared on Comedy Central. I had never seen his show, and as he so often said, to laughs later on, Jon Stewart could be found in the morass of mediocrity known as ‘basic cable.’

Mediocre John and his team were not, and I’d soon be getting a peace of the action as they roared out of the crowd.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Deep Down On The West Side

In the summer of 2000, the network manager with whom I’d been working at Comedy Central, Joe Jahrsdorfer, asked me to take a look at The Daily Show. The line producers were unhappy with the tech support they were getting, and he thought my company could give them an upgrade. The Daily Show was run by an independent production company, Hello Doggie, but legally entangled with Comedy Central, and they trusted Joe for advice.

We met at Joe’s building, near Columbus Circle, and walked down Eighth Avenue, zigging westward on the side streets until we reached the small building that looked as much like a residence as a place of business. The ‘Daily Show With Jon Stewart’ sign above the entrance was the main distinction.

On our half-hour walk to get to one of the few locations in Manhattan where subways don’t go, I’d managed to avoid admitting that I’d never heard of The Daily Show or Jon Stewart. Now, here I was walking into the office of a line production honcho for a daily television comedy talk show, wondering how long I could withhold my confession.

Expect to be ushered into an efficient, fast moving office with an irritated manager dispatching nervous, exhausted assistants? Nothing could be farther from what I found in the digs of Georgia Pappas.

Georgia’s space more closely resembled an extremely comfortable living room than any office I saw before or since. The couches and chairs were soft and cozily arranged, and although Georgia occupied a mandatory desk with computer monitor atop, a television played daytime soaps continuously when I was there.

Her assistant, Pam, who I came to admire for her smarts and stamina, had a more office-like space in an area in the back. A working Mom recently returned from maternity leave, Pam was the steady anchor that helped Georgia avoid chaos.

‘I hope you don’t mind an interruption,’ Georgia said. ‘My dog walker will be coming in a few minutes.’

Come she did, and she was not alone. A happy troop of about a half-dozen big dogs, Georgia’s among them, soon altered the business environment with tail-wagging and a general sense of joy that only well cared for dogs can exude.

Tape and Baling Wire at The Daily Show With Jon Stewart

How can I best describe the state of technology at The Daily Show?

When Jon Stewart finally signed a big contract and Comedy Central decided to release them from the routine three-month contract near death sentence, Hello Doggie was able to replace their computers and switches. How to dispose of the mountain of equipment about to be discarded? I suggested they call 1-800-Smithsonian.

Georgia and Pam had performed miracles in keeping a computer network stable with only the niggardly funds from short term contracts for budget. The lifespan of basic cable shows was tenuous, and few were willing to invest much on a production that might permanently vanish before spring turned to summer, etc.

Although they had managed to squeeze out funds for a pair of new Compaq servers in the last quarter, Pam dealt with over fifty desktop PCs that were the oldest I’d seen. First generation Pentium processors soured the inventory, and deftly angling through the treacherous land of little money and big needs, she had economized by settling for the dreaded processors that made our engineers screw up their faces as though smelling poop for the first time: AMD. Traitorous in what then called a Wintel world.

Unintentionally scoring a good first impression, Jon Stewart, I noticed, had a decent computer, but not the best. Mo Rocca, I believe, deferred pain by using his own laptop, and I remember that Samantha Bee shared a PC that Jed Clampett might’ve handed down.

Taking over the facility and much of its in place infrastructure from WNET 13, Local Public Television, The Daily Show got to deal with what a nonprofit operation had been able to scrabble together. The cabling, which ran through two, previously residential buildings, was flawed, and almost nothing was redundant. The dreaded ‘single points of failure’ abounded.

I remember a subterranean voyage of discovery in which we entered a locked basement room where a server hummed away, a leftover from PBS, and nobody knew what it was doing. It was a sort of ghost there on the network (we assumed) bumming its way through the steady flow of nutrition. Doing something. Maybe.

Working Life On The Daily Show With Jon Stewart

It soon became apparent that the service company that blew their relationship with the Daily Show had dropped a pretty nice ball. Jon Stewart and company proved to be a pleasure to work with.

An important advantage for us was our willingness to adjust to hours much different than what we were accustomed to in our normal routine with law firms and small businesses. We had to be ready to take calls after 5:00 and to do the most serious work when it wouldn’t interfere with production.

The Daily Show staff made the adjustment easier by treating our techs as part of their family. Pam and Georgia were both quick to compliment and the core of the operation, Jon Stewart and his writers, future stars like Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and Ed Helms, were impressively without demanding egos, even during time crunches. I never remember a meltdown among them.

Our techs got to feel very comfortable hanging around the The Daily Show. Jon Stewart was a pleasant surprise, even after he became a star. Once, we dispatched Victorino to fix a problem with Jon’s computer. When the work was done, Jon asked Victorino for his autograph.

The marriage went so well, our team was also invited along to provide support when The Daily Show went on the road in election seasons.

Jon Stewart Emerges As A Star with The Daily Show

Much of Jon Stewart’s celebrity stems from the period immediately following the World Trade Center attacks, the aftermath of which he was able to out his home window, and the deft way he and his team emerged as genuine voices in a sea of cynicism that the Bush administrations news management stimulated. Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and Lewis Black were especially impressive, and their careers soared too.

In 2003, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart finally got a full year contract, and Jon received his first big contract as part of it. Not long after, Georgia Pappas contacted me to say that, at long last they had the money to rebuild the whole computer network.

Jon Stewart, Rolling Stone no. 960, October 2004
Jon Stewart, Rolling Stone no. 960, October 2004

The work was scheduled for a hiatus, but we had to first beat off a power push from Viacom, Comedy Central’s parent, which wanted to bring in Dell for the work. I already hated Dell. So, it wasn’t hard to get fired up for the challenge. Against the odds and with Georgia firmly on our side, we did finally beat out the heartless corporate giant as well as the K-Mart of the computer world.

Late one afternoon when we thought we had lost, Pam called and said, ‘Go to your fax machine.’ Page after page of purchase orders began emerging from the wires.

There was one minor snag, though. The writers, she explained, had decided to work through the hiatus. An odd decision, I thought. Comedy writers need a break too, and some of them have personal business they can only focus fully on during breaks. Although only Jon Stewart’s name shows up on Amazon as the author, the project they changed their routines for was The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book), an effort that included essays from most of the staff.

Times Change, Even With The Daily Show and Jon Stewart

Not too long after the emergence of The Daily Show as an unexpected ratings contender in the TV new business and the publication of their first book (I admit, I gave a signed copy to my wife as a gift, which we still have snugly in our bookshelf.) The internal pressures of fame led Jon Stewart to double the size of the operation. His Bus Boy Productions launched The Colbert Report, and to accommodate a growing staff, he moved his show to larger quarters a few blocks south and west where The Food Channel had been operating. Stephen Colbert’s brilliant show took over the old digs.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Rolling Stone no. 1013, November 2006
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Rolling Stone no. 1013, November 2006

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I remember walking around the emptied out building between shows and seeing the flattering portrait of George W. Bush that hung outside the writers’ room. It had been left behind.

And so had Georgia Pappas. Georgia was not long after replaced by Jill Katz, with Pam staying on.

But before that, Ben Karlin, executive producer then for The Daily Show and a man I thought of as Jon Stewart’s evil alter ego, changed my impression of The Daily Show and it’s atmosphere forever.

Ben Karlin Goes Berserk and Threatens Get Rid of Everyone Who Can Hear Him Scream

During the weeks running up to Jon Stewart’s first appearance hosting the Academy Awards, a strange network slow down began seriously affecting his ability to get two jobs done at once, putting together The Daily Show while handling back and forth scripts and other changes with Hollywood. Every afternoon, the network slowed to a pace slow enough that early experiences with AOL now seemed positively perky.

Then, it got worse.

Checking my voice messages while walking to my car after an appointment in Long Island, I listened to a series of them concerning The Daily Show. The most surprising one was left by Georgia Pappas.

‘I just wanted to let you know that I’m being fired and you’re being fired, if the computers aren’t running right within one hour.’

The short version of the story is that the nagging slowness had blossomed into a total internet shut down. Ben Karlin, not known for his calm demeanor or gentleness with others, went nuts, screaming at whoever would listen and threatening death to anyone who couldn’t pull a rabbit out of a hat.

The crisis, it turned out, had not been preventable by Georgia Pappas or any of us. The ever ready to keep you on your toes Time Warner Cable folks decided to have an area shut down in the middle of a workday. They forgot to make sure all he people who depended on them were informed. Oops!

Oh, and the daily slow down. That cleared up before we were able to figure it out. Our best guess was that, in the wide open, no rules Daily Show network, someone had set up his or her desktop as a server for video on Limewire, and downloads were flooding the bandwidth as students returned home from classes every day and turned on their computers.

Not long after that, Georgia was gone, and Ben Karlin soon followed.

The End of a Beautiful Relationship With The Daily Show and Jon Stewart

Respecting his privacy, I never met Jon Stewart formally. I passed him at the studio, but I never did what I sensed he preferred me not to, which was do the fan thing and gush my admiration in his place of business. That, I thought, would have been tacky, and he probably had plenty enough of it already. Good enough for me that the group he inspired had been, for years, a pleasure to be around.

I had serious bragging rights and still do. But…

Well, there’s often that, isn’t there? For a few years before my relationship with The Daily Show ended, I’d been aware of a quirky thing or two about Jon Stewart I won’t talk about here. But it’s enough to know that he kept Ben Karlin, described by himself as an “asshole” and “difficult,” as executive producer. Karlin is brilliant, but does that excuse…

Anyway, that blush off the rose, it was easier to live with moving on after The Daily Show and The Colbert Report grew large enough to hire their own full time staff. It was a financial loss, but a wise decision for them.

By then, the years had given me time to build up a decent client base, many of them bigger and more lucrative than The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Bigger and more lucrative, but none so dynamic or as close to the front of the pack as Comedy Central’s reigning champion.