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Posts Tagged ‘David Javerbaum’

Interview: David Javerbaum, “The Maya Rudolph Show”

DJDavid Javerbaum’s work on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, A Colbert Christmas and the Tony Awards has earned him two Writers Guild Awards, 13 Emmys, two Peabodys, a Grammy, the Thurber Prize and numerous other accolades. He was also a finalist on Teen Jeopardy and tweets for God.

WGAE Write On Blog was able to speak with the writer, lyricist and satirist while he’s working as the head writer of the highly-anticipated The Maya Rudolph Show, a comedy variety special airing on NBC, May 19th at 10pm.

As the head writer for The Maya Rudolph Show, what can viewers expect when they tune into this prime time variety special?

The driving force behind it is twofold: First, to bring back the variety show format in a guise somewhat like the ones used on programs like Carol Burnett and Sonny & Cher and Donny & Marie, but with a modern sensibility. And second, to create a show that highlights not only Maya’s extraordinary talents as a performer and singer and comedian, but her immense likeability as a television star. We also have an incredible cast working alongside her, including Fred Armisen, Kristen Bell, Sean Hayes and Andy Samberg, and a great 11-piece band led by Raphael Siddiq.

You’ve written the music and lyrics for some very memorable moments on television, from Neil Patrick Harris’s Tony Awards opening “Broadway: It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore!” to the Grammy-winning A Colbert Christmas special. What is it that you like about bringing musical theater into television and comedy specifically?

I have always been interested in writing musicals in general, and comedy lyrics in particular. I’ve kind of been on two parallel paths ever since I went to college at Harvard, where I was a writer for the Lampoon but also co-wrote two of the annual Hasty Pudding musicals. After graduation I spent two years getting a Masters in Musical Theater Composition from NYU. (Believe it or not, they give those.) I’ve always had these dual writing interests in both traditional television comedy and musicals, so naturally it’s great when a chance comes along to fuse the two in a single project. But it has to feel organic. I was at The Daily Show for 11 years and with a handful of exceptions I didn’t write any songs for it because it just wasn’t the appropriate aesthetic for the show, and that was fine.

Speaking of musical theater, The Last Testament: A Memoir by God, which you “helped” write and tweet, will now be joining the likes of The Book of Mormon and Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway in 2015. When you work on projects outside of television writing, what changes about your writing process and the way you craft jokes?

To some extent, it depends on the level of collaboration. At The Maya Rudolph Show, it was a real joy working with the other writers, Bashir Salahuddin & Diallo Riddle and Jeremy Beiler, as well as all the amazing performers and producers, collaborating with all of them was a real joy. When you’re writing a book, certainly, or writing a play, at least at first, it’s just you. The end result can be very satisfying, but it’s not as fun because it’s not as social.

Before you became head writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, you wrote for The Late Show with David Letterman. Can you tell me a bit about your memories of working on the show and your thoughts on Dave retiring from late night television.

Dave is obviously a legend and one of the greatest influences, if not the greatest, on anyone working in comedy today. I wrote for The Onion in the mid-nineties when it was just starting out and that got me the job at Letterman. I was there for a year, from 1998 through 1999. It was my first job that paid any real money, and I worked with a number of great writers – including Carter Bays and Craig Thomas who created How I Met Your Mother and are among the nicest people in the world. But I didn’t find the culture there particularly efficient or writer-friendly or fun. We were at the office for twelve, thirteen, fourteen hour days, five nights a week, which would have been fine if it seemed like we were accomplishing something that was helping the show, but it felt very inefficient. The Daily Show culture felt very different, in all the right ways.

What makes for a good writing culture or writing room?

A common focus on the task at hand. A recognition that you are working for both something else – the show as a whole – and in some cases someone else, such as Jon Stewart. An understanding that that person ultimately is the final authority and is responsible for the overall vision, but that within that framework, you have leeway to pursue your own ideas. A feeling that the focus is on creating productive work. And above all, just a group of really funny, friendly, quirky people who play well with others.

Are you excited that Stephen Colbert is taking over The Late Show.

I’m thrilled for him and equally thrilled for America that Colbert is going to have the opportunity. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are two incredible and wonderful people and bosses and collaborators. The Jon Stewart you see on TV is the real Jon, and I’m so happy for Stephen that now he’s going to have a chance to show America the real Stephen. Anyone who thinks ‘Well, he can’t bring his character with him, so what’s he going to do?” is just grossly underestimating how brilliant and professional he is. I mean, people loved watching him for almost a decade when he was playing an asshole. Wait till they see how much fun it is hanging out with him when he’s his real self.

Whose writing on film, television, online, etc is currently grabbing your attention?

Portlandia is unbelievable. Not only is the writing great, but they are going after subjects that no one else is. That to me should be every conservative’s favorite comedy show because it goes after liberalism in such a great way. Sort of the tenets and preciousness and sanctimony of all that liberalism. The Daily Show and Colbert are hilarious, as always. And Saturday Night Live is still the king of sketch comedy. Lorne is the EP of The Maya Rudolph Show, and some of the SNL writers came towards the end and helped us hone the material, and working with them was a real treat and honor because they’re really immersed in the world of rapid-fire sketch comedy. It was good to see how they do it, how Lorne does it. Watching Lorne at the rewrite session after dress was like watching a virtuoso at work.

You do a lot of rapid fire work, where the jokes are on TV that very night, but other projects, from your books to now writing for Broadway, are projects that stretch out over a longer period of time. Is there a different style of writing you put into each of these different types of projects?

It does feel different. To be honest, the rapid fire is more fun as it tends to be collaborative. And for me personally, I find that instincts and knee-jerk reactions are always the best ones. As soon as I start thinking about them afterwards it gets worse and worse and worse. For the long term things, the usual problem is sustaining motivation and energy and it can be tricky, but I like to make the longer term things as collaborative as possible by bringing in the editor or producer and getting their reactions, pro or con, so I can react off something. Working in a vacuum, and I’m certainly not alone in this, can be very difficult.

If you could write a scene for any fictional character from television or film history, who would it be?

I’m doing it as we speak. It’s called An Act of God, and it’ll be on Broadway next year.