Interview: Zhubin Parang (THE DAILY SHOW WITH TREVOR NOAH)
A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center and UCB Theatre, Zhubin has served on the WGAE’s Council, won two Emmy Awards and has been nominated for four Writers Guild Awards.
We spoke with Zhubin about how he got his start as a writer, the expanding universe of comedy news and life inside THE DAILY SHOW’s writing room.
How did you get your start as a writer?
I used to be a lawyer. I spent about four years being miserable doing corporate litigation. At the same time, I did a lot of improv comedy in New York, mostly at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. As I went up in the classes and in the house teams, I made a bunch of friends on the team. I met Hallie Haglund, who herself eventually became a writer on THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART. When a spot opened up, she recommended that I send in a submission. I did, and I was very lucky. It just so happened to be that my big joy and hobby of improv comedy really launched my new writing career.
Now, you’re the head writer on THE DAILY SHOW WITH TREVOR NOAH. Do you want to tell me a bit about what you find different between being a writer and being the head writer?
It’s really different. When you’re a writer, you usually are given a story to write and a headline for a particular issue in the news. You write out a first draft. It’s a lot of writing jokes around an issue, then handing them to the head writer and the executive producers and Trevor, saying “Hey, what do you guys think of this?”
As head writer, a lot of what you do is assigning, managing, delegating and then ultimately, editing and reviewing other people’s jokes. My job has gone from thinking on a joke level, to thinking more holistically, like “Would this joke fit here? How would this joke work better? Could I change this to make the joke tighter? What’s wrong with this joke? Is it a great joke, but the piece doesn’t allow for it?” You think more in terms of overall structure of a segment than you do on the nitty-gritty of a joke.
Can you tell me a bit about a typical day at THE DAILY SHOW?
Around 9:15 a.m., we’ll have a morning meeting to confirm whether the show’s going to be that same show we were thinking of last night, or if there’s some breaking news that’s going to require the show to be different. After we have the morning meeting, around 10:00 a.m., we assign writers new things. We meet around 11:30 a.m. to look at what the writers have presented. They’ll usually have an hour and a half to write a script for us to review. We’ll look at the scripts. We’ll think about where the jokes fit in, which jokes we like. Trevor will say what he thinks about what we should say and how we should say it, and any new jokes after reading the writer’s jokes.
From there, we’ll start revising the script, giving some parts back to the writers, and I’ll work on other parts. Some of the Executive Producers will take on writing parts, depending on the day and how much there is to do. Around 2:00 p.m., the first rehearsal draft goes in. We have another meeting to talk about the next day’s show. I meet with the writers, and we all talk about what the major stories are and what the writers want to do. Trevor’s in that meeting, and he ends up assigning out what he wants tomorrow’s show to be like. I assign those stories out to the writers. We have rehearsal at 4:00 p.m. Then we get in a room with Trevor and the writers who wrote in that show, and re-write and prepare to go for the show. We tape around 6:00 p.m. Quite a busy day.
So there’s no room for error.
It is amazing how much work there is always to be done. There’s always the next act, the next headline. As a writer, we were so good at specializing in the show. We really got everything down to a good efficient process. Now as I’m the Head Writer, honestly, it is like I’m climbing a mountain and constantly looking over the peak, seeing there’s so much more to this show than the jokes I was writing. Putting on a TV show is a huge production. I’m now getting a much better view of how much work and effort everybody on the show puts into it.
When and where do you do most of your writing?
We’ve usually split up a bunch of things for us all to go work on individually. As the Head Writer, earlier in the day, I go to my office and quickly bang out the draft on whatever piece it is I’m working on. Later in the day, during the re-write, after the rehearsal, it’s me and the Executive Producers and Trevor and the writers who are assigned to that day. It’s not even a conference room. It’s a very small bunker room. We sit there and project the script onto a screen on the wall and start blasting through jokes, seeing what worked in rehearsal, what didn’t, cutting this, adding this, going on new riffs and new joke ideas. The process is very collaborative. This usually happens when there is only an hour and a half until taping. We have a nice, fun bunker mentality…if those words all go together.
What is the most important aspect to creating a great show?
The joke is always supreme with us. It’s always, “What is the smart thing to say in the funniest way possible?” A lot of times that means some jokes are funny, but they don’t have the right flow with what we’re saying. They don’t quite match the general direction of the script. A lot of times in rewrite, once we get a sense of the general thrust of the script, we begin to see what jokes might be funny but don’t work. Our general rule is if the joke is really great but doesn’t fit or confuses the script, then it’s not worth keeping in. It’s more important for it to be clear and funny than to muddle things up with a bunch of jokes that might not go together well.
There’s a rhythm – especially to Trevor’s humor and his style of comedy – that we’re aiming for every day. That means that a lot of jokes that are really good don’t fit. In rehearsal, we see what doesn’t fit and what does.
How you feel THE DAILY SHOW WITH TREVOR NOAH fits into the comedy-news universe?
I think it’s all about Trevor’s perspective. I think he’s the most unique among all the new shows. He’s a young, South African stand-up comic who is seeing America for the first time. I think that gives us a really interesting voice. By the time I came onto the show, Jon was already a jaded man who was well-versed in how cynical American politics could be. It’s been very fun to see this bright, young, smart, energetic guy from South Africa come and begin to get jaded and broken by all the cynicism in American politics.
Trevor doesn’t actually seem jaded yet?
Not just yet, no. With the Senate holding up the Supreme Court Justice appointment, he’s been like “Wait, so, they can just not do this?” It’s like “Yeah, they are not supposed to, but they can.” Then he’ll ask, “Who’s supposed to stop these guys?” You tell him that no one can stop these guys and that it’s just what they do. Then you watch him struggle with it and respond, “That seems like a really bad way to run a government.”
Does that actually happen also behind the scenes? Is he like “Is this for real?”
Oh, all the time. All the time.
What are you watching now that you’d recommend to other people?
I watch all of THE DAILY SHOW old correspondent shows, and I love them all—Oliver, Colbert and Samantha Bee. I don’t know, sometimes people try to say that we’re competitors or something like that. I think it’s so good to see this kind of sharp, funny news commentary where nothing existed before. Jon really built this whole thing. Trevor’s adding this new perspective onto it. These other correspondents are adding their own things. It’s such a great thing to see. I love watching all of them. That takes up all the rest of my time, watching news satire all day when I’m not producing it myself. I think, aside from that, I also like YouTube clips of people falling off skateboards and hover boards. That’s always a staple.
Do you have any single joke or segment that you’re especially proud of as a writer?
I’ve brought this up before, but when I joined the show, I started to get obsessed with a Fox News show called THE FIVE. For a good two and a half years, I would watch every episode and would slowly build up all these story lines in my mind about what was going on with the characters. It became almost like a soap opera to me. It wasn’t even about what they were saying. It was about the relationships between them. After a couple years, I eventually wrote out a script with another writer for Samantha Bee to do. This avant-garde women’s show called “I watch The Five,” where Samantha descended into madness, spinning out this crazy soap opera story line based on this completely normal news commentary show. I think that was maybe my favorite thing. I turned an obsession of mine into a piece that let Samantha Bee do some really funny stuff. More than anything, I feel like that sketch was a piece of me put into the show.
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