Adam Lowitt Comedian
Tell me about the process of creating an episode of The Daily Show. Do you arrive in the morning and review taped cable news from the night before? Sit down with Jon and the writers and brainstorm jokes?
We have two meetings a day, one at nine in the morning and then another at 3pm. It’s a bunch of producers, writers, and Jon watching footage, shouting out jokes, and having a conversation about what our take is and then how to communicate that in a comedic fashion. The footage has been culled together by our studio production department either earlier that morning or from the day before. Once that meeting breaks, the ball begins to roll quite fast. Producers are in edits, writers are working on headlines, our graphics department is constructing tons of stuff. It’s a very well-oiled machine. The rest of the day is spent reshaping and sharpening everything. So much quality material never makes it on the air for various reasons, but you don’t even have time to lament because tomorrow you get to do it all over again.
Have there been occasions where you poked fun at something you ultimately regretted having done so?
Jon doesn’t lob out criticism from an empty place. The scripts go through so many rewrites that whatever is being said is something he feels strongly about. Personally, I think it swings the other way more often where I felt we let someone or some group off easy because we didn’t have enough time in our show. Overall, most of the people we call out for being dicks really deserve it.
So what exactly does the supervising producer do?
Supervising Producer means different things at different shows, but at The Daily Show I oversee the studio production department which consists of seven producers and two editors. I also help with the script during the day. It’s mostly managing a production process because we have multiple projects going on at once. I’ve been at the show for over eight years now, so I have a pretty good idea of how much time it takes to get something on the air, what Jon is going to want out of a certain piece, and who needs to know what when — whether it’s adding a voice-over and sound effect to make a joke hit harder or working with the director and control room to make a pre-taped segment really kill. I’m also a bit of a middle man between Jon, the executive producers, and my room. The producers pour over footage and formulate pitches everyday. They work with our writers to make sure they have the best stuff to work off, and with our editors to squeeze as much of an idea out of a clip as possible. Cable news hosts and pundits have become our athletes at the show. We live and die by their coverage and I feel like I should be trading their playing cards sometimes. I ran into Shep Smith from Fox News at the Denver airport two years ago and totally bugged out. We chatted for a bit, and he couldn’t have been nicer. He’s probably the sanest person on that network, and so much of me wants to shake him and tell him to get the hell out of there.
Outside of The Daily Show, you’re a working comic. How do you come to your material? I’ve read that Demetri Martin starts taking apart a fragmented thought in his head until he’s reworked it enough to find the joke. Is that a common thing?
I think all comedians are pretty different. Some guys don’t write as much; they just work out a premise onstage while others type up all their material. Demetri is one of the most disciplined guys I know who is really methodical with his process. It’s pretty rad to be around. Sometimes I wish that I wrote that way, but it’s just not my style. He did inspire me to get a bigger notepad though.
I try and write a lot because you instantly feel the benefit. It’s hard to not improve at something by practicing more. I have a lot of material I came up with while trying to punch up something else and staring into space. If I wasn’t in that park with a pen for an hour, I wouldn’t have that new few minutes of material. I’ve been much more into storytelling the last few years, so I use most of my real life on stage. Once I was able to get over the fear of talking about embarrassing shit up there, it got to be way easier and a lot more fun. It’s a nice afterthought when really frustrating things happen, and then knowing that there may be something there to talk about that people will find funny.
You mention storytelling, as distinct perhaps from straight joke-telling. Are there two different “schools” of comedy?
That’s definitely an easy way to categorize it, but ultimately not really accurate. There are people that sway heavier to one side or the other, but I think the great comics can and do both. Dave Attell is a joke machine and one of my favorite comics to watch, but he tells stories too. Another amazing guy is The Daily Show “correspondent” John Oliver. He weaves these great long stories with tons of jokes inside, so it’s usually a healthy combination. Louis CK is another master at both.
Can you talk about comedy as social commentary? This seems to be especially important to a program like The Daily Show.
Comedy is all social commentary. It has to be. It’s just what part of society you feel like commenting on at the time. I don’t think anyone would dispute that Seinfeld is as much of a social commentator as Jon Stewart or Richard Pryor or Steven Wright. But they’re also all speaking to something that makes people laugh.
Do you have a larger agenda when you perform, or is it enough to just have the audience laughing, locked into a sort of intuitive emotion plane with you on stage?
As far as just making the audience laugh, I want them to laugh at something I’m proud of — which I am completely aware comes off as a pretentious comment for a guy with jokes about texting and my dating life. But I know what’s hack for me and what isn’t. In earlier years, there were definitely jokes I told onstage that I was ashamed of. But I didn’t really know how to get out of that rut — stupid jokes about things I saw online or punchlines you could see coming a mile away. I still have an occasional one that tries to creep in, and I have to make a conscious choice to leave it out. Over the years as I’ve gotten more material I felt better about, all of the filler just fell by the side. Everyone goes through that. The agenda now is, as you say, the intuitive emotional plane, plus the laughter. In other words, if I do a set where I feel like I connected but got no laughs, I feel like I just performed a poetry slam.
Can you talk about the comedy showcase you host at Pianos in the Lower East Side?
It Is It was born out of frustration. Getting stage time is all any comic ever wants when they start. I was having a hard time getting up in NYC, maybe only a couple times a month, and I really looked forward to these shows. If anything ever fell through I took it way harder than one should. My friend Greg Johnson used to run a show on Friday nights at this bar Rififi in the East Village, and I was supposed to do it with John Oliver and my buddy Rory Albanese. The bar was doing construction, so they canceled the gig and I just got a little fed up. Here were four comics, one with a pretty big following, and if we could just find a space, I bet thirty or so people would show up and listen to us work stuff out. Hopefully laugh a bit too. I called Pianos that day and put the wheels in motion, so I’d have a place where I was in control.
When comics are working stuff out, some of that new material can bomb. Is this something you think about as a host? Like, you know that bombing is sometimes necessary, but it’s okay — It Is It is a place where that can happen.
I don’t charge at my show which means I can’t pay the comics. Everyone is there to improve their craft. It’s also usually a younger crew of people who are still really hungry which is a great energy to be around. Overall, I hope it’s a space that comics enjoy coming back to and the audience is glad they trucked down to the Lower East Side for. I try and book comics that have a good track record, just because I want the audience to tell their friends about the show and have them keep coming back. It’s hard for them to do that if they’ve sat through four people tanking for an hour. But we all bomb. I’m still haunted by bad sets from years ago. Those are the ones that keep me writing so I can avoid that feeling at all costs. The tough part is, I’ve become that prick from a few years ago that wouldn’t put me on stage.
Can you talk about what specifically defines a comic, or comedy, as distinct from just being funny? Is being a comic defined by an experiential set of perimeters — like writing jokes, getting on stage, making audiences of strangers laugh — or is it also a sort of way of living, of perceiving the world?
This is where it gets touchy for me because I bet there’s a ton of comics out there that would say I’m not a real comedian. I’m not full-time, on the road, headlining every weekend. And I’d agree with them on that point. Seinfeld has a great line about how being a comedian is not doing twenty minute sets; it’s about being the show, the whole hour plus. When you are the evening’s entertainment, then you can say you’re a comic. In the past couple of years I’ve made that leap, so I’d like to think that I’m in that category. But I can’t pair myself with the lifestyle that those folks have. That being said, I think being a real comic ultimately comes down to confidence, motivation, and persistence. You have to take the enjoyment of making your friends laugh, or the enjoyment you get out of writing funny ideas down in a notebook, and take it to the next level. It’s a pretty audacious step when you think about it. It’s also about embracing one’s over-analytical nature and being stoked on it. So it comes down to that want. Some people got it, some people don’t. The way of perceiving the world is just a part of it, because that’s essential for all writers, but comics take that leap to get on stage with their ideas.