September 9, 2009
A self-respecting Jew in Hollywood
Q & A With Rob Kutner
Rob Kutner is a veteran comedy writer for “The Daily Show” and author of the tongue-in-cheek “Apocalypse How” (Running Press, 2008). Having just returned to Los Angeles to work for “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien,” he talks about being an observant Jew in Hollywood, why George W. Bush is more fun to write about than President Obama and why he doesn’t believe you ever really “make it” in Hollywood.
Jewish Journal: You’ve just moved back after six years in New York working on “The Daily Show,” for which you won four Emmys. Why would anyone leave that behind?
Rob Kutner: It’s a very intense show, especially with the political events of the past few years, so I wanted to try something different.
JJ: But the news in Hollywood for the past year has pretty much spelled doom for network television. Why leave cable for network?
RK: Network is definitely in trouble, but I don’t think it’s going away. I feel that among the very few constants in the universe, “The Tonight Show” is one of those institutions that is decades long.
JJ: August ratings showed that Conan shows were falling behind David Letterman repeats. That’s got to hurt.
RK: I think when Conan starts taking off an item of clothing every night, that’ll bring up ratings.
JJ: Why should people watch Conan over Letterman?
RK: Wow, because, my baby needs food. Also, having worked for a Jew for the past six years, I think it’s time to give an Irish Catholic a voice in entertainment history. It’s like ‘same guilt, different channel.’
JJ: You’re one of the rare people who have attained real success in Hollywood and still manage to live an observant Jewish life.
RK: It’s not as hard as people think. Other than the fact that Hollywood is a godless wasteland, I really don’t have any trouble fitting in what I do. I still have the same spirit of irreverence toward any kind of authority — including religious authority — that any of my co-workers have.
JJ: Is it weird being one of the Jews in Hollywood who actually goes to shul?
RK: It’s not necessarily that weird.
JJ: Don’t you feel like you’re an anomaly?
RK: A little, but it cuts both ways. In New York, I had to stop going to the shul I went to because everyone there would come up to me and go, ‘Aren’t you “The Daily Show” guy?’
JJ: Do you ever feel self-conscious about your Judaism?
RK: There are so many weird people who work in comedy that if my particular quirk is enjoying my Jewish heritage, I don’t think that differentiates me.
JJ: How did Judaism become your thing?
RK: Ironically, I went to a [Evangelical] Christian school, and I ended up searching for my identity more vigorously.
JJ: Your bent on Judaism is celebratory, whereas many in Hollywood tend to hide their Jewishness. Where does that come from?
RK: I see a lot of stand-up comedians who identify themselves as Jewish, and it’s always this very negative thing, like, ‘Yeah, so I’m Jewish, so, like, my mom wants me to marry a Jewish girl, so, whatever, man.’ And they have nothing to say about it. I find that really irritating. Why even bother if you’re not going to engage with the tradition? For me, it’s just more fun to own it.
JJ: You wrote for “The Daily Show” for six years — during what most of its viewers will remember as its ‘it’ moment. What was that like?
RK: It was very strange, because when I applied for the job [in 2002] it wasn’t really there yet. And of course as soon as I arrived is when it became a good show.
JJ: What do you make of the debate about whether it is a comedy show or a news show?
RK: It definitely straddled the edge. There was a vacuum in hard-hitting news coverage leading up to the war in Iraq. Three 24-hour news channels were doing a lot of repeating rather than challenging, so even though [the show] wasn’t quite news, it was playing the role that the press wasn’t playing. What I’d like to think is that rather than giving people news, it got more people interested in news — a way of getting your head around the news with a spoonful of poop jokes.
JJ: Was it you writing all those Jewish jokes Jon Stewart spewed out every night?
RK: It was almost always the gentile writers who would write those.
JJ: How did it become too intense for you?
RK: Trying to digest the toxins of the Bush administration really takes a toll on you. And then, when Obama came into office, you’d call Obama out on something and be like, ‘Oh great. I sure showed the hopeful guy — who I voted for.’ It didn’t have quite the same excitement as taking on the guy that you never believed in.
JJ: Now that you’ve won awards and been a writer for two big TV shows, do you feel you’ve made it, or is there always pressure to do the next big thing?
RK: I’ve been very blessed to get the awards; there are few things in Hollywood that are tangible, because everything that we do is very ephemeral. I don’t think you really ever make it. I’m always looking for the next challenge.
JJ: And to think, you were once a columnist for The Jewish Journal.
RK: So you see where it can lead you.