Jay Katsir ’04 is a head writer for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. From 2004 to 2015 he also wrote for the Colbert Report, a satirical news show starring Colbert as a “blowhard conservative-pundit.” He spoke to The Daily Princetonian about what it’s like to write jokes and produce a show during a global pandemic.
The Daily Princetonian: When you were in college, you dabbled in serious writing. You wrote poetry and short stories for the [Nassau Weekly], and your senior thesis was a novel. But when were you first drawn to comedy writing?
Jay Katsir: I forgot there's a record of all that stuff. Yes, I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn't know what kind. I was very grateful for the creative writing faculty and resources and opportunities at Princeton while I was there. And I was also writing for some of the other more comedy-friendly campus organizations, like the Nassau Weekly. It was pretty open and free, what you could write there, and I really loved working with all those people. [I was also] writing sketches for the Triangle club.
I wanted to know what it was like to be a professional comedy writer, even from the perspective of curiosity — what the day and the responsibilities were. And for the first year or two after I started, I mostly looked at it through that lens: like, “This is what you do when you’re a professional comedy writer — the thing that's happening now!” I had a serendipitous path to comedy, and anybody who does end up here has an idiosyncratic, difficult-to-replicate series of events that lead to it.
DP: You made a Class Day speech in 2004 that helped you snag a writing job on the Colbert Report. What's your memory of that day?
JK: My memory of that day has been retold many times, because that was such a remarkable and fortunate experience. Leading up to the ceremony they had an open call for students to submit speeches for Class Day. They didn't have to have any sort of academic credentials. And so I wrote a speech. One of my motivations was that Jon Stewart was our speaker... I had a line in [my speech] that was kind of brazen, asking for a job, but I'd never rehearsed it, and I never put it in my audition. I just kind of held it aside, to be deployed if it seemed like a bad good idea, or a good bad idea.
It was a huge crowd. I’d gotten a lot of help and coaching from my friends and from my girlfriend at the time — who is now my wife — on the delivery, because I don’t do a lot of performance stuff. I'm not so comfortable with that. But I remember getting good laughs, and it felt good. I also remember thinking that — because I'd say half or more of the speech was recycled from stuff that I'd written like for the Nass or other bits that I’d done on campus over the years — I remember thinking, nobody read anything that I ever wrote. [laughs]
DP: While you were a student here, you wrote that your family gave you a lot of material for your comedy. Are they inspiring even more material now that you're all cooped up together?
JK: Yes. I mean, they’re not the same family members, because now I’m the one giving neuroses to the next generation. But you know, it’s hard. We have three kids: they’re two, six, and nine. They’re all in remote school and we’re living in my father-in-law’s house in Ohio. I'm working full time; my wife’s working full time.
I actually worked on a piece for the show where I tried to both express the experience of being home with everybody and also to apologize to my colleagues for what I've been like during the pandemic. And so I worked on this piece that aired in October about living at home with the kids. I was very happy that the show allowed me to use its resources to make it.
DP: Tell me about your process for writing at home. How do you work through mental blocks?
JK: We’re still on a modified version of the schedule we have in the office. A lot of that is deadlines — you know, we have a script due at this time of day. That tends to clear out the blockages. After you’ve been writing long enough, you know what your time frame is and what you can produce during that time. Today, for example, was a day where I ended up working on a piece by myself, even though usually everything is collaborative.
It also happened to be a moment where there was finally quiet in the house. We had one nap. And with the other two kids, we finally broke down and let them follow their full day of screens on the computer with a full day of screen time on the TV. There was a nice period to concentrate.
DP: In a Vanity Fair interview that came out in December, Colbert said that your morning meetings on Zoom have become “a form of therapy.” Maybe you could expand on that. How does a writer's meeting look and sound during pandemic?
JK: … Stephen is an incredibly eloquent synthesizer of human behavior. And absolutely, everyone is lonely right now. It doesn't always feel less alienating when you're in a gallery-view zoom meeting where people are trying not to interrupt each other and attempting to collectively formulate a reaction to the news. But you do have the connection of being able to laugh about the same things in the same way. It also helps you formulate your own feelings to hear other people formulate theirs, because a lot of our jokes are based on a particular emotional reaction to whatever the new story is.
I mean, I also do real therapy, and I'm glad that I don’t have to constantly say, “I’m sorry. No, you go first.”
DP: I've never been a mile near a writer’s room, but I assume that during normal times there’s a lot of laughter and organically reacting to other people’s jokes. It must be hard to recreate that atmosphere digitally.
JK: It is, because you want to be respectful. Although you want to be on mute, you also want to have the energy of laughter that also builds to other ideas. That open playful environment gets you the best comedy, I think.
I think we’ve adjusted to a more mannered turn-taking. One of the other writers was talking about how Zoom, by its nature, formalizes everything: you send someone an invitation to have a conversation with you. We try to penetrate beyond that. And there are days where it feels like people can be vulnerable enough to express themselves in a group meeting.
DP: On the Colbert Report, there also used to be a three-part rating system for how shows went. There were “yays,” “solid shows,” and “wrenches to the head.” How often are you achieving what you want with A Late Show during the pandemic?
JK: As far as I know, that system no longer exists. That system was a whiteboard with just three symbols and they would add up tally marks.
Stephen and all the people who do the technical production have done amazing work to create the show under these conditions. I think that’s really an achievement to be proud of. We’ve done the show in a number of different ways since we went remote. Now it feels like we have a solid, smooth and predictable routine for making it, which in itself is amazing. I'm just happy and grateful that we've been able to keep doing it.
DP: Over the past eight months Stephen has delivered his monologue and interviewed guests all while sitting down, dressed casually. One time he was even in a bathtub. These fireside chats are more relaxed than when he was orating on stage in a suit, especially now that you can hear his family laughing off camera. How does this new atmosphere affect the rhythm of your jokes?
JK: We've gotten a lot more comfortable with the different rhythm. With the live show, we were completely dependent on harvesting an audience reaction. We tried to predict how they would react and how to write jokes off of that reaction.
The jokes can have a few more joints to them now. They can be a little bit more specific or a little bit stranger because we don't have to elicit an immediate reaction from people sitting 200 seats back. That’s allowed us to play around in ways that we couldn’t in the theater. Obviously, in the theater too, we could play around in ways that are impossible under these production conditions.
Rhythmically, it’s all Stephen's comfort level of how he likes to deliver the show. And I think he’s done an awesome job of finding a completely new rhythm.
DP: One of the most interesting parts of the Vanity Fair profile is that Colbert feels more comfortable telling darker or more emotional jokes without a live audience. If he told those same jokes on stage with a full theatre, that would maybe kill the vibe.
JK: You know the kind of joke that might make a live audience make noises of discomfort or mild pain? You don't hear those sounds now. You usually don’t end up hearing them on TV, either, because those jokes are often cut in the final edit.
DP: When jokes fail, do you usually know why they failed afterwards?
JK: Uh, yeah. Probably because I’m inadequate. It has something to do with my parents’ divorce.
DP: Ha! I’ll re-frame that: How do you get feedback on your jokes without the benefit of a live audience?
JK: The feedback has become [the other writers] — which is why we’re fortunate to have so many great, funny writers that are coming together. If you can make each other laugh, engage with an idea and then play around with it, then that usually translates into success on the show. Instead of considering necessarily how a large live audience would react to a joke, it's now a kind of a vacuum — like, do we think this is funny? Do we believe in it?
That’s the nice thing about our show: we have a collaborative system throughout the day of trying to make the person who’s editing your script laugh enough that it advances to the next level and so on. Ultimately, Stephen decides, because he’s the one who is in charge of the final rewrite every day.
DP: In addition to serving as one of the Late Show’s head writers, you also recently became a supervising producer. What have been some of the toughest production challenges?
JK: Back in the office building they had to completely redesign the building’s interior to meet the city protocols for letting people back in. Starting from that level is an unprecedented challenge that I don't know that much about.
The band also can’t be together, so they’re having to remotely mix everybody. We were talking about, ‘What would be the possibility of getting the band outdoors? They could do those amazing ‘love riots’ where they walk down the street — some version of that, spaced out.’ Even that has a lot of restrictions. Horns are particularly dangerous, so they don’t want people to be close to horns. There are more restrictions on a brass section than you’d have on the piano.
DP: In an interview with Haaretz in 2012, you said that writing comedy helped you channel your anger about the news into a productive direction. How, if at all, has comedy helped you cope with the news of the past eight months?
JK: I have always been grateful that my job entailed trying to process my feelings into language and construct them as jokes. I’ve been particularly fortunate to be able to do that under these conditions, with the people that I have been doing it with, and still having a job during this time. Jokes do come to you when you’re thinking about the world. Maybe when you’re on a walk, or a bike ride, or in the shower. I am lucky enough that I can try to use that professionally… I can double bill for shower time.
DP: One of my favorite moments of the show this year was when Colbert was interviewing Daniel Radcliffe. At first the sound didn’t work, so Colbert started singing a psychedelic song called “What Condition My Condition Was In.” I don't know if you’ve seen that.
JK: Oh, yeah, I did. The pandemic interviews have been pretty special, because the artifice of selling a project is gone. There’s much more of a conversation with almost everybody.
DP: When you return to the office at some point — hopefully sooner rather than later — what’s the show of your dreams? What would that look like? You'll see that this question is actually taken from the Vanity Fair article.
JK: Before I answer this, let me really think about my own personal feelings about it.
[Jay begins to quote Stephen’s answer verbatim from the article.] The first thing I picture is I have an audience. And Jon Batiste and the Stay Human Band are there, and our offices are buzzing every day and we’re all passing each other in the halls and saying, ‘Did you see this story?’ and ‘How was your weekend?’ And we’re laughing and we’re hugging and we’re friends hanging out, which is what we are. There might be echoes of [Trump]. He might be something that never fully goes away. He’s like herpes — there might be blossomings of him where we have to take Valtrex. We have to take the Valtrex to keep the Trump blossoms down.
That should probably cover it. I do think, though, that it’s gonna be an explosion of joy. It’ll be amazing to just have that fear not be there… And I think everyone in the whole world is looking forward to that, except for the places that did a good job. [laughs] They’ve been doing that for months. Everyone else in the world is really, really looking forward to being able to hang with other people and make noise, you know?