As told to Corinne Burgermeister, Lifestyle Editor
Ben Karlin was once a UW-Madison student living in the dorms, walking up Bascom Hill and navigating the maze that is Vilas Hall just like so many of us. But he has since gone on to become an eight-time Emmy Award-winning writer and producer for popular programs such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report and Modern Family.
I sat down with him during his visit to Madison last fall.
This is a day in the life of Ben Karlin:
My favorite breakfast, which I try to eat several times a week, is whole wheat toast with slices of avocado, salt and lemon. You take the toast, slice the avocado—the avocados in California are unbelievable—you take some nice coarse salt and you put it right on there and squeeze a lemon over it. It’s the best.
I used to not have a very routine life, but a couple things will make your life very routine. One of them is children, so that kind of dictates a lot of the framework of your day, because you want to spend as much time as possible with your children. And in my particular situation (I’m recently divorced), when I get up, the first thing I do right now during a weekday is to go pick up my kids.
I either take the older one to school and I take the younger one to the park, because it’s easier for me to see them in the morning. I work so late that it’s their bedtime by the time I’m done, so it’s not guaranteed that I Get to see them at night. The morning is my cherished time with my kids. Every morning during the week I’m with one or both of my kids.
After I drop them off at school or back at the house, I go into work. I have a pretty good work schedule: I usually work 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., sometimes a little earlier, a little later. But a lot of comedy writing, especially in television, the hours can be pretty brutal.
The philosophy that these guys have that are running the show is that a lot of the stories come from your home life, and if they’re keeping you at work all the time, you have no home life.
So they want you to go home, have dinner with your family or your friends, or do whatever you do so you can come back and talk about it in the writers’ room… And that’s what generates our stories, our own experiences, so that’s a really nice thing.
When we start the day we’re all sitting around the table getting caught up with each other, talking about the news, and that kind of transitions to our writing process. We’re doing usually one of two things. We’re either breaking stories, which is coming up with stories that we’re going to put on the show, or we’re rewriting scripts. Those are our two tasks. Sometimes, you’re off working on your own scripts because every writer writes several scripts.
If we’re story breaking, a group of us will be sitting around the table talking about what’s going on, what’s funny in our lives, characters in the show that we want to explore. If we’re rewriting, we’ve got the script up on the screen and we’re pitching jokes and fixing it. It’s extremely collaborative. Everything is done in groups and you kind of build off each other and you go off on little tangents and it’s a creative group work. We do that for a couple hours in the morning and we break for lunch around 1 p.m.
We usually order in and sometimes it’s catered. They’ll bring in Chinese or Mexican. Usually people try to eat healthy. It’s California, so salads and soups, sandwiches. Really, most people eat salads because you’re sitting around so much and it’s mentally taxing. There’s a lot of grazing that goes on—we have a huge snack area with nuts and chips and stuff so you’ve got to really watch what you’re eating. It’s very easy to be eating all day. There’s fruit and yogurt and other healthy things, but when you’re in that place you’re just grabbing chips and nuts.
My go-to is almonds. I eat so many almonds. I can’t believe how many almonds I eat. And then we have these chocolate blueberries and acai berries that are really delicious and addictive. But I really try to limit myself because you can spend the whole day eating.
[During lunch] we all sit around the table talking, trying not to talk too much about work because it’s break, and then we’ll usually take a walk together around the [Fox] lot. We take a walk just to kind of stretch the legs, get some air—it’s such a weird job because it’s all mental. There’s very little physical, it’s just mentally thinking hard about how to make this show good and funny and the solutions lie inside your head. It’s not like you’re building a chair. You’re just figuring out jokes and stories and character arcs, so it’s important to mix up your physical activity so it doesn’t become monotonous.
Exercising has been difficult lately, but I usually try to exercise three times a week, and it’s usually running on the beach. There’s a beach path in Venice that runs all the way to Santa Monica and down to Marina del Rey, so I usually try to do that, and I ride my bike a lot as well.
We come back around 2:15 p.m. and we’re back in the room for the next three to four hours, working until 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m., sometimes 7 p.m. if we’re on deadline for a rewrite. We’ll work as long as we need to. But again, it’s a really well-run show, and we don’t work crazy hours.
Every now and then we’ll screen a cut of an episode that’s upcoming, and we’ll give notes. When it’s your episode, you’re going to all the production meetings, all the casting sessions, all the location photos, wardrobe… everything that goes into making it. When it’s your episode, you’re out of the room doing those other tasks.
You’re more attached to [your episodes] because you wrote a good portion of them. But even when your write for a show like Modern Family, it’s really only if you’re lucky that half of your jokes or writing is in there, because it’s really written collaboratively. It’s not the type of thing that’s big on authorship. It’s a group process and everyone lends their expertise.
For many of my episodes, the best jokes in there aren’t mine, and for other episodes, the best jokes are mine.
I’m usually out of there by, let’s say, 6:30 p.m., and then I will race home to see the kids before bed. I live on the west side of Los Angeles in Venice. I’m either getting home to try to see the kids or I’m going our to dinner or drinks or screenings; friends have stand up shows or showcases or music. There’s all sorts. L.A. is a huge, awesome, culturally dynamic place. There’s always things to do… Every movie that has any kind of theatrical release has a release in L.A. and small movies that are just unique to L.A. and New York. I love going to the movies.
And then I’m home and boom. Bed. Wake up and do it again.