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So What Do You Do, Josh Lieb, Executive Producer, The Daily Show?

The Emmy Award-winning EP takes us behind the scenes of the fake newsroom

By Amanda Ernst - October 21, 2009
Josh Lieb, executive producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, has a dream job. But when the writers' strike halted production of the Emmy Award-winning Comedy Central show, Lieb decided to use his time off to pursue another dream: writing a young adult fiction novel.

"I've always wanted to write a book, but it always felt like cheating on my job," Lieb said. "Then we went on strike and I suddenly had months off and I had no income, and I was married and I had an apartment and dogs, and my wife and I were going to have a child. Writing a book sounded practical if I could do it."

With a clever title and a few sample chapters, Lieb sold his book proposal and the movie rights to I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President, which hit shelves on October 13, for around $1 million combined. That's a big chunk of change, but still not enough to make him as rich as his book's 7th grade protagonist. Now Lieb is a pretty busy man, promoting his riotous satire, which could be the childhood portrait of a James Bond villain -- a fat middle schooler who is actually a rich evil genius bent on controlling the world, though he has trouble even making friends.

Lieb's also working on the screenplay of the movie and outlining the sequel, I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Take You to the 8th Grade Formal, all while working at the funniest fake news show on TV. Still, the very busy Lieb is ever so humble about his success -- as evidenced by his answer when we asked him where he keeps the heap of Emmys he's amassed while working at The Daily Show.

"Mine are stuffed into the kitchen pantry right now," he said. "They're a weird thing. You don't really know what to do with them. It feels very odd to display them in any way. I like them, I guess, but I don't want to look at them every day, and I don't want to lord them over anyone because I won them in collaboration with other people."

Name: Josh Lieb
Position: Executive producer of The Daily Show
Resume: Writer for The Jon Stewart Show; writer and producer for sitcom Newsradio; joined The Daily Show in January 2007.
Birthdate: June 4, 1972
Hometown: Columbia, S.C.
Education: Harvard University
Marital status: Married with one son and a second baby on the way
First section of the Sunday New York Times: "'Week In Review,' the sports page for college football games, then the magazine."
Favorite TV show: "The Daily Show is my No. 1 favorite show of all time, but otherwise right now I don't watch a ton of TV because it would be all-consuming. The Andy Griffith Show and Sanford and Son, which aired in a block every night when I went to sleep as a kid, were very influential for me. They are two fine, very human sitcoms. That charm and hilarity are all you really need."
Guilty pleasure: "Whiskey sometimes. I like to watch football games, and a friend talked me into joining a fantasty football league."
Last book read: The Light That Failed by Rudyard Kipling. "I also read really bad books from the airport when I fly. That would be another guilty pleasure."

What projects are you working on right now?
The main thing is The Daily Show, which is a full-time job. But I'm also promoting the book, I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President, which [came] out October 13, and I'm very excited about that. I'm also working on the screenplay of the book for Warner Brothers, and hopefully that will start filming some time next year. I'm also working, only in the notes on the moment, on the sequel to I Am a Genius, which my publisher Razorbill is being very patient about. And The Daily Show is also collaborating on another book, which is also a lot of work, so I'm spinning a lot of plates right now.

What is this new Daily Show book?
I don't even know if it's been announced, so I'm almost afraid to talk about it. But I can say that if you liked America the Book, you'll love this one.

Tell me about your work on The Daily Show. What's a typical day like for you?
I get into work around 9:30 [a.m.] and we'll have a meeting with some of the writers and some of the people from the studio department -- who are the people who put together the montages -- and our head researcher. And then Jon [Stewart] will usually join us, and we'll talk about what is in the news today and who we are planning to have on the show that day. The studio department people will show us clips of things that they've seen or might be working on. Head writer Steve Bodow will dole out the assignments to the gathered writers, [and] then we're in meetings for hours with all the departments about the day ahead.

"Jon [Stewart] is a real stickler for the montages. We obviously take a great deal of pride in them, because they really do have so much impact in a very short time, and they can be very funny."

Later, me, Rory Albanese, Steve Bodow, Kahane Corn, Jim Margolis and some of the other producers will meet with Jon again to talk about what's going on that day. We complain about our families a lot. Then the scripts start coming in. We start reading scripts, picking jokes, asking writers to do rewrites or fold ourselves into groups of writers to do rewrites. We'll go into a conference room with a projector and put the script up on a big screen, and three or four of us will sit in a room and go through it. We'll bring in Jon, and he'll sign off on things.

In the early afternoon, there's a lot of prep to be done before rehearsal: mock ups to be made, clips to be pulled, revisions to the script. Around 4 or 4:15 [p.m.], we'll rehearse the show and we see what works. And then we'll make notes and go off and Jon, me, Rory and a writers' assistant and script supervisor will sit in a room and do a script rewrite. The show is at 6, and hopefully we're done by 7. I usually get out of the office around 7:30. There are people who work much worse hours, and I've been in jobs where I went to work on Monday and came home on Wednesday. I am grateful to have a job that allows to have me a family life.

The show has become known for its video montages. How do they come together?
It's kind of magical. It's a brilliant collaborative mind that makes it all happen. We have a lot of really savvy people working at the show who all watch all these disparate shows. We have this amazing, talented, very funny writer who watches Fox and Friends every morning. Nobody asked him to do it, but he does and he'll come in and tell us if something funny happened that morning. Then we have an entire department, the studio department, devoted to recording every channel and keeping track of it. Jon is a real stickler for the montages. We obviously take a great deal of pride in them, because they really do have so much impact in a very short time, and they can be very funny.

With so much to get done every day, what is the work environment like?
You find that a lot of comedy shows can be a caustic environment, and there is some of that here, but this is definitely the nicest environment I've ever worked in. I think that comes from the top, from Jon. I remember on my first day on the job, I went to the break room and there was a sign on the fridge that said, "If you don't clean up after yourself, who will?" And I was reaching in to the pocket to write "Your mother" on it with my pen, and I looked at this paper and it was obviously aged and yellowed and nobody had written graffiti on it yet. I realized I would have been the guy who would do that his first day, so I decided against it. It's a rare environment, but it's kind of a safe haven.

The Daily Show just won its seventh Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series, and you also won the Outstanding Writing award this year. Does it ever get old?
Not for me, but I'm comparatively new here. The best writing award this year was very gratifying. Winning Emmys is great. If any of those shows that were nominated win, it's well-deserved and no one can feel cheated. But it's definitely nice to bring home that award. I don't think Jon really cares one way or another, but to everyone else it's absolutely gratifying to get a nice shiny trophy.

"I came up with the title and impressed myself with what a good title it was. Then the book wrote itself."

How did you come up with the idea for I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President?
I wish I could say there was a eureka moment when I saw a fat kid on the street and said, "He looks dumb, I wonder if he's faking." I love young adult books, not only when I was growing up but still to this day. I love the power fantasy element of them -- like in Harry Potter, for example -- when someone unexpected is actually so powerful. So many of the characters we love as kids we love because he is a super detective, or she is super strong and can eat 1,000 hamburgers. [The book's main character] Oliver fits right into that wheelhouse. I came up with the title and impressed myself with what a good title it was. Then the book wrote itself.

I really wrote the book not just for young adults but for people like you and me who continue to read young adult novels. I wrote it like the books that I really remember and love, the ones that really challenged me. I didn't know what they were talking about, but they didn't impede me, books that made me feel like I was being led into an adult conversation and I felt like that was what I would be talking about in five or 10 years. I wrote one of those books. It has some more complex ideas in there that adult readers will enjoy. So I can see college kids walking around with a copy of it.

"All I know is that if I hand something in, I should get a check for it. If I was good with money, I wouldn't be a writer."

Your book deal and movie option made big news last year. Is it true that you're going to make over $1 million from this?
I don't think that's accurate. I know I didn't sell the book for half a million dollars, but if everything follows right and the movie gets made and I get full credit, I think it could add up to $1 million or so. God willing that will happen, but there are so many slips that can happen in the movie world. All the numbers meld together to mush in my head and all I know is that if I hand something in, I should get a check for it. If I was good with money, I wouldn't be a writer.

The big news in the TV comedy world right now has been the David Letterman scandal. What was your reaction to the news?
It looks like he handled it magnificently. It looks like the worst situation imaginable. Now, of course, we've got 100 tabloids that are going to dig into it, and we're going to hear all the sordid details about it over the next six months. But he did all he could to take the guts out of it, and I applaud him for that. As someone who has a real relationship with his audience, it was the right forum for him to share personal things with the audience on his show.

Amanda Ernst is editor of FishbowlNY.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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