A rabbi runs for Congress. It sounds like the perfect setup for a joke, and, as far as Adam Chodikoff is concerned, it is. Or it will be soon, when he takes this particular gem of comedic potential and hands it over to the writing staff of Comedy Central's satirical news program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Chodikoff '93 is The Daily Show's chief researcher, and it's his job to tackle the minutiae of the day's news cycle and send the raw materials—in this case, Rabbi Dennis Shulman's campaign in New Jersey's Fifth Congressional District—to a team of humorists who will craft it into a perfectly deliverable punch line for host Jon Stewart. Chodikoff knows it's a long shot—both the rabbi's chances (he lost) and the potential for his joke to make the day's script. A thirty-minute format isn't enough time to cover every story, but the thirty-eight-year-old Duke grad is amassing an arsenal.
It's Friday, October 31, at The Daily Show offices—a non-taping day—so the halls are emptier than usual and the pace less frenetic, but Chodikoff and his colleagues are gearing up for arguably the biggest show of the last four years—"Indecision 2008: America's Choice."
In four days, millions of people will head to the polls, and a sizeable percentage will then head home to watch The Daily Show's election-night coverage. By 11 that night, history will be made. The writers and producers must encapsulate more than eighteen months of stumping and speechifying in a forty-minute live broadcast, a decidedly small window to capture one of the most significant moments in U.S. history and pepper it with just the right amount of irreverence. Chodikoff doesn't seem worried—just focused.
His desk is cluttered with the materials you'd expect—newspapers, almanacs, Congressional transcripts—and a few things you wouldn't, the most improbably ridiculous of which is a photo of Shimon Peres holding a Daily Show DVD, a gift from Chodikoff to the Israeli president. "I should have said, 'Put that next to your Nobel Prize,' " he says. "But I blew it."
He apologizes for the scattered papers and assorted Simpsons paraphernalia. "It's not usually this messy, but I purposefully didn't clean up. I wanted to preserve it for you," he explains, as if it's a museum diorama of his natural habitat. Just then, on-air correspondent John Oliver, a gangly British comedian, breezes by Chodikoff's desk. "Oh, yes," he chimes in without slowing down. "That's authentic."
Chodikoff's workspace looks out on a common area with couches, a flat-screen TV, and a snarl of DVD, VHS, and Beta players, where the writers and producers have their morning meetings. Note cards with likely guests and segment topics—Doris Kearns Goodwin, T. Boone Pickens, Proposition 8, Voter Suppression—are tacked to the wall, and someone has drawn a mustache on a photo of Sarah Palin on the front page of the New York Post. This is where the Daily Show magic happens, and Adam Chodikoff's role in that magic is spelled out on a single piece of paper tacked to a wall a few feet away: I've catalogued all the lies. Daily Show writer Kevin Bleyer put that up, he explains.
"When we came back from our post-convention break, the McCain campaign's sex education and 'lipstick on a pig' ads were out. I don't use the word 'lying' lightly, but they'd definitely been lying, so I had all my material ready to go, and I said that. Everyone laughed. It's my slogan now."
For a guy whose job is to unearth the absurd contradictions of politicians, Cataloguer of Lies is an apt title, though it would look a little strange on a business card. Technically, Chodikoff is senior producer, but he admits that the nuances of his job are lost in the nebulous-sounding name. He describes his role as more of a "writers' researcher." In a recent profile, The Washington Post dubbed him an "investigative humorist," which he confesses he loves. His best description of his responsibilities, though, comes by way of a pop-culture reference. "Did you ever see The Godfather?" he asks. "When Michael's going to the restaurant with Sollozzo, they tape a gun [behind the toilet] in the bathroom. I'm the guy taping the gun in the bathroom so Jon can come out blazing." He's been at it for the last twelve years.
In 1993, after graduating with a major in political science, Chodikoff embarked on what he calls his "grad school," a series of coveted industry internships at CNN and ESPN, and then a stint at Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Pitching a joke that eventually made it on the air encouraged him to pursue a career in television comedy. He even took the cue card and had O'Brien and then-second-banana, Andy Richter, sign it. His first full-time TV job was on a syndicated CBS show called Day & Date, but the luckiest break of his career came after reading an article in USA Today about Doug Herzog and Eileen Katz leaving MTV to take over Comedy Central. Buried in the last paragraph was a mention of a new ESPN's Sportscenter-type show, only not about sports.
"A light bulb went off in my head," Chodikoff recalls. "I went to the As the World Turns studio for privacy and called Comedy Central and asked for the names of the executive producers." He sent a letter and a résumé and took his Conan cue card with him to the resulting interview—"as an example of my vast comedy experience," jokes Chodikoff.
"They thought I was psychotic. I think they said to themselves, 'Well, we'll hire him so we can track him. He might be dangerous.' "
When Chodikoff began working at The Daily Show in June 1996, Craig Kilborn was the host, and the show had what was essentially a late-night chat format—hardly the satirical news behemoth it is today. "In the beginning, my parents' friends would ask, 'What's Adam doing now?' And they'd say, 'Oh, you know the cartoon show with the kids that curse a lot? He's not on that show, but he's on the same network. They make fun of the news.' "
It's hard work, making fun of the news. A typical day for Chodikoff begins at 6 a.m. He is the first of his colleagues to arrive, usually by 7:30, at which time he scours the AP wire for an hour and a half for any potential joke fodder. He also tackles the newspapers. Ask him which ones he reads, and he'll give you an answer that sounds oddly similar to the one Sarah Palin gave Katie Couric: "All of 'em."
But, unlike Palin, he can get more specific. "I've got big bales of papers at my desk, tied with rope, like at the newsstand. LA Times, the New York Sun, The Daily News, the New York Post, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times, plus news magazines. Reading and reading and reading," he says. "As much as I can read before 9 a.m., when the writers come in."
What follows is a collaborative effort among writers, producers, and Chodikoff to decide what the topics of the day's show should be. It's a time-sensitive pursuit—all the news in the world ranked and sorted in the scant hours before taping and reduced to its most pertinent components. But that's Chodikoff's specialty: trimming the mundane, the overly technical, and the densely layered down to what is ultimately worthy of a Daily Show zinger. "It's filtering hours of verbiage down to the essential comedy bits," Chodikoff says. "The writers are the funny ones, but I see the potential for jokes. I'm a good joke-potential-finder. I'm on the same wavelength as Jon and the writers, so I see the patterns.
"The other day, I noticed that three different Republican senators used car-wreck analogies to describe the Wall Street bailout. So I have to put all those sound bites together and give them to the writers to work their magic."
Daily Show executive producer David Javerbaum knows Chodikoff's talents as well as anyone; the two have worked together since 1999, when Javerbaum was hired as a staff writer. "He has this amazing memory for sound bites about anything policy-related," Javerbaum notes. "What's remarkable is how many ideas he initiates because he remembered that this guy said this or that a year ago. He's the show's unsung hero."
As the day progresses, Chodikoff's role as office factotum intensifies—from voracious reader to research-compendia provider to dutiful fact checker. When the writers retire to their offices to prepare jokes, Chodikoff is on call with the answer to any question imaginable. What's the GNP of Zambia? Who was the Secretary of the Interior under Eisenhower? Get me a quote of Bush praising former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. "Within minutes, he'll knock on the door with a pile of transcripts," says writer Tim Carvell. "All the specific quotes we need are circled and annotated." He also pitches ideas for field pieces and contributes to the video montages produced by The Daily Show's studio production team. "We tape a lot of stuff," says Chodikoff. "Back in the day, we'd program the VCRs. Now we have twenty TiVos."
By 3 p.m., The Daily Show team has reconvened to pitch ideas for the following day, which means another doggedly researched packet from Chodikoff. At 4:15, rehearsal begins, and he steps over to the studio to make certain all facts are accurate, all graphics are spelled correctly, and all pronunciations are exact. And, as if everything up to this point has been a leisurely amble toward show time, Chodikoff offers a warning: "This is when things can get really hairy. They rewrite a lot of the show when the audience is coming in, between rehearsal and actual tapings, so they'll want new facts." He's happy to oblige, putting "new arrows in [Stewart's] quiver" as he calls it, until the moment the cameras begin rolling.
Chodikoff does not, however, stick around for the tapings most nights. "If it's a guest I really want to see, I'll stay, but I'm usually exhausted by then."
Chodikoff's reasons for demanding factual perfection are simple. "Without credibility, the jokes don't mean anything," he says. "It's like a geometry proof, and the proof is in the videotape. A equals B. B equals C. We just have to prove all the hypocrisy points."
Writer Tim Carvell credits Chodikoff with providing a necessary counterbalance to a roomful of writers whose comedic talents can blind them to potential bias. "Adam keeps our show honest. Because while our show can be wildly unbalanced, we try not to be unfair. So even though our jokes can be—and frequently are—incredibly stupid or silly, they only work if the facts underlying them are accurate. He'll often make convincing arguments against certain jokes if the premises are unsound. There's a specific pained sound he makes, and that's a pretty reliable warning sign that something's wrong with the joke."
Modesty prevents Chodikoff from claiming full credit for the random research discoveries that make The Daily Show the razor-sharp send-up machine of American politics that it has become over the past decade. When pressed, however, he does, with great humility, doff his cap at a segment or two from the past few months. He found the tape of Sarah Palin, only months before the Republican convention, asking someone to tell her what a vice president does. "I think we were the first to get that on the air," he says. "I'm proud of that."
Pressed further, he acknowledges a slightly grander accomplishment. "We had [former Undersecretary of Defense] Doug Feith on, and my job was to be prepared for every argument. Basically over the span of a couple days, I disproved the entire Iraq war. Which was great for me," he deadpans.
Daily Show co-executive producer Rory Albanese describes Chodikoff as an "encyclopedic mind mixed with a great sense of humor" and credits that rare amalgam in making him one of the most valued members of the entire staff. "It would be tough to produce our show without him," Albanese says. "We'd get by, but most of what we'd say would probably be made up."
From night to night, Chodikoff's reward is usually a studio full of laughs he doesn't stay to hear, but he does have an impressive tangible thank-you for the work he puts in. "A couple of years ago, I got called into Jon's office with two other people who had been with the show for a long time—a technical director and a script supervisor," Chodikoff recalls. "Jon handed me a sheet of paper, and it said, 'How to take care of your Emmy. Don't polish it; don't put Windex on it….' And then he reached behind his desk and gave me an Emmy. I guess you get extras when you win, and you can distribute them as you see fit.
"I didn't take the subway home that night. I took a taxi," he says, laughing. "So I've got my Emmy on my little IKEA table in my studio apartment."
Sitting at his cluttered desk, surrounded by Spider-Man, Curly Howard of the Three Stooges, and, yes, Shimon Peres, Chodikoff looks in his element, if such a randomly appointed setting qualifies as an element. He gives an example of what he'll be looking for on Election Night and feeding on the fly to Jon Stewart for real-time updates. "Some races are just close. And some are funny. The Ted Stevens race is close and funny," he says, almost giddily. He insists that, in the brief moments of downtime between researching for shows, he does know how to turn off his brain, but for a man who deals almost exclusively in facts, it's the least believable statement he's made all day.
Days after the election of Barack Obama, with 53 percent of Americans still mumbling "Yes we can" in their sleep and wallpapering their houses with Shepard Fairey campaign posters for instant nostalgia, the average Daily Show viewer had a sobering thought: There's no one left to make fun of. Eight years of the Bush administration supplied more than enough fodder, but the tear that fell from Jon Stewart's eye on election night—a rare unscripted display of emotion—seemed to signal a potential unwillingness to tip the sacred cow.
Not to worry. When, two nights later Stewart took a jab at Obama, and the audience's shocked silence gave way to groans and then nervous giggles, Stewart's eyes widened in fake horror. "How are we gonna make this s*** funny!?" he bellowed. An eruption of laughter followed. He had answered his own question.
Which is not to say that the last days of the Bush White House weren't turned upside down and shaken for the last comedic droplets in the joke canteen. Stewart and company said goodbye to their favorite Republican in hilarious fashion. But weeks into the Obama White House, the show's hit list remains nonpartisan, and no one has a free pass. Humor will survive the Democratic administration, thanks to greedy Wall Streeters and Ponzi-scheming investment bankers, an oddly coiffed Illinois governor ("Scumdog Million-hairs," as they've taken to calling him), and, of course, the new President of the United States himself. The Daily Show—and its prized investigative humorist—will make sure of that.
"It's definitely a new era of the show," Chodikoff says. "Being so immersed, chronicling the Bush years, and now it's over, it's an odd feeling." He pauses, then smiles. "But I come to play every day.
— Walters '04 is the associate entertainment editor of Details magazine and a member of Duke Magazine's Editorial Advisory Board.