UW-Madison grad Ben Karlin, 36, faces one of the toughest encores in comedy history.
He left Madison almost 12 years ago, after helping lift The Onion toward its meteoric rise. In early 1999, he became head writer of the new Jon Stewart-hosted "Daily Show," which raised the bar on contemporary humor.
With Stewart, he co-wrote and edited "America (The Book)," spending most of 2004 atop The New York Times best-seller list. At the same time, Karlin launched "The Colbert Report," another cable TV marvel.
No longer with Stewart or Colbert, he returns to Madison for one night - to help promote his new book, "Things I've Learned From Women Who've Dumped Me," an anthology that he edited. After a phone interview from his New York office, the new father - he's married with a 9-month-old son - worked on a script as part of his development deal with HBO.
State Journal:In fall 1996, you were editing The Onion in Madison and you wrote some excellent freelance music articles for the State Journal - then you chose to move from Madison to Los Angeles. I thought, "You're brave but crazy." After winning 10 Emmys, creating two of TV's most acclaimed comedy shows and co-writing a bestselling book, you probably regret that move?
Karlin:(laughs) Almost every day. I often think about how things would have been different if I stayed. I really had my eye on a house on Jenifer Street. I thought, "I could live here. ..."
State Journal:You're not serious?
Karlin:I'm totally serious. I was thinking about making Madison my home and going deep instead of going wide. But there was something about being too young (age 24 at the time) and too hungry to stay.
State Journal:You went to Los Angeles, not New York, where you eventually had your most success. Was there a time in L.A., you thought, "Oops"?
Karlin:It never got really bad. When I went to L.A., I connected with a bunch of people I had worked with at The Onion. I had a good core group of people, who kept me sane and not really sad. We were working pretty quickly. What kind of kills you in Los Angeles is all the time spent watching other people be successful and you be not.
State Journal:Did anything in Los Angeles reach the production stage?
Karlin:The first idea we had, which was basically a TV version of The Onion, called "Deadline Now." We sold that as a pilot to Fox and they made it. It never aired. So in May 1997, we had a pilot under consideration for the fall schedule. The show is pretty good. Every once in a while, I dust it off and watch it. It was actually pretty good.
State Journal:So when did Jon Stewart call?
Karlin:I received a coded message by passenger pigeon in early 1999. (laughs) Jon took over in January 1999. I was contacted in February. He wanted to change the show and he was looking for a new head writer. He had heard about this group of Onion people in L.A. and, in a weird way, I was the de facto ringleader of our group in L.A. I came to New York. Jon and I connected. It was kind of like a slightly awkward, but successful, first date. When I got back to Los Angeles, they offered me the head writer job.
State Journal:From there, your career snowballed.
Karlin:There were some fallow times. When I got there, I was 27 years old and not particularly experienced in the world of management. So I had some learning to do. I felt capable on the creative end of things, but some of the logistical and managerial areas I didn't have experience dealing with people in that kind of environment. I was pretty headstrong and fairly arrogant. I definitely endured a solid year of growing pains.
Jon and I had a specific idea of what we wanted to do. That rubbed some people the wrong way.
State Journal:And "Things I've Learned From Women Who've Dumped Me" was formed while you were at "The Daily Show"?
Karlin:When I first got to "The Daily Show," it was just a job. I wasn't thinking this thing would become a career. I thought, "Maybe I'll have this job for a few years." I had no expectation at all that the show would become anything more than a quality late-night television show. The first couple years I was always thinking, "What am I going to do after two or three years when this runs its course or gets canceled or Jon leaves and takes another gig?" There was no sense the show was going to take off. So I made a script deal with NBC. The first show I pitched them was "Things I've Learned From Women Who've Dumped Me."
State Journal:What did they think?
Karlin:They absolutely did not like it at all. I ended up writing a show about a ski town. But I liked "Things..." and I held onto the title. After the success of "America," I wanted to do another book.
State Journal:You started developing the book at a busy time with "Daily Show" duties and starting up "Colbert"?
Karlin:So I took the idea and turned it into a humor anthology.
State Journal:And you added the book to your huge workload.
Karlin:It was not sustainable. I was like a running back handed the ball 35 times a game. Sooner or later, you're to going to break down or blow out a knee or start doing steroids. And I did all of those.
State Journal:When you left "Daily Show" and "Colbert" amicably in December 2006, you must have taken a huge deep breath from those responsibilities.
Karlin:I took a four-month breath. It requires you to come in every day and really be focused. To have that energy to sign a new contract ... I didn't feel good about that. I just wasn't there.
State Journal:"Things ..." is funny - I expected that - but these writers are more honest than I expected. They're also willing to paint themselves in not the best light. It's not bitter against ex-girlfriends.
Karlin:No, no, no. I wanted to avoid that. The thing that really works about "The Daily Show" is its relevancy. Underneath it is a commentary about news and information and the way it's delivered to people, but it is well done so it's funny and not too ham-fisted or anything. That was the same approach I wanted for this book: Can you make it relatable and real but also funny that doesn't feel sappy?
State Journal:When will we hear what shows you have for HBO?
Karlin:If they like the script, they'll order the pilot and if they like the pilot they'll order the series. HBO is very methodical about the way they do things. HBO, to their credit, wants it to conceptually sound. I'm supervising another script. One of the ideas takes place in Wisconsin - not Madison, a fictional town. We'll present them in a couple of months and we'll await our fate. Both are half-hour comedic series. One is about a man who attempts to become the richest man in the world. Another is about a UFO alien death cult.
State Journal:You were raised in suburban Boston. How did you choose UW-Madison?
Karlin:I wanted to get out of the East Coast. I was enamored with the University of Michigan. I loved the idea of going to be a big school that'sa college town. Everyone said, 'If you're looking at Michigan, you've got to look at Madison, too.' As it turns out, I was not accepted to Michigan and I was accepted to Madison. I came to the school sight unseen. My visit (to Madison) was canceled because I had gone to the Bahamas during my spring break and got sun poisoning and I was unable to fly there.
State Journal:There's a description of you in New York Magazine that may be the ultimate compliment of your work: "Basically, if you've laughed in the last 10 years, Ben Karlin was responsible." How do you keep your feet on the ground after reading that?
Karlin:It's a ridiculous thing to write about someone. You have to come up with a new word for hyperbole to describe that statement. It happened at a time when I was leaving the shows ("Daily Show" and "Colbert"). It was nice to read. But, man, I've been made fun of more for that than I have felt good about it.
State Journal:Where are your 10 Emmys?
Karlin:I wear one around my neck at all times.
State Journal:If anyone could say, "My career has peaked ..."
Karlin:It would be me. (laughs) State Journal:But it sounds like you have ideas left.
Karlin:I truly don't know what will happen. The best thing is the pleasant surprises. I'm going to keep on not knowing what I'm doing next.\ \If you go
What: Book editor Ben Karlin, Dan Savage, Todd Hanson, Dan Vebber and Andy Selsberg read their pieces from the anthology "Things I've Learned From Women Who've Dumped Me."
When: 7 p.m. Sunday Where: Union Theater, 800 Langdon St.