Without shamelessly dishing praise or repeating what 40,000 other writers before me have
jotted down in television columns, the impact that “The Daily Show
with Jon Stewart” has had on American culture both in political
observance and especially in comedy is immeasurable. Whether
serving as a platform for many stand-up comedians and writers to hone
their skills and launch careers, or simply to convey their thoughts
on our world at the time, the program often referred to by its host
as “schlock comedy on basic cable” has been a household fixture
for younger viewers and a destination for many talented people coming up in the
ranks. ...Which is why we were delightfully surprised to find out there was a
native Utahn, and a faithful Mormon no less, on staff.
Jenna Kim Jones started her career right out of high school, originally going to New York University in 2004 to study performing arts, but quickly changed her interests to television and writing. In the process catching the eye of many television shows for internships and landing a full-time gig as Script P.A. for “The Daily Show” after graduation. Since that time her interest in performing was sparked again, both doing a monthly variety show with her co-workers and perfecting her stand-up act in the NYC comedy circuit. I had the pleasure to chat with Jenna about her career, working on the show, performing on stage and some thoughts on comedy programming and stand-up in general. And with any luck she'll send me some delicious treats!
Jenna Kim Jones
Gavin: Hey Jenna! First thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Jenna: Well, I’m complicated. At least that’s the reason e-Harmony gave me when they REJECTED me from their site. I personally don’t think I’m complicated but I guess that’s like a crazy person saying they’re not crazy—you’ll never believe me. So let’s start simply: I’m a Utah girl who lives in NYC, works at "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and is a stand-up comedian.
Gavin: What first got you interested in performing and what were some early inspirations for you?
Jenna: David Letterman was my hero (key word was—not as much lately with the whole office affairs incidents)! In high school, I saved money to buy a TV so I could have one in my own room. I watched his show every night and was determined to intern at the "Late Show" when I went to college. I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love performing. Since I was a kid, I loved to sing and dance but mostly make people laugh. That was usually my main goal. In high school, I was in a few little singing groups at a local dance studio and I also performed at Lagoon Amusement Park the summer before I moved to New York City. My senior year, I was banned from performing in our school’s American Idol competition because they didn’t want me to win. So I negotiated a spot on the judging panel and did my best Paula Abdul impersonation.
Gavin: With all the different colleges that specialize in performance arts, what made you decide on New York University, and what was their program like for you while attending?
Jenna: I applied to NYU on a whim. I just wanted to see if I could get in. When I did get in, it felt wrong to turn it down. It had been my dream to live in NYC for years, so I thought, what the heck! I’m not sure if my parents were nervous for me or not because they were always very supportive of my decision to go. The only negative thing I can remember my dad saying was, “You know, living in New York is much different than vacationing in New York.” No truer statement has ever been said. I haven’t seen a play on Broadway in years, Times Square can be hell on earth on a Saturday night and though I don’t have road rage, I do experience sidewalk rage when I get stuck behind slow walking tourists. GET OUT OF THE WAY! Overall, my NYU experience was great. Thought I have to admit, the best part of being at NYU are the opportunities that are available from living in the heart of Manhattan!
Gavin: I understand you switched majors from theater to television production and writing. Why the switch, and how easy or difficult was it for you to adapt to that kind of entertainment?
Jenna: I actually entered NYU as an undecided major with the intention of getting into the performing arts but I learned quickly that I didn’t need to be in their program to know I wasn’t the right fit. The actors considered their work as art. I, on the other hand, never took theater seriously enough. I made light of everything. And honestly, I’m not sure I’m much of an actor. I can sing. I’m very confident in that ability but acting? I’m not going to say I can’t act but I don’t think I’ll be winning an Oscar any time soon. (Although Justin Bieber taught me to “Never Say Never”… and in 3D!) I think you’d find that most comedians aren’t big into acting—plus you don’t really have to know how to act to be in a sitcom. Think about it the next time you’re watching a rerun of "Seinfeld". Anyway, majoring in television was a perfect fit. I excelled in my classes right away because in my head everything about the television industry made perfect sense.
Gavin: While you were there you were also an intern at “The Daily Show”. How did that opportunity come about and what was the initial experience like working there?
Jenna: Because I was in school in Manhattan, I had the opportunity to intern at five different places. First Follow Productions, a small company that produces shows for the Food Network. Next, the "Martha" show, post prison—ankle bracelet and all! Then "The Late Show with David Letterman", dreams really do come true!. Then "The Daily Show" followed by a casting internship at CBS Primetime Casting. Believe it or not, "The Daily Show" called me. My resume was passed along from my intern coordinator at the "Martha" show to the internship coordinator at TDS. When they called, I was already interning at "The Late Show" so they asked if I’d be interested in interviewing for the following semester. Honestly, I had maybe only seen "The Daily Show" a handful of times. I was devoted to my network late night—none of this cable stuff. But I quickly learned that "The Daily Show" was in a league of its own for good reason and was excited to have the chance to intern there. Interning at TDS was great. It was like my other internships—there was a lot of running around the city, logging tapes, and making sure the writers had bagels but those are the things you have to do to make it in the television industry and I had no problem with it. Interning isn’t exactly glamorous but it’s VERY important and almost necessary. I’d say the majority of the staff at "The Daily Show" interned there before so you have to make every day as an intern count.
Gavin: Prior to graduation did you have any particular mindset of what you were planning to do, or did you really not know where you were going to go from there?
Jenna: When I graduated from NYU, I was through with NYC. I thought I was going to move to LA, work in television and bask in the sun for the rest of my life. But in the throws of moving away, "The Daily Show" called me again! This time they offered me a position as a freelance P.A. After two weeks freelancing, they sent me on my way and I didn’t know what my next move would be. Since I desperately needed money, I got a job at J. Crew. Three days into that horrible job, "The Daily Show" called again! This time with a full time job offer. THANK GOODNESS! I was terrible at folding sweaters and I spent my entire three day pay check buying clothes with my employee discount before I quit.
Gavin: What's the job you currently do there, and what do you usually do during the day?
Jenna: Right now my official title is Script P.A. My days are ALL over the place. Literally, I run up and down the stairs in our office up to 30 times a day! Anything that involves the script is part of my day. Taking notes in joke meetings, making sure everyone has the most updated version of the script at all times and then pitching and tweeting my own jokes as well.
Gavin: You started in September 2008, just a few months before the election and a lot of the more “crazy” fallout that followed. What was that first year like for you being on staff and taking part in pitching ideas at that point in time?
Jenna: That was an intimidating time. I was a little overwhelmed. Not because the job was hard but because I was surrounded by a lot of clever people ALL THE TIME. I quickly learned how much I had to learn. So I started paying closer attention to the news, began to develop my own interest in politics and before I knew it, I knew way too much about CNN, MSNBC and FOX News! I also started a Twitter account that first year at the show and, this might sound crazy, but Twitter taught me A LOT about writing jokes. Tweets had to be quick, funny, short and timely. And then I realized that jokes did too! So with that new skill set, I was more confident in pitching ideas for the show.
Gavin: Considering the work the show does as a whole, how stressful is it to complete a script that's both topical and humorous before taping? And how much of it is last minute scrambling to get updated info or that last good joke in?
Jenna: "The Daily Show" is well oiled machine. Everyone at the show is extremely talented so there isn’t much scrambling at all.
Gavin: You've mention that you also contribute to the Twitter account for the show. How is it for you being a different vein of comedy for the show, and interacting with the fans?
Jenna: I don’t actually access the account. Every morning, I get into the office and write up a whole bunch of tweets that apply to the show that day or week. Basically anything that I think fits the voice of the show. Then I submit them in a folder and watch them appear on the account all day. It’s a lot of fun!
Gavin: It’s my understanding that you're the only Mormon on staff. Is there a general interest from the staff or do they not care, and does it ever make things difficult when writing some of the content?
Jenna: I am the lone Mormon and there is definitely an interest in my faith. I’m often asked my opinion on issues or how the Mormon church feels about certain topics. Overall, the staff has always been very respectful of my beliefs. If anything, it’s something they’ve grown to appreciate about me. I think, if I ever started drinking, cursing, or gave up my lifestyle, they’d be a little disappointed.
Gavin: From a writing standpoint, with "The Colbert Report" and The Onion shows, do you ever watch them and think “we should have done that”, or do you gloss over it and just concentrate on your own work?
Jenna: I rarely watch anything these days. I have my favorite sitcoms, a few trashy reality programs and otherwise I’m too swamped to care. I don’t even watch late night TV anymore—except occasionally Jimmy Fallon. I think he’s fantastic and I did NOT think that would be the case when he started. I attended the Emmys this year and he was the host. I thought he was a hit! "The Colbert Report" and The Onion shows have such different comedic voices that even if we all cover the same topic, the jokes all come from a much different perspective.
Gavin: Since working on the show you were influenced to going back into performing, which turned into doing stand up shows and showcases. What first sparked the interest back up?
Jenna: It wasn’t until I started working at the show that I realized again how much I missed performing. I saw our correspondent John Oliver and executive producer Rory Albanese do stand-up a few times and I ached to be up there with them. When I told them I was going to try stand up, they were incredibly supportive and encouraging.
Gavin: When did you decide to start doing shows and what was that first experience like performing for a New York crowd?
Jenna: The first time I ever did stand-up was at a Mormon Singles Ward Talent Show so… that’s embarrassing. Actually, it was a good experience because they were a nice crowd. My first true stand up experience was at "The Daily Show & Friends" show. My boss, Rory Albanese, basically pushed me out on stage and I did about five minutes of material, I think. It was so traumatizing, I can barely remember what happened. I think my opening line was, “I’ll give you a minute to let your eyes adjust to my hair.” Otherwise, I’ve blacked most of it out. I went home shaking, called my mom and said, “I think I really want to do stand-up. That was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. And I loved it!” (Sometimes I’m a bit dramatic.) After that I went to open mics as much as my work schedule would allow so I could try out material. Truth be told, I was just terrible at first. TERRIBLE! Over time, it started to click. I remember going to an open mic that I had been frequenting for a couple of months. I went up on stage and had the whole room laughing. And if you weren’t aware, the only audience members at open mics are other comedians. If you can make them laugh, you’re doing something right.
Gavin: What's the process like for you in coming up with material for your own stand-up? And do you find yourself trying to make it not sound like its for the show, or do you embrace that style and incorporate it into your act?
Jenna: I think you’ll find that my stand-up is totally different from the things I would come up with for TDS. Stand-up is about developing your own persona so I want to avoid trying to copy any other style. I have a binder where I keep all of my joke notes. It’s a mess but it’s probably the most important thing I own at this point. If I lost it, I would be devastated. My process is simple. When I think of something funny, I write it down. Before shows, I write out my sets word for word. If I’m comfortable with my set, I’m comfortable on stage. If I’m comfortable on stage, I’m more willing to stray from my set and adapt and change for the environment in the room if necessary. Some of my best jokes came from adlibbing.
Gavin: How has it been for you going around and performing around NYC and other venues over the past year?
Jenna: It’s a lot of wheeling and dealing. There are a ton of stand-ups in the city and everybody wants as much stage time as they can get. Although I love performing in the big comedy clubs, some of my favorite places to do stand-up are at the smaller shows that are produced by other comedians in the city. Sometimes a more intimate crowd let’s you get away with trying new stuff and allows you to be more relaxed. I used to run a show twice a month at a bar in my neighborhood. Unfortunately, the bar is no longer open so that is on hold. Producing shows is a great way to meet people and bargain stage time with other comedians who also run shows.
Gavin: How did the idea come about for “The Daily Show & Friends” showcase, and what kind of work goes into producing that show?
Jenna: "The Daily Show & Friends" was created by my boss Rory Albanese. After a few months doing stand-up, Rory asked me to help him book the show. Every month, I put together a lineup, make sure everybody shows up and knows how much time they can expect on stage. I also have to be the hype man for the show. I hand out flyers to our "Daily Show" audience, and bombard all the social networking sites with invites, tweets, etc. The crowds at "The Daily Show & Friends" shows are the best. They come out because they love "The Daily Show" so they are always ready to laugh.
Gavin: With the kind of options in front of you right now, are you looking to be more of a behind-the-scenes personality with writing and producing, or would you rather be a performer doing stand up and taking roles?
Jenna: I would much rather perform and write. I used to love all aspects of television production but the more I’ve become involved in the creative side of it all, the more I hate the organizing and the coordinating. And quite honestly, I’m not organized enough to do it!
Gavin: Are there any other projects you're working on at the moment, or are you staying focused on the show and performing for now?
Jenna: Besides doing stand-up, I pitch for the show as much as I can. I try to keep up my blog. I have some music coming out later this year. I just started a fashion blog with a few of my co-workers. I go out and audition for voiceovers on a fairly regular basis. And I’m preparing to headline for the first time in Salt Lake City this July! So you know, just a few things here and there.
Gavin: Branching out a little, what's your take on the current comedy environment these days and the pool of talent getting recognition on Comedy Central?
Jenna: Well, I have a friend who is a clean comedian who was recently rejected for a special for not being edgy enough, which is a little ridiculous because I’d argue that some of the greatest comedians performing now are the clean comedians (i.e. Brian Regan or Jim Gaffigan). As a clean comedian myself, hearing stories like that is frustrating sometimes. Being a female comic is nice because it’s more unique but it’s also difficult because people generally don’t think women are funny. (STOP AGREEING with that last sentence, whoever you are.) These days comedy is much different than it used to be—or at least that’s what I’ve learned from reading the memoirs of older comedians. With things like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube there is so much content bombarding people all the time, comedians have to find a way to make themselves stand out. It’s constant self promotion which can be exhausting. Instead of just being a comedian, you have to build a brand around yourself. You have to think, what do I offer that someone else might not or what makes me special or unique. To sum it up, you not only have to be funny, you also have to spend a lot of time on Twitter.
Gavin: How often do you go out and check out other writers and comedians performing?
Jenna: Not as often as you think. Obviously, performing regularly allows you to see a lot of comedy. Otherwise, I try to take breaks from comedy or else it will consume me. I have to turn off the comedy, take breaks from Twitter and actually “talk” to people. It’s rough!
Gavin: What's your take on the 24/7 news networks and they work they do, both good and bad?
Jenna: Ugh, honestly, I think they’re so boring. They just say the same things over and over again. And most of it is crazy! So much of the time it seems like the news networks just manipulate the headlines to say whatever they want it to say anyway.
Gavin: With the way media is changing, do you believe it’s becoming easier for writers and comedians to get their name out and make a name for themselves? Or does it feel more difficult trying to become noticed with so many already vying for attention?
Jenna: It truly depends. I’m lucky because I have "The Daily Show" attached to me. It’s a very helpful resource and I’ll fully admit that. But the most powerful tool I have is my online presence. Twitter in particular. I’ve become a master of the 140 character limit. I’m just going to say it: Twitter has made me a better comedian. I’ve learned brevity and I get immediate feedback from my followers. Online, I can create a relationship with people that I don’t even know.
Gavin: Do you have any advice for writers looking to break into the business?
Jenna: Work hard.
Gavin: What can people expect to see from you over the rest of the year?
Jenna: Oh who knows! More jokes, more laughs, more videos, more blogs, more tweets. In general, I hope you’ll all be seeing me more and more. But don’t get sick of me. Overexposure is bad news – don’t want to pull a Taylor Swift, you know? Wait, don’t tell me I’m the only one totally sick of her!
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Jenna: If you don’t follow me on Twitter already, GET WITH IT. Also, I regularly update my blog with videos, jokes, games, giveaways and more. Please check it out! And last but not least, I will be headlining at Wiseguys in July. Please come out and support me and Wiseguys! Wiseguys owner and comedian Keith Stubbs books some amazing acts in his clubs. I want comedy to thrive in my home state and it’s up to you guys to make it happen! Oh... I’ve heard rumors that Utah is starting a comedy festival this year and I hope to be a big part of that.
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