Daniel Chun is the Head Writer and Co-Executive Producer of The Office. Before writing for what is rapidly becoming a twenty-first century television classic, he wrote for The Simpsons, undoubtedly one of the most iconic shows in modern television history— not a bad track record for a still-young television writer. He won a Writers Guild Award and an Annie Award for his work on The Simpsons, and was nominated for two Writers Guild Awards and two Emmy Awards for The Office.
Chun has a BA from Harvard University and began his comedy writing career at the Harvard Lampoon. His work has also appeared in publications like New York Magazine, The Huffington Post, and Vitals Magazine.
Chun, who is generous, approachable, and completely no-frills, is as un-Hollywood as they come. He is also an avid twitterer (@dannychun).
What came first, books or TV? In other words, as a kid, were you a big reader, a big TV watcher, or both?
Both. My parents didn’t limit my consumption of media (as long as I did well in school). So from the time I got home from school to the time I went to bed, I was pretty much either reading or watching TV.
A lot of being a comedy writer is having an encyclopedic knowledge of cliché, and I acquired mine through gorging myself on media during my formative years. Of course, what you’ll also find about comedy writers is they tend to have great love for those same clichés they’re avoiding/lampooning. They’re comforting in a nostalgic way.
The poet Josh Bell told me that he remembers that there was a distinct moment when he realized, as a kid, that someone had written the shows he was watching on TV and the stories he was reading in books, and that this moment of understanding marked a major shift in his way of thinking about storyteller and his place in the world— it was then that he thought he could perhaps be a storyteller, too. Did you have a similarly important realization when you were younger? Was there a moment when you thought: I want to be the person who writes the story?
In 7th grade, my English class did a lot of creative writing, and I loved making people laugh with my stories. And then in high school my friends and I, inspired by SNL and Kids in the Hall, wrote and filmed comedy sketches late at night during sleepovers. But it was always just for fun.
Actually, the first time I made the realization that Josh Bell made was when I read an interview with Conan O’Brien in which he related having that same realization. So I had to be spoon-fed that epiphany. Even after that, I didn’t admit to myself that I wanted to be a professional writer – I felt like I’d jinx it. I kept saying I wanted to be a teacher or a primatologist.
Well, first off, you need to tell me more about this interest in primatology.
This is jumping around a bit chronologically – but when I was a freshman [in college] I decided to major in English so I could become a teacher, like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society – someone who helped sensitive young people like me find joy in literature. But I found the English classes I took at Harvard to be dry. They seemed to be focused on 18th and 19th century American literature, which I couldn’t relate to.
So, at the end of my freshman year, I took a class about human behavioral biology, and I loved it. It was the first college class that I wanted to do the reading for. I wanted to participate in class. So I decided for the first time in a while to chase that feeling, and I changed majors to biological anthropology. Bio Anthro is basically the study of human behavior via scientific, rather than social scientific, means. So a lot of it involves studying monkeys.
If I hadn’t gone into writing and instead had pursued something based on my major, it would’ve been something like primatology – more specifically something like living in Borneo and trying to catch orangutan urine with tarps in the jungle.
Maybe a good thing you’re not in the jungle, then. So, you said you made these comedy sketches with friends during sleepovers. Did you seek out people to develop comedy ideas with also after adolescence morphed into young adulthood? Did you surround yourself with other comedy types, and did you find that this community helped you move ahead with your own comedy work? You hear a lot about groups of friends moving up the ranks of Second City and UCB and so on, for example.
My friends in high school were pretty big comedy nerds. They were actually making comedy sketches before me. My older brother was going to school at Harvard at the time, and he brought home issues of the Harvard Lampoon comedy magazine. Those blew my mind; they were full of high concept comedy pieces that perfectly hit the sweet spot of my sense of humor. So when I was a senior and I got accepted to Harvard, I decided to go there, and probably a tiny secret part of me chose it because I wanted to try to join the Lampoon.
The big leap forward in getting serious about comedy came when I got onto the writing staff of the Lampoon. They have this great building called The Castle just outside of campus, and everyone hangs out there. It’s like an immersive, not-for-credit, peer-driven comedy course that doesn’t stop until you graduate. Second City and UCB are great incubators for talent, but they tend to be for the writer-performer types. The Lampoon is probably the most prominent place for launching the careers of nerdy, introverted comedy writers.
When did you finally admit, even if just to yourself, that you would like to be a professional comedy writer?
I remember that a Hollywood agent came by the Lampoon when I was a sophomore and asked who among us wanted to be professional comedy writers. I raised my hand and was instantly mocked by some of the upperclassmen. It was seen as uncool to be so openly aspirational. So I kept my mouth shut about my dreams for a while.
But as my older friends graduated and moved to New York or LA, and I saw that it could be done, I braced myself (and my parents) for the inevitability of my foray into professional writing. It honestly felt like, as crazy as it was, it was my best shot at a viable career. I was a mediocre to above-average bio anthro student, but I was a strong comedy writer. I think Bill Gates said something along the lines of “the best way to help the world is to do what you’re best at.” I might be making that up, and also I don’t know how that works if the thing you’re best at is murdering kids, but it was that sort of deal. I could’ve been a decent primatologist, but I had a shot at being a really good comedy writer.
You braced yourself, how did you brace your parents? And how did they feel about your decision to pursue comedy? Would they have preferred that you chased orangutan urine?
My parents were very supportive of what I wanted to do – I think that they were self-aware about not embodying the Asian immigrant stereotype. All I really did to brace them was let them know whenever my older friends found work as writers, just so they knew it was something that happened. I think primatology would have been a tougher sell, actually – it would have paid less, put me in slightly more danger, and taken me farther away from home.
So, what was your first step after college?
I moved home for the summer, then moved to LA in the fall. I stayed on my friend’s couch and went apartment hunting. Once I found a place, my friend Dan Mintz (an extremely funny stand-up comic and writer) came and moved in with me. I had actually lined up a manager while I was still in college – he was young and hungry for clients, and I’d been recommended to him by a friend. So I wrote scripts while he helped me find an agent.
Did you have to work other, non-comedy related jobs to support yourself at first?
I had some money from my parents, so I was fortunate enough to spend most of my time writing at my apartment. I didn’t have a job, but my occupation was to live very cheaply. I lived like a frugal housewife, clipping coupons, buying in bulk, and hunting down bargains. When I met my agents, I told them that I had been trying not to move around very much so I’d need less food – they still talk about that whenever we hang out. Now, obviously, I make sure to move around excessively and flamboyantly as a display of how wasteful I can be with calories.
I got paid for two things before I got my job at The Simpsons: David Mamet bought a joke I’d written in the Lampoon, and I worked for one week on a daytime talk show pilot hosted by Bob Saget.
How long did you spend trying not to move too much? How long did it take for you to get a job with The Simpsons?
I was in LA for about eight months before I got The Simpsons job. It felt like an eternity but in reality it was an extremely short time to be a toiling aspiring TV writer.
What was the job and what kind of material did you show them to get it? So many young people chipping away at their dreams in NY and LA want to know how to get noticed. How did you get noticed?
I was hired as a staff writer, off of a spec script. A spec script is basically a sample episode of an existing TV show, which is written simply to showcase writing ability (as opposed to actually being filmed). My spec was a Will and Grace.
I took a very conventional route to getting hired; I wrote scripts to get an agent, and the agents submitted my scripts to several shows. The Simpsons was the first one to hire me. These days people are much more creative about getting noticed; places like YouTube make it very cheap and easy to showcase comedy. But I was always fond of taken the beaten path – it helped me view my dream as a practical career dream, not entirely different from becoming a doctor or a lawyer.
A first job is always a big deal, but a first job on such an epic show, doing the thing you wanted to do, that has got to be something else entirely.
I remember hearing that most of the writers were in their 40s; I thought I’d show up on day one and blow them away with my comedy. I was so age-ist. But what I realized was that being a funny person is not the same as being a talented professional writer – the latter requires that you be funny every day. You also need to understand what kind of comedy works on a major network show – you can’t be quite so self-indulgent.
The Simpsons, at this point, is kind of a joke factory. 80% of your job is rewriting jokes in the script. It’s like how the boxer Manny Pacquiao can throw a punch from any position; any angle. The Simpsons taught me that any moment in a script can be a funny one. It’s a good source of confidence on other projects.
After you got that first job, did you continue to live with roommates? Did you keep clipping coupons? What did you spend your money on back then?
I was pretty eager to move into my own place. I got a weird little apartment on Wilshire Boulevard. I stopped clipping coupons, but I did something even better – I brought home lunch leftovers for dinner every night.
I didn’t spend money on much; being so much busier actually meant I was spending less money on a lot of things. But while I was unemployed I did develop a bit of a complex about food – I ate extremely simply and frugally, and I daydreamed about fancy meals. I used to read the Zagat guide on the couch and memorize the dishes I wanted to try at all the different places. So once I had money I started going out to eat on weekends. It was this weird psychological drive to make up for lost time – kind of like a much less immoral version of what drives Humbert Humbert in Lolita.
Being in LA for only eight months before landing a great gig is pretty impressive, and rather unusual. People seem to wait tables and wring their hands for ages before they get a break. Did your other comedy buddies get good comedy jobs, too? Or were you the envied king for a while there?
I was one of the lucky early ones of my friends, but over time they all found work of some sort. I definitely had an enviable job, but I was a loser in enough other ways that I don’t think they resented me too much.
What did you guys do for fun in those days?
We used to do the same thing every weekend: rent a video game at the video store (we had this coupon someone found online that entitled us to a free rental with no minimum purchase – clearly something was off about this coupon, but we printed dozens of them and used them every week, always getting the same hostile look from the clerk), and then we’d go across Fairfax from my friends’ apartment and buy cheap beers at a pretty sketchy Rite-Aid. Then we’d drink beer and play video games until we passed out. We smoked weed too, sometimes. But one thing we didn’t do was date girls, that’s for sure.
Sometimes we’d go to parties and pretty aggressively isolate ourselves from the group. We were all varying degrees of awkward, but we had great comic chemistry with each other, so rather than crash and burn by trying to hit on girls, we opted to stand in a corner and joke around with each other. I don’t know why we kept being allowed in to these parties – everyone knew that when we showed up it would be as a posse of ten guys, no girls, who would drink the beer and interact with nobody.
The visual in itself— this gang of roaming jokesters who would only speak inward, toward the center of themselves— is actually hilarious. Did that routine change eventually?
The routine changed once it felt like our prospects were changing (with girls). We used to go to all these parties where everyone was 5-10 years older than us, and we were shy, unemployed nerds anyway, so there wasn’t much point to anything aside from talking to each other. For me, my confidence came once I got a job. That shouldn’t have been the case, but for me it was.
There has been a funny trend among our interviews where male writers say that they began writing to impress girls. Does that sound familiar?
I didn’t really start writing to impress girls; my complex was broader and even more fundamental. I think writing just made me feel valuable, or liked (to use a blunter word).
Because I have this visual of you with all your comedy buds, and because all those buds seem to have been guys, it makes me think of the way in which the professional comedy scene is quite a boys’ club. There has been some discussion about that recently, the whole hoopla with Bridesmaids being one example. Working in the comedy world, do you find that it is in fact a very guy:y scene? I imagine that if a lot of the comedy writers once roamed in one of those boy-packs you described, it might have something to do with it…?
I think comedy definitely attracts more guys than girls, and there is certainly some sexism going on. The same guys who started writing to impress girls can sometimes have some weird resentment or hostility towards girls, and I’m sure that rears its head. But what I see when I go to watch UCB, or I go to writer parties, is a pretty damn diverse group of people. We have four female writers at The Office, and they’re all great.
Bridesmaids was really funny, and I think that the subsequent wave of female-driven comedy (as evidenced by the new sitcoms this year) is completely justified. Guy comedy had gotten pretty stale; it seemed like every movie or show was some slightly tweaked version of a “pack of guys trying to get laid” scenario. So maybe it seemed like the only way to get some characters who cared about more than just sex was to make them women. Now it’s hard to imagine a male-driven show making a big splash on TV. That’s the thing with pendulums, they never swing back. They just swing to one extreme and stay there forever.
Okay, back to your track. What happened for you, career-wise, after The Simpsons? How did you plot your next move?
It was six great years at The Simpsons and then I left for The Office. I loved being at The Simpsons but I didn’t think the marginal benefits of staying for another contract cycle (2-3 years) was going to be that great. The Simpsons writing staff is older, most of them have kids. It’s a great place for them; it feels sheltered and outside of the Hollywood showbiz nonsense. It seems like it’s never going to go away (although recently that has changed). There’s very little chance of having to stay until 2 am to finish a rewrite. But I kind of wanted that – I was hungry for a volatile, unpredictable, intense job.
Some people I was friendly with at The Office, like BJ Novak and Mindy Kaling, had been asking if I was interested in working there. I knew them socially and they had read some stuff I was putting online in my free time. So I told them I was interested in jumping ship, and they had me meet with their boss, and I got the job. Starting work there, it immediately felt like exactly what I’d wanted, in a kind of overwhelming, scary way.
Tell me more about this overwhelming, scary feeling. What was it like at first, working for The Office?
It was weird for a few reasons. Perhaps the biggest was that suddenly my co-workers were near my age. At The Simpsons, I felt like the kid, and so I didn’t see the other writers as peers so much as mentors. But at The Office I was with people who were undoubtedly peers, and that made it scarier and I perceived more competitiveness.
Also, at The Office the mandate is always that the joke must feel real. It was hard to calibrate my imagination after working on a cartoon for six years. I remember we were pitching on what a neighboring business could be. If this was The Simpsons, the pitches would have been “a shop that sells neck bolts for Frankenstein’s monsters,” or “a shop that sells feathers for the brims of hipster fedoras.” But at The Office everything was extremely mundane and real. I pitched “a test prep center” and people laughed, and at the time I had no idea why.
What is it like now, being the head writer?
Head writer has been a wonderful experience. I started in my 2nd season here, and instantly my relationship with the show changed. It’s the burden of being in a management position – whenever you are in the room, you are supposed to be running things (unless Paul [Lieberstein] or Greg [Daniels] are around). There’s no more mental checking out, or at least a lot less of it. But of course the pros of it are that I am more creatively empowered than I’ve ever been before. I can’t imagine having more to do with a show unless it’s a show I created from the ground up.
What do you look for in the young writers who come to you, bright eyed and eager, wanting to write for The Office?
What do I look for in young writers? Comedy and story are the two pillars. They have to be funny, but they also have to know how to shape a story. Both can be taught somewhat, but there needs to be at least a germ of that ability.
Aside from that, enthusiasm is huge. I was talking with my friend last weekend, and he has a web start-up, and we were discussing how hard it is to find people who are self-motivated. Some people are content just to have the job, and others are only content if they excel at the job and reach some higher point of success. The latter are rarer and preferred.
Also, they need to be able to fit in in a comedy writers’ room. 80% of our job is spent in a group, so you can imagine how terrible it would be if one of the people you spend 12 hours a day with is a pain in the ass.
Has the way you work and think about your work changed over the years?
Creative writing is such a finicky thing; for the first ten years of my writing life I feel like I was just trying to make sense of how/when my “muse” showed up. Now I have a better sense of how to channel my creativity.
I’ve also become much more analytical about what makes things work. I think I used to just think, “sure there are rules, but if you’re funny enough you can just break the rules.” Now I believe very strongly that you can’t be great if you don’t honor the classic structure of storytelling that has been around for thousands of years. Obviously some people out there do very funny stuff that is rule-breaking, but my current field of employment is mainstream comedy sitcoms and films, and I respect how hard it is to do something really good within that field. In a lot of ways I think it’s harder than doing fringe, alternative comedy.
How do you look back on your early years— fondly, with nostalgia, with disgust…what?
Obviously I wonder where the time went. I feel like I should’ve completed two screenplays a year. Creatively, I look back and see that my comedy sensibility back then was looser, wilder, a little more experimental. I try to maintain an element of that. I have learned to “play the game” better now, but the extreme version of that is called being a hack. So it’s nice to look at my old ideas and remember that the same brain I have now used to churn out raw, bizarre nuggets of comedy.
Can you recall some major early challenges?
I remember that my first few opportunities in LA didn’t pan out. I had an interview with a sitcom and a few shows on like Nickelodeon and stuff. I would’ve happily taken those jobs, but they didn’t hire me. I don’t take rejection well. But my friend BJ had a theory that “it takes quality to recognize quality.” I wasn’t sure if it was true but it was reassuring, and when The Simpsons hired me I decided that yup, it was definitely true.
And back to that point about taking rejection – working in a writers’ room means you have to pitch jokes all day, and even the best writers will find that half their jokes are met with stony silence. Learning not to worry about that is a big challenge for the fragile-egoed.
Any major triumphs?
Every piece of good news in my career feels like a triumph. I still get the same great feeling when I pitch a joke that people laugh at that I got on my first week at The Simpsons. I guess you might call that perpetual insecurity. It’s pretty useful in a field where it’s very possible and tempting to lucratively coast for years.
What about personal triumphs?
I don’t know how much credit I can claim for not becoming a total Hollywood douchebag, because I wouldn’t really know how to do it anyway. But whenever I go to a party and I see the frantic, superficial networking taking place, I feel a lot better about being an introverted, borderline-surly person.
But the greatest triumph of my life was meeting and somehow landing my wife. Unrequited crushes were basically the fundamental unit of my dating life, so the fact that the best girl I’ve ever met liked me and wanted to marry me was, and still is, kind of a shock.
You seem to have had that desire to go, as you called it, a well-beaten path, to see a linear narrative in the mess that is writerly careers. There must be great satisfaction now in having “made it.” But perhaps you no longer have that “overwhelming, scary feeling”? Are you ever nostalgic for the excitement that comes from being green, getting a chance, being thrown in the water, and learning to swim?
I’ve led an incredibly charmed life. It’s not that I’ve always been happy, but I’ve always had great reason to be happy. And I can honestly say that my life gets better every day. So no, I don’t miss the excitement of those early days. I’m sure that if I ever decided to roll the dice again, things would be highly unlikely to turn out so nicely.
Do you have any advice for young comedy writers just starting out?
Learn to hate cliché. Learn to respect the mainstream. Work really hard. It helps to have a chip on your shoulder that will never go away. Make your goal to be the best – you probably won’t get there, but I’m not sure there’s any other way to be great or even very good.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo courtesy of the artist