Jen Flanz, executive producer of “The Daily Show,” has been a pillar of the comedy stalwart for more than 21 years. Now is a pivotal moment for comedy, she said, and there’s more opportunity than ever for women and other marginalized voices to make their mark.
"There's more of a concerted effort now to make sure people are hiring a more balanced staff on comedy shows, and it's something that's exciting to see plus makes the shows better,” Flanz told Know Your Value in an interview. “It’s not just gender but also race, socioeconomic backgrounds, schools of thought, everything.”
Flanz had to advocate to create the type of role she wanted for herself on the “Daily Show." And she never planned to work in the comedy industry at all. She’d always enjoyed comedy, but never performed in any capacity. In fact, she headed to college planning to attend law school, but found herself disillusioned by the O.J. Simpson trial and disinterested in her studies.
“I was obsessed with MTV and VH1 growing up, so I called my parents and said, ‘I want to do TV!’” Flanz said. “They were supportive, but they were also like, ‘Umm…’”
Flanz worked to obtain internships across the television industry, including for the soap opera “One Life to Live,” CBS News and VH1. She also graduated a semester early in an effort to reduce competition.
In January 1998, she accepted a production assistant job at “The Daily Show,” then hosted by Craig Kilborn, and immediately loved it. She was quickly promoted through the ranks to roles like assistant production coordinator and production manager.
‘I was getting pigeonholed’
Over the years, Flanz showed her talent for managing teams and making things happen—but she felt “pigeonholed” in production management and craved more creativity. So she took a job at Nickelodeon in 2002. But after a just a few months she realized she preferred the “cramming” of producing The Daily Show four nights a week compared to the long lead time of children’s programming.
“Jon Stewart was hosting at the time, and he got in touch and said, ‘Want to come back?’ I mean, who doesn’t say yes to Jon Stewart?” Flanz said.
But before she re-joined, Flanz advocated for a role that would get her involved in other aspects of the show like casting, art and graphics rather than pure production management.
“Luckily they were open to it, but I wanted to be clear that though I speak the language of production, I wanted to be more creative than my previous role had allowed me to be,” Flanz said. “I knew that I’m good at leading a team and highlighting what people are best at, but I also realized that was a skill that could be used elsewhere.”
Stewart and the show’s other leadership were happy to tweak the job responsibilities, and Flanz came back on as coordinating producer. Again, she was promoted through the ranks before taking on her current role as executive producer in 2014.
Women and comedy
“Women have been in comedy for a long time; there are more of us than people realize,” Flanz said, noting that people in comedy aren’t just the stand-up comics or the star of a show.
“I think there’s a metric around women in comedy because they seem to think it means only performers, but we have a plethora of extremely funny producers here who are women,” she added. “A lot goes into making a show like a this; we have a lot of content creators who are not credited as writers.”
In fact, she added, some people may not know The Daily Show was created by two women: Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg.
“I think the difference is now that we’re having these types of conversations and women are being featured in articles,” Flanz said. “That’s why I’m pushing myself to get out there, even though I’m a real behind-the-scenes person. It’s important to show women that it’s attainable.”
She also credited new voices like Samantha Bee, Michelle Wolf and her own show’s host Trevor Noah, who is biracial, with changing the conversation.
“Like so many people, I grew up watching Letterman and Conan, who are great but are all white men—it was a different landscape,” Flanz said.
She feels “lucky” to have worked for advocates of women like Stewart and Noah, “who don’t treat me like, ‘You’re a woman, get in here,’” she said. “Women’s voices are appreciated and encouraged here. Trevor reminds us constantly half our audience is female and we need to hear from everyone. I know I don’t want a roomful of men writing a headline about abortion – I want to hear women’s points of view, which by the way can be different. Now with more women we can have that debate.”
Why it’s a good time to be in comedy
Today there are far more opportunities in comedy for women and for anyone, Flanz said, because there is an avalanche of content across not only network and cable television but also streaming and digital platforms.
“I also think with the success of Amy Schumer and ‘Broad City’ and others, networks aren’t just looking for men,” Flanz said. “And it’s not just ‘We should be inclusive.’ It’s that these people are profitable too.”
For other women who want to break into the industry, Flanz recommends trying to break out of the “I need the right answer before raising my hand” mentality, which women are socialized to learn as girls in the classroom and elsewhere. That doesn’t work in comedy, she said.
“Perfection isn’t conducive to comedy; it’s a place where you’re supposed to blurt things out and throw things against the wall,” Flanz said. “I tell other women, ‘Watch these guys—they throw out bad ideas all the time, so you go ahead and do it too!’ More often than not a joke that makes it to the floor is something we build on together as a group.”
Flanz herself still struggles with this sometimes, even after many years in the industry, she said.
“It’s about reminding yourself that the men we work with say things without thinking about holding back,” she said. “Reprogramming yourself is difficult, but to contribute, you need to get in there with your ideas.”