Jack Helmuth [Interview]

Another great interview right her for you fine folks! Today we are talking with Jack Helmuth, who has been working in the world of comedy for a very long time and has been a major part of a batch of varied and very hilarious projects. He is no stranger to the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade comedy that appears within these digital pages very regularly. He has worked on other classic shows like Saturday Night Live and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, and was one of the masterminds behind the short-lived but legendary Larry Wilmore fronted show The Nightly Show.

And I have to say, I had a feeling that Jack would have some hilarious tales to tell and some great insight to give. But I had no idea just how great he would be. I guarantee you are going to love this man’s responses. I can say that I was personally left with a whole new train of though on some matters, and also left wondering what type of gang member Jon Stewart might have been should that have been an option. Intrigued? You should be! So ladies and gentlemen, please enjoy some great words from the brilliant Jack Helmuth!

When did you realize you wanted to write for a living? And more specifically, writing in the world of comedy? Were you always a funny kid who was destined to make people laugh as a way of life?

In 9th grade two major things happened to me (three, if you count getting pubes). The first was discovering David Letterman. I would stay up as often as I could to watch his old 12:30 show (Late Night) and it mesmerized me. It was the coolest and funniest thing I had ever seen.

The second was that I was required to hand in 30 pages of journal writing every month for my English class. Like most kids I wrote a bunch of filler and occasionally wrote about my feelings, but that ultimately left me bored. So I started writing funny stories (a Jack London parody called “To Build A Fire 2: This Time It Starts”) to entertain myself. Well, my teacher, Mr. Kennell, thought they were good enough for the school literary magazine and published them. I would get stopped in the hallway by people telling me how funny they thought my pieces were, and there was no better feeling in the world than that. It was then that I knew that writing comedy was what I wanted to do with my life.

Important side note: I had tardiness issues for a few years starting in 9th grade, in part due to my discovery of Mr. Letterman and staying up until 1:30 a.m. as a 14-year old. I got into all sorts of trouble for this, but Mr. Kennell always supported me. “For you, that is homework. One day you’re going to write for Dave or for Saturday Night Live. My first job out of college was at SNL.

Other important side note: I lied. Still haven’t gotten my pubes.

When was the first time you can remember seeing your name appear on a screen, large or small, with your credits as a writer? Do you remember how you felt when you first saw it, as well as what you might have been doing at that exact moment?

It was October of 1999. I had gotten a staff writing job at Who Wants To Be a Millionaire back when it had hit it BIG. We were the number one show in America, and since we were on four nights a week, it was also like the 3rd, 7th, and 9th ranked show in the land. It was a short deal (something like a 10-week contract) since they didn’t know if the show would be permanent or not, and my boss at SNL, Steve Higgins, who had always been incredibly kind, generous, and supportive of my dream to be a writer, held my job for me in case I wanted to come back. So even though I had gotten jokes on Weekend Update, I was not a staff writer on SNL, so Millionaire was the first time I had ever seen my name on TV as a credited writer. I watched the show with my girlfriend at the time and felt like I was floating on air. It was a dream-come-true moment.

As a hardcore comedy fan, I absolutely adored Bonne McFarlane’s Women Aren’t Funny, that you were a part of, along with our old pal Joe DeRosa. So, I have to ask something about it. When you are blending satirical content with a very touchy subject like was covered in the film, what would you say is the most complicated part of the process? What were some things you attempted to avoid, if any?

I’m so glad you saw Bonnie’s film! She is so talented and funny and amazing. I encourage everyone who’s a fan of comedy to go out and check out that film. Unfortunately I don’t have a great answer to this question – I just helped her with a few specific parts of the movie and she was very kind (too kind) and gave me a writing credit.

I have lots of opinions about how to handle touchy subject matter like politics and race if you want to chat about that, but for Women Aren’t Funny, I’m the wrong person to ask.

I really enjoyed The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, and was pretty sad to see it disappear. You were an extremely prominent figure on the show during its entire run, and did an amazing job. What was the atmosphere like behind the scenes with such hilarious people like Larry and Mike Yard, and more? Besides being a shit ton of work, was there some fun to be had? Any good stories you can tell us about?

Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the show. My mortgage was also sad to see it disappear. I did have a fun, somewhat-prominent role there as a writer the very first day to the last, a senior producer, and as one of the go-to “evil white douche” for sketches (play what you know).

This is a hard one to answer, because I have a lot of complex emotions about my time there. My experience on that show changed me and still affects me deeply.

The atmosphere there was great because of the people. That’s how it always is with shows – you get good people and then hopefully become a family. Behind-the-scenes it was a little more buttoned-up than some comedy shows I’ve been around because there were a lot of people who were either new to the business or new to their positions. But that also made it very special, seeing people learn and grow and have their dreams come true for the first time ever.

My favorite story was when the Bloods and Crips stopped by to visit (thank God I didn’t wear my Latin Kings colors that day). It was about a week after we had aired an episode where Larry went down to Baltimore to hold an on-air “summit” with the two groups during the aftermath of the riots following the Freddie Gray incident. Apparently Larry and the producers told the members of the gang to stop by if they were ever in NY and sure enough they did. All of a sudden these gang members were hanging out in our offices and getting tours of the set and stuff. But the best part was when Jon Stewart stopped by to chat with them, since it was a Friday and our show and The Daily Show didn’t tape on that day. Somehow I wound up on a couch sandwiched between two fellas and got to watch Jon, with a day’s worth of stubble and in street clothes and a Mets cap basically interview these guys. It was such a beautiful thing. Jon had such sincere intellectual curiosity about their lives and gang life and their role in Baltimore moving forward. He was so sharp and funny and well informed and he held their feet to the fire, man! He asked them about the economics of selling drugs and questioned them on their relationship to the drug trade. And he wasn’t afraid at all to call bullshit on them if he thought they weren’t being truthful. To me it just showed what a once-in-a-generation talent Jon is.

My personal highlight was when one of the Crips answered a question from Jon & I immediately chimed in, patting the two dudes on either side of me on the back and declared, “Yup, that’s how the three of us feel” (or something like that). Keep in mind that I’m a 40-year old white comedy nerd with hands as soft as silk. I got a huge room laugh and an approving nod from Jon. Only at The Nightly Show could you have a “hang” with the Bloods, Crips, and Jon Stewart.

As a complete outsider who knows nothing, I have to assume that a writing gig on something like the White House Correspondence Dinner has to be a bit of a challenge. But yourself and a team of great writers managed to pull it off swimmingly in 2016, with one of the most memorable WCDs to date, in my opinion. So, can you give us a bit of insight on what it is like to write for something like this? Is the process different given the nature of audience members involved?

To be honest it was pretty straightforward. Larry invited the writers of the show to write for the WHCD, but we were in no means required to. We basically just wrote a ton of jokes and they were culled down by Larry. As we moved closer to the big day we would get emails saying “we need more jokes about CNN” or “we’re set on Trump jokes” so we could fine tune what Larry was looking for. I remember staying late the Wednesday night before the event and hearing Larry rehearse in the 3rd floor conference room. Boy there were some damn good jokes in there.

I am very intrigued by a great book I came across entitled The United States vs. Santa Claus. Can you tell us a bit about this book that sounds absolutely amazing? What made you want to tell this story?

Well, this is kind of a crazy part of my life. I was the showrunner for a sketch comedy show called The B.S. of A. with Brian Sack on a network called The Blaze. Yes, that’s right – Glenn Beck’s network.

I know, I know, you all hate Glenn. I was the same way, as an Obama-donating liberal. But let me tell you something about that show and that experience. I met with Glenn before the launch of the show and he said this to me: “This is a bit of an experiment for a news network. (The execs) asked me if I wanted to read the scripts of what you guys are going to do and I said no, I trust those guys. I just have one rule for you. Make fun of Republicans, make fun of Democrats, and definitely make fun of me – just be fair about it. There are no sacred cows.” And that was it. We had complete freedom to do whatever we wanted on that show. And we did just as he asked, and made fun of anything in the news that we thought was bullshit. It was probably the best creative experience I’ve ever had and I learned lessons about my audience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. As mostly Tea Partiers, our audience were mostly people I had made fun of in my career up until that point. They were rubes in my mind (“deplorables” as some non-presidents might say)…until I got to know them. Turns out these are people who are desperate to be entertained, desperate for comedy that doesn’t talk down to and about them and mock their beliefs. Turns out they have the same delightful, weird sense of humor that you want your audience to have (like MST3K type of stuff). When they see there’s no agenda behind what you’re saying they open up and are willing to laugh at anything. We would have a show that had a cold open making fun of Rick Santorum saying that college is for “snobs” and then, in the very next sketch, make fun of the disastrous Obamacare roll-out. No agenda there – just things in the news to mine for comedy. There should be much, much more of that these days, in my opinion, especially in late night.

It was one hell of a balancing act with our almost entirely liberal writing staff and company of UCB actors. I had to find material that the liberals who created the material could live with but that our audience would also enjoy. So, for example, the Obamacare roll-out. That was a complete disaster. I mean, how could they screw that up? No show did sketches about that, in part because the people behind those shows were pro-Obamacare, so it didn’t suit their agenda to make fun of it. But the key is to find that universal truth to make fun of, which was the roll-out. It wasn’t about whether or not people believed universal health care was a good idea or not. That’s ideology. What comedy SHOULD be able to do is make fun of the circumstances surrounding a hot-button issue in a way that everyone can agree with. Whether you supported the bill or the president (or not), reasonable people should be able to laugh at the failure of the government’s execution of the Affordable Care Act. That was our key to success.

From the success of that show we got some awesomely weird benefits that I would’ve never dreamed of. We went on tour with Glenn and did a live stage show at various cities across the country, culminating in a live Fathom Event. And we also got a book deal. Glenn came to me and Brian (Sack, the host of the show) with the idea to do a big government versus Santa Claus comedy book. Basically it would show how the government would regulate Santa to death. It’s a fun concept and we packed that thing full of jokes. But because the evil Glenn Beck was peripherally involved people will have made up their minds about it before reading it.

What does the future hold for you good Sir? Anything you would like to plug to our readers?

Hopefully getting back into showrunning jobs. There’s nothing I enjoy more nowadays than helping develop talent and sharing talent with the world.

There are a few projects that I’m working on right now that aren’t at a stage yet where I can promote them. So I’ll just promote my wife’s business, Affordable Interior Design! Need a high-end look while not wanting to spend a lot of money. Just visit Betsy Helmuth’s website (www.affordableinteriordesign.com) and check out the wide variety of plans that are right for you! Mention this interview when booking and nothing will happen! Sorry. It’s still a real good deal, and she’s crazy good at what she does.

Hey, my kids gotta eat.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

I saw a highlight tonight of Cincinnati Reds 1B Joey Votto giving a bat he had just hit a home run with to a 5-year old kid with cancer who was sitting in the front row. Gave him a jersey, too, and the kid was smiling from ear-to-ear. Made me smile and cry. Hard.

I like being in the smile business.

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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