In front of a gathering of about 30 people at the Slifka Center on Tuesday, “Daily Show” staff writer Rachel Axler spoke about her career path and her experience over the past two-and-a-half years at what she called her “dream job.”
Axler — a Williams College graduate who earned a degree in English and theater in 1999, and one of 11 writers on the staff of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” — told the audience she did not envision doing television writing until she was in college.
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“I actually didn’t have a background in comedy,” she said. “It was just something I was good at. I had a personal monologue of jokes in college, but that was it.”
Axler, who cited Woody Allen as her major comedic influence, said she became interested in professional comedy-writing after a summer internship sponsored by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. After observing some of the best writers in the field during the summer of 1999, Axler moved to New York City with one goal in mind — writing for her favorite TV program, “The Daily Show.”
As soon as she moved to New York, Axler said, she looked up “The Daily Show” on Google and found out about a class taught by one of the show’s writers. She said she signed up for the class in the hopes of eventually landing a job with the show.
Axler did get noticed by the staff, she said, but she did not get hired as a writer right away, since she was told “The Daily Show” was not hiring.
Instead, she worked a temporary job on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” But as soon as two writing spots on Stewart’s show came open, Axler said, she applied. She said the application process was daunting.
“A part of the process was to watch an episode and do it ‘better’ than it was done,” Axler said. “I just thought to myself, ‘Yeah, right, like I can do something better than them.’ ”
In addition to applying to a competitive job, Axler said, she was attempting to become the first woman on the show’s writing staff in three or four years. In her interview, Axler was asked numerous questions about how she would work in an environment dominated by men, she said.
The show’s leaders had become especially cautious because a female writing assistant on the set of “Friends” had recently filed a lawsuit because she had felt uncomfortable in another male-dominated setting, she said.
But Axler said the male-heavy environment helped her develop skills essential to her career.
“Just the physical act of speaking when I get an idea is not something that comes naturally for me,” Axler said. “You have to get over yourself. It definitely has been a learning experience for me.”
Although Axler said she loves her current job, she said she is also pursuing other creative interests. She has written a script for a play, “Smudge,” which she anticipates will be produced next year. Axler said the play is about a young couple’s experience having a child and the child’s being different from what they expected.
Students in attendance said they were impressed both by Axler’s natural sense of comedy and by her insight into the world of TV writing.
“She was extremely informative and very funny,” Douglas Lieblich ’08 said. “I’m interested in comedy television, and to see someone so happy with their job was inspirational.”
Jacob Abolafia ’10, who attended the talk, said he was interested to hear about Axler’s life in the TV industry.
“She was original about her perspective of women in comedy writing,” Abolafia said. “She had interesting things to say about her career. More events like this should take place at Yale.”
Axler received her MFA from the University of California-San Diego in playwriting.