Thousands of Twitter followers know he can deliver a pithy musing. Millions more have laughed out loud at his jokes on the 2006 and 2008 Annual Academy Awards (although perhaps unaware of who wrote them). And every weeknight many have found joy at the end of the day by watching his work on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. An eight-time Emmy Award winner for Writing for A Variety, Music or Comedy Series, people know he is funny.
What the laughing masses may not know is that JR Havlan is encouraging those new to the business to come for his job. In an industry that can easily make people feel like they must keep others down to stay ahead, Havlan instead lends a hand. He knows the work he does is interesting to others, and he wants to help people who long to be in the TV writing business.
“‘All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.’ Whoever happened to have brought a tape recorder to the Sermon on the Mount eventually wrote that down, and it’s made quite a stir ever since. Unfortunately, for many it’s little more than deceitful lip service, but I happen to believe that it’s one of the very best guidelines to a good and decent life. In my career, I’ve done more receiving than Jerry Rice (Boom!). All I’m doing is a little giving back,” Havlan said.
Havlan has “given back” in many ways. He once taught a course in New York City titled, “Writing for The Daily Show,” in which he guided students through a six week class on joke writing and tone learning of the highly successful show. At the end of the course, each student would have a complete “pitch packet” to submit to the show, in the hopes of getting a gig writing for Jon Stewart.
One student did.
Rachel Axler had recently moved back home to New York after finishing graduate school in California. She began working a bad temp job for even worse bosses, but her “tunnel vision” always had The Daily Show at the end of it. She was unsure how to get to that end, so like any girl with a dream and a computer, she Googled it. Up popped her guide—a link to JR’s class.
The writing skills she learned from Havlan in the first few classes helped her develop material for the show, as well as learning the voice. When the class eventually wrapped up, there happened to be an opening for a writer at the show. Rachel submitted (and submitted again) to producers, and got the job.
“He (Havlan) let me know when the door was open,” Axler said. “He gave me this huge thing, which is, I was a nobody that anyone had ever heard of, never had a job in this before, and he was willing to give his word and say that I was good if people asked.”
While the class came to an end after a few years, Havlan’s help did not. In 2012, The Writers Bloc Podcast was born. A show that gives a glimpse into the world of fellow TV comedy writers, Havlan’s podcast has helped encourage established and budding word lovers alike. Through interviewing writers of some of the best comedies on TV, Havlan uncovers their creative processes, what their jobs entail and how they got in the positions they are in. The education and inspiration gained from learning these successful writers’ paths is inspiring many up-and-coming in the business.
One might assume the man who holds the title of longest running writer on The Daily Show (17 years) is unapproachable or full of himself, but another “Writing for The Daily Show” alum Josh Zepps would disagree.
“I was impressed by how shlubby he was, how normal he was. He was just very generous and very down to earth. And I think there’s a lesson in that. You wouldn’t be able to write stuff that really connects if you were not still connected with normalcy.” A student in the writing class, Zepps said Havlan always gave good feedback and was encouraging and positive.
“I think just having the sense that there’s nothing exclusionary or distant or stratospheric about being very, very successful in the industry. The recognition that I can actually be part of this club and exuding that, that’s the most surprising thing about JR,” Zepps said.
Whether it’s through his writing class, podcast or even his Reddit AMA, Havlan is kind, yet honest, about what it takes to make it in the world of comedy writing. Namely, getting inspired and then getting to work. Havlan encourages others to copy artists they admire and write content mimicking the shows they like to learn their voice. Then, he gives these aspiring professionals the same advice he gives his six-year-old son.
“Ultimately, the only way to find out what’s going to happen in your life is to actually try to make it happen. But as I’ve said thousands of times before: never forget the words of J.K. Rowling, who wrote, ‘It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.’ I agree with the woman who chased her own dreams and is now richer than the f***ing Queen!” Havlan said.
The many successful now-TV-writers who once took his class and the current, hopeful podcast listeners are not the only beneficiaries of Havlan’s mentor—ship.
“I’m in a position to be a slight help to people attempting to achieve their goals,” Havlan said. “Taking advantage of that rare opportunity is not my gift to them, but their gift to me. Or both. Yeah, both. It’s our gift to each other. There, I said it.”