Steve Waltien has a pretty funny boss: Jon Stewart. But Waltien is no slouch himself. The 38-year-old comedian and Shelburne native is an alum of the famed Chicago improv comedy theater, the Second City, and a member of the Improvised Shakespeare Company. He's now a writer on Stewart's new animated HBO series. While there is no official air date yet for the former "Daily Show" host's news parody show, Waltien says it will come out "soon."
In the meantime, local comedy fans can look forward to the Vermont expat's homecoming this week. Waltien returns to the Queen City for Laughter for Learning: Stern Center Benefit, a four-show, two-night run of improv comedy at the Vermont Comedy Club in Burlington on Wednesday and Thursday, March 22 and 23. Proceeds from the shows benefit the Stern Center for Language & Learning in Williston.
Three other comedians with local ties join Waltien. They include fellow Shelburne natives Ben Rameaka and Andrew Knox, of the Upright Citizens Brigade in NYC and the Second City in Chicago, respectively. The third is Kate James, a founding member of the Chicago sketch group Schadenfreude. James and Waltien are married and live in Red Bank, N.J., with their child.
Seven Days recently caught up with Waltien over the phone during a break in production of Stewart’s new show.
SEVEN DAYS: How did this benefit show come about? STEVE WALTIEN: It came together because my father was the chairman of the [Stern Center] board when he died in 2010. It was a very important organization to him. And in the years following that, the other folks who had worked closely with my dad at the Stern Center contacted me [about doing a fundraiser]. A tribute to him.
It took us a little while to get things going, and now it’s turned into an almost annual event. I know how valuable their work is, and my dad would frequently come home and talk about how rewarding it was when he met with students there.
SD: One of the performers is your wife. Do you guys perform together often? SW: I don’t know about often. When we were in Chicago we were a writing team, and wrote together for [the Second City]. Now we live in New Jersey and have a kid and I work full time.
To give you an idea of how nice Jon Stewart is, he wanted to put together a show for the writers to perform. But he said, actually, this is just a reason to get Kate a show. He’s really the nicest person in the world.
SD: Can you ask him to adopt me? I’ll help on the farm. But also seriously, is he as nice as I think he is? SW: Kate and I were talking about this last night. It would be hard to overstate [how nice he is.] And not in a flashy way, either. There’s a lot of charitable things that you don’t know about. I think this is true: He’s more wonderful than he seems.
SD: Can you tell me the plot of the entire HBO show? SW: We’re creating a fake news network to respond to the news of the day, and we have animated anchors. It’ll be really different [from "The Daily Show"]. It’s not a live action show with Jon behind the desk. He did that for 17 years, and there are other people now that are doing it really well. So he wants to do something really different.
SD: How many writers are there? And what’s your role on the team? SW: There are six of us, and then Jon, who writes, as well. I’m just one of the staff writers.
We’re also getting a lot of opportunities to perform on it, too, as we test out the animation. We’re voicing a lot of the characters, which is really cool. So we’ll see if that continues into production. So, it’s fun right now.
SD: Is it different to write for an animated versus live action show? SW: I find that it is. It’s really challenging because I came up through the Second City system, where it’s live performance. I’m used to writing for myself. With animation, I’ll write something on the page and I’ll know in my mind how I would deliver it, and the face I would make, and the inflection I would use and the way I would hold my body to naturally accentuate the laughs. Or I’m thinking about Jon, and the faces he would make, and the nonverbal cues he would give.
So, if I’m writing for an animated anchor, all that stuff I have to put on the page for the animator. If [I write] "Makes a face…" What kind of face? That’s really, really challenging. What’s fun is when it becomes a collaboration between the animator and writers.
SD: Have you worked on an animated show before? SW: No. Animation is new to most of us, so I think everybody is finding out what works and what doesn’t, and what you need to put on the page in order for an animator to [do their job].
SD: You’re an improv artist. But doesn’t standup generally attract more writers? What’s the deal? SW: In our writers' room there’s sort of a split between people who have an improv background and a standup background. I’m biased, because I think that improv is the best training for becoming a writer. You’re quickly accepting other people’s ideas and letting go of preconceived notions. The way in which it’s difficult is that, as an improviser, oftentimes you're not used to putting it all down on the page. It just happens. And sometimes it’s wonderful and sometimes it’s less wonderful.
In a writers' room, one of the biggest challenges for me is revision. Jon will tell you that everything will happen in revision. As an improviser, I resist that. The difficult part of it is taking that script you wrote at 9 a.m. and giving it another pass at 10 and another pass at 1 p.m. and another pass at 3 p.m.
SD: I heard you’re friends with Katie Rich. How does her suspension for the tweet about Barron Trump impact your view of comedy and free speech in our current political/social environment? SW: So, it’s frightening. I’m friends with Katie, and I know firsthand how brutal that experience was for her. She regrets the tweet, and yet she was trolled to the extent that she was getting death threats. That’s crazy.
Does it make me think twice about what I tweet? Yes. Because now I represent Jon, in some way. They went after her because she was an SNL writer. They did that to her because they wanted to find a crack in the SNL foundation.
Katie Rich is a wonderful person who deserves all of our sympathy — even if you think that tweet was inappropriate. What she got back was so out of scale. Where is the moral logic in [saying], “Kids are off limits, so you should die a horrible death?"
The lesson for me is that you have to be careful about those things. But the other side is that Katie got a lot of great support from the comedy community and the free speech community. Comedians need space to try things. You’ve got to be able to have a sense of humor about stuff. It’s important to try jokes that aren’t always perfect.
SD: You’re a Middlebury grad. Had you heard about the stuff with Charles Murray and Allison Stanger? SW: Yes. Professor Stanger was my political science professor; my heart goes out to her. I certainly don’t agree with Charles Murray, and probably would have protested him if he’d come to campus when I was there. But the fact that Allison got sent to the emergency room is unacceptable. It makes me sad, as a progressive.
There’s a real valuable discussion to be had there, as to: "Does Charles Murray belong on that campus and what do we make of his work?" My view is that if you subject his work to intellectual rigor, it will be defeated.
SD: Does it affect your inclination to perform on college campuses? SW: [The Improvised Shakespeare Company plays on] college campuses. We just transport you to a different time and we can wrap any sort of political commentary through that lens.
SD: The Improvised Shakespeare Company sounds awesome and super funny. How much Shakespeare do you actually have to know to do that? SW: I think you just have to be really familiar with the world of Shakespeare. When we first started out doing it, we would read a play a month and talk about it with a professor at Loyola. We’d [read] the text aloud, talk about character motivations. That was really useful.
It’s not like you need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the plays. I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head what happens in [Pericles, Prince of Tyre]. It’s not so much about that as it is about being able to act on the themes, the language, the settings and the tropes that exist within Shakespeare.
SD: How do you get in the zone for that? SW: We do a lot of linguistic warmups and physical warmups because it’s a very physical show. Our director likes to say that when you see us on stage, we’re already 45 minutes into the show. It has the most intense warmup of any show I’ve been a part of.