Means ’03 discusses work with Fey, Stewart
Since graduating from the College, Sam Means ’03 has won three Emmys for his work on “The Daily Show with John Stewart”and has written or produced for television comedies “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation.” He is currently a writer for the show “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” which will premiere on Netflix on March 6.
What was your time at the College like?
SM: I enjoyed my time at Dartmouth. I wasn’t always a fan of the Greek-centric lifestyle — I certainly never joined a fraternity — but I loved being up in the mountains, and I spent a lot of very rewarding time working at the AM radio station — where I was the music director — the newspaper and other on-campus publications. I did cartoons for The [Dartmouth], the Free Press and the Jack O’ Lantern, and for a while I had a weekly humor column in the [Dartmouth]. I also had a fantastic experience studying in the philosophy department, so much so that I went on to study philosophy in grad school.
How did you get involved in comedy writing?
SM: Comedy writing is something I’d always done for fun, and I really started getting into it at Dartmouth when I got sick of how time-consuming drawing cartoons was. I certainly never considered any of it a career path, though. I only fell into comedy as a job the summer after I got my masters when I was living with friends in New York, and I submitted some cartoons to The New Yorker as a lark. [Cartoon editor of The New Yorker] Bob Mankoff ended up buying one out of my sketchbook, and that was a big moment for me. I also got hooked up with The Onion that summer, and when they hired me as a contributor, it was a little bit, like, “Oh, I can get paid to do this? This is way more fun than being a professor or whatever!” So I never ended up going back for my Ph.D. — I just stayed in New York and decided to give comedy a shot.
What was the transition from drawing cartoons to written comedy like?
SM: Cartooning was a lot of fun, but the part I enjoyed the least was actually drawing the damn things. I liked coming up with the jokes, but then it was like the fun part was over. So focusing on the writing side of things felt like a natural transition. A few years ago my friend [comic artist] Kate Beaton and I teamed up for a while, where I would write the gags and she would draw them, which was great. We sold a few cartoons to The New Yorker that way as well, but I don’t really do much cartooning anymore myself.
What was writing for “The Daily Show” like? What are the challenges in writing satirical news? Which piece for “The Daily Show” are you the proudest of writing?
SM: Writing at “The Daily Show” was incredibly rewarding, getting to work with that amazingly talented staff and writing for a brilliant comedic mind like Jon [Stewart]. I spent almost six years there, and it was an intense job, but in a wonderful way, where you’d get in at nine, get your assignment, and spend a couple hours just cranking out your script, and then you’d do rewrites and put it all together and then it’d be on television that night. Some of my best friends — and my wife — are people I met in that particular salt mine. It’s hard to remember specific pieces after all this time, but I was pretty proud of the [President] Barack Obama biographical film I wrote for the 2008 convention in Denver, [Colorado], that was cool to get to work on. I always loved writing for [The Daily Show correspondent John] Hodgman, too.
How is writing for a comedy like “30 Rock” or “Parks and Recreation” different than writing for “The Daily Show?” What was that transition like?
SM: It’s a very different creative muscle to be dealing with narrative and character in that way, which was kind of scary after being in late night for so long. I definitely had to learn the ropes all over again, but I really love working in scripted, especially now getting to help build a new show in its first season on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
You’re a writer for Tina Fey’s new show, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” — how is writing for an online-only show different than writing a show that’s on television?
SM: We’re very excited to be premiering the whole 13-episode first season worldwide on Netflix on March 6th. It was actually kind of crazy, because the show was picked up by NBC, but then at the very end of production we worked out a deal to move it to Netflix and get a second season pick-up, which was amazing. So the first season of the show was produced for network, but next season it’ll be interesting to see what changes. I assume a lot more dongs.
Beyond the shows you’ve worked on, what are your favorite television shows (comedy or otherwise)?
SM: I always have a lot of trouble with these questions, because as soon as I answer, I’m like “Oh crap, I forgot about (blank)!” or “Do I really like that show or was I just trying to sound smart?” But in terms of what I’m watching right now, I know everyone is all about cable these days, but I’ve really been enjoying “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Bob’s Burgers” on Fox. I’ve also been super impressed with John Oliver’s new show on HBO. Those guys are doing something really special over there. And of course “Bar Rescue.”
What advice would you give to students at the College who want to go into writing comedy?
SM: Write comedy. A lot. Not to be blithe about it, but the most important thing really is to write as much you can, put it out there and get as much feedback as you can.
This interview has been edited and condensed.