Behind-the-scenes: Binghamton alumna serves as showrunner of ’The Daily Show’
Jen Flanz ’98 is also executive producer of longtime Comedy Central hit series
Jen Flanz ’98 received two job offers on the same day after graduating a semester early from Binghamton University.
The first was to spend two years working on The Century, a 15-part documentary led by legendary TV news anchor Peter Jennings. The second was a production assistant position at The Daily Show, a late-night TV news parody hosted by former ESPN personality Craig Kilborn on the basic cable network Comedy Central.
“The first time I watched The Daily Show was the night before my interview,” Flanz recalls. “When I was offered both positions, I thought: The Peter Jennings project is two years and The Daily Show could either be canceled in a month or run forever. Twenty-five years later, here we are.”
More than two decades since then, The Daily Show is not only still on the air, but it is one of television’s most influential shows. It has won 24 Primetime Emmys and three Peabody Awards, while elevating hosts Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah and correspondents such as Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Ed Helms to stardom.
Flanz has played an integral role in the show’s quarter-century of success. She became an executive producer in 2013 and was promoted to showrunner in 2019. Now she manages a team of more than 100 staffers, oversees all of the creative elements it takes to create the show each night, and ensures the show has a consistent voice in every space where it’s presented. And Flanz’s role extends beyond the day-to-day — she works closely with the network on broad-stroke decisions, from on-air talent to the future of the program.
“We do four shows a week: It moves quickly, so my job is to have an eye on the show as a whole,” she says. “It’s about how all of the pieces work together. It’s about trusting our team and making big decisions for the show.”
Flanz, who has won seven Emmys, helped make a big decision for the show in 2015 when Noah replaced Stewart at the anchor desk. She will help to make another monumental choice later this year: Naming a successor for Noah, who left the show in December 2022.
“I don’t know yet what the final plan will be because we’re still talking about the next best iteration of The Daily Show,” she says.
The Binghamton years
A much easier decision was made back in 1994, when the Rockland County native chose Binghamton University for her undergraduate education. Flanz also applied to the University at Buffalo and the University at Albany, but “I knew of the SUNY schools, Binghamton was the best,” she says.
Flanz entered Binghamton prepared to major in philosophy, politics and law (PPL). She soon shifted her focus to literature and rhetoric with a theatre minor, and found herself captivated by the O.J. Simpson trial, CNN and MTV.
“Binghamton helped me figure out how to make the most of being in college while getting real-world experience in what I wanted to do,” she says.
Flanz, who had already interned in Binghamton with Fox local news, understood the competitiveness of the industry and decided to finish her studies a semester early in December 1997.
“I did internships at The Rosie O’Donnell Show, One Life to Live and VH-1,” she says. “Then when I graduated, I applied for every [television] production in New York City.”
Stewart and Noah
Comedy Central’s hiring of Stewart in 1999 proved to be a turning point for The Daily Show. The comedian, who had hosted his own MTV show in the mid 1990s, helped move the show toward political-news satire. With segments such as “Indecision 2000” and “Mess O’Potamia” (about the Iraq invasion), the show became critically acclaimed and beloved by audiences.
“It took a lot longer for everyone inside the show to realize the effect it was having outside,” Flanz recalls. “I knew it was getting more attention. If I went to temple for Rosh Hashanah when I first started, I would say to my parents’ friends that I was on a Comedy Central show that was a late-night news parody, and they would sometimes nod like they knew what I was talking about. Then, between 2000 and 2002, I would say it’s a show with Jon Stewart and people would respond: ‘I love that show!’
“It was no longer a niche comedy show,” she adds. “It became a part of the cultural conversation. The growth was pre-social media, so it was mostly press and word-of-mouth and people tuned in.”
By 2010, The Daily Show was thriving and Flanz’s responsibilities grew to co-executive producer. A few years later, Flanz and a few co-workers showed Stewart a recording of a young South African stand-up comedian named Trevor Noah.
“Jon watched a minute of Trevor’s act on Letterman and said: ‘Turn it off. Get that guy. He is going to take my chair someday.’ This was a few years before Jon told us he was going to leave.
“We all looked at each other when Jon left the room and said ‘What was that? Is he leaving?’ What he was saying was: Trevor Noah is that good. … Jon had an amazing eye for finding, mentoring and developing talent.”
Noah was hired in late 2014 as a show contributor. Flanz says she knew that Noah was special from his first visit to the office.
“He was captivating, charming and smart,” she recalls. “He was young, biracial, spoke seven different languages. He used Twitter — none of us had used it extensively at the time!”
Stewart announced his departure in early 2015.
“Jon is such an amazing, normal guy who was constantly in the public eye while hosting the show, and that can be exhausting,” Flanz says. “I was sad because he was my mentor and I genuinely enjoyed making a show with and for him every day, but I was happy that he felt good about his legacy at the show, so I was able to get excited about the new challenge.”
Later in the year, Flanz (now an executive producer) and network executives made the risky decision to promote the generally unknown Noah to host. Flanz says support from Comedy Central was vital for the new version of the show.
“They said: ‘Filling Jon’s shoes will be hard, but it is a marathon, not a sprint,’” she says. “And it did take some time for viewers to catch on to what was special about Trevor. Although we thought it may take two to three years, it ended up only taking about a year-and-a-half for people to say: ‘This is cool and interesting in a new and different way.’”
For Flanz, one of the biggest changes for the show during the Noah era was increasing diversity and balance on and off camera: different races and genders, different sexualities, different religions, different political views.
“Once you broaden your writing and producing teams, that’s when you make the best show,” she says. “Sit in a room together with people from all walks of life and point out where people may have blind spots. That’s how you elevate jokes and put out your best product.”
Flanz emphasized the diversity of the show’s current correspondents (Roy Wood Jr., Desi Lydic, Ronny Chieng, Michael Kosta and Dulcé Sloan) as helping the show’s content: “It gives us an opportunity to cover stories and tell jokes in different ways.”
The next version of ‘The Daily Show’
Noah’s decision to leave the show in late 2022 to focus on touring led Flanz to suggest to the network a rotation of celebrity guest hosts for 2023. Comedians such as Leslie Jones, Wanda Sykes, Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman, Marlon Wayans, Hasan Minhaj and D.L. Hughley have all spent week stints at the anchor desk.
“These are people who are well-equipped to host a show,” Flanz says. “They’re seasoned enough to have opinions and solid points of view.”
Flanz praised Jones for energizing the show and the staff in the first week of filming without Noah.
“She came in with all of this excitement,” Flanz says. “We thought we could do this [format], but when she delivered that week — she had jokes for days — we knew we were going to be OK.”
Flanz says she would like to have a plan for a permanent host or hosts by September, when the 2024 presidential election will start heating up.
“Will it be one host? Two hosts? Three hosts? A rotation of guest hosts on a larger scale? What is the next voice?” she says. “I don’t want to be boxed into ‘it has to be a …’ I believe it just needs to be the next best version of the show. It’s exciting trying to figure it out. I think our brand is well-respected and a lot of people will want the job. But it’s a grueling gig and another set of big shoes to fill.”
The Daily Show has given Flanz the opportunity to be a part of other projects within the show’s brand, such as podcasts, books and multiple specials with Daily Show talent such as Jordan Klepper and Desi Lydic. Because of that — and the busy show schedule — she doesn’t have much time to consider outside projects.
“I get to come to the office each day and talk about what is going on in the world with people that I respect who have a variety of opinions,” she says. “And we get to make jokes all day! I can’t think of a more challenging, fulfilling job for me.”
Bonus Tracks with Jen Flanz
* When Jen Flanz was hired to work on The Daily Show, she did not know that Madeleine Smithberg ’81 co-created the Comedy Central series. Smithberg served as executive producer until leaving in 2003.
“I started on Jan. 16, 1998, with Craig Kilborn as the host,” Flanz says. “About a week or two later, Madeleine said: ‘I hear you went to Binghamton. I went to Binghamton!’ It was so crazy that the woman who created and ran the show went to Binghamton. That was very cool to find out.”
* Trevor Noah’s foresight was on display in late August 2015, when Flanz and staff members were priming him about the 2016 presidential candidates.
“He looked at Donald Trump and said: ‘That guy is going to win,’” Flanz recalls. “We said: ‘No! This is a stunt for The Apprentice. He won’t stay in the race.’ Trevor compared him to African dictators and why they are so captivating. It went from ‘Trevor doesn’t know what he’s talking about’ to ‘He sees something we don’t.’ That outsider view was an advantage other shows didn’t have when covering the Trump presidency.”
* When COVID-19 struck in March 2020, Flanz consulted with showrunners from other late-night TV shows. The group decided to stop having in-studio audiences in order to keep everyone safe. Once in lockdown, The Daily Show staff produced some “content from home.” After working with team members on what she called a “janky setup,” Flanz oversaw their return to television (a satellite truck was parked outside an editor’s home for almost a year to send out episodes). While the staff kept busy creating content, they decided to use the show as an opportunity to raise money for people in need during the pandemic.
“There were doctors and nurses risking their lives every day,” she says. “We’re making comedy. What can we do to help? Let’s connect our audience with places that need funds or PPE [personal protective equipment].”
* Flanz cited charismatic celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney as well as leaders such as Barack Obama and John McCain as the show’s best guests. New authors and people with interesting back stories also make great guests, like Black opera singer Ryan Speedo Green and holocaust survivor Selma van de Perre, she says. There is one group of guests that The Daily Show has missed, though.
“After the Trump election, booking Republican guests got much harder,” Flanz says. “It’s an area I feel like we are missing. Luckily, we’ve been able to get people like Chris Christie, but some viewers and politicians see us as a [left-wing] show. We’re always trying to have friendly, civil conversations and talk about all the issues.”