Can Comedy Reconcile Political Difference? A ‘Daily Show’ Writer Weighs In

Zhubin Parang, right, talks politics and comedy with BJ Rudell at a POLIS event.

By Hannah Miao ’21

Becoming a lawyer was not a proactive choice for Zhubin Parang, but rather a default option after graduating from college. “Law was possibly the most safe profession that I could think of at the time that did not require knowing math,” he said.

That might help explain why after practicing corporate law for four years, Parang decided to quit his job and pursue a career in comedy. But, as he said in a talk this month to POLIS and Sanford School of Public Policy students, it also explains why he’s comfortable doing comedy with a political edge.

Parang started in comedy at a young age when he joined his high school improv team. When he attended Georgetown Law, he continued doing improv in Washington, D.C., where he met B.J. Rudell, associate director of POLIS: Duke’s Center for Political Leadership Innovation and Service.

Even as he began working as a lawyer, Parang continued doing improv and sketch comedy in New York City. Eventually, he realized that while law was not for him, a career in comedy could be viable. He made the jump and was hired as a writer on The Daily Show, where he eventually became head writer and currently serves as a producer.

While Parang maintained that “anything can be funny,” he said the current political climate has made comedy an increasingly popular tool for reconciling politics.

“It’s easy to react emotionally to politics right now in any way, so I would rather laugh at it than jump out a window,” he said.

Parang emphasized that political comedy is not confined to the political left, as he works with several conservative comics at The Daily Show. He criticized the framing of comedy as “left” or “right;” rather, the issues arises when comics attempt to be ideological rather than honest or funny.

“If you’re trying to make a political point or trying to advance an ideology, it’s very difficult to be funny,” Parang said, “because your dominant purpose is to advance the ideology.”

For Parang, “the best jokes tend to come from a visceral feeling.” When crafting jokes or bits, he tries to think about the aspects of a particular topic that elicit an emotion. In this way, he differentiated successful humor from “resistance humor,” which he described as applause lines rather than funny jokes.

Part of writing successful political comedy includes being in sync with the audience. Because Parang is constantly steeped in political news, he admitted that sometimes he forgets that most people do not closely follow the news.

Occasionally, he and other writers will use more obscure references in their jokes. Parang said that Daily Show host Trevor Noah has a special ability to identify which jokes are translatable to a broader audience.

When asked about his experience working under two of The Daily Show’s hosts, Parang described both Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah as having similar leadership styles and being “phenomenal bosses.” Parang saw Stewart as a mentor and father figure who treated his writers and staff as equal professionals. Noah has a similar sense of trust in his staff and brings a laid-back approach to the show.

The main difference between the two, Parang observed, is their comedy style: Stewart was more argumentative while Noah is more of a storyteller.

For students interested in pursuing careers in comedy writing, Parang offered two pieces of advice: “You have to be funny, and you have to be known as funny.”

He encouraged aspiring comics to move to New York or Los Angeles and do as much work as possible, from improv, to sketch comedy, to stand-up, to writing pilots and screenplays – anything to get jokes in front of a live audience. He also advised students to work with comics, socialize in the comedy scene, and be known as a funny and good person to work with.

Parang extended his advice to any industry with an untraditional career path: “Be in the scene and be known as someone who is hard-working, talented, and fun to work with.”

Parang’s talk was sponsored by POLIS and cosponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy, the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy, and the Graduate Student Association of Iranians at Duke.