Elliott Kalan is a writer for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart who also moonlights as host of Closely Watched Films, a monthly screening series at the 92Y Tribeca. The series’ next installment takes place Wednesday, Dec. 2, when Kalan and guest Kristen Schaal will screen Preston Sturges’ unwanted-pregnancy romp The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek. Kalan recently spoke with The A.V. Club about working at The Daily Show, why the Oscars are no longer real to him, and what James Cagney can teach us all about modern movie pacing.
The A.V. Club: You started at The Daily Show as an intern in college. Seven years later, you’re writing for the show. Do you have any advice for wide-eyed interns hoping for a similar career trajectory?
Elliott Kalan: I have three pieces of advice. Work as hard as you can, because most people don’t. Don’t be too casual with your bosses; always be a little bit less casual in dress and manor than they are. And three, if you can wear a tie, do so. If you wear a tie people assume you’re an authority figure. Because of the tie.
AVC: The Daily Show has been covering the Obama presidency for about a year now. Do you feel like you have a sense of his administration yet?
EK: Only speaking for myself, I would say that I don’t think I have a complete handle on him. He’s moving at a different pace, and he’s also someone we’re not used to. People forget we had eight years of Bush as president. Well, they don’t forget—unfortunately, it’s impossible to forget. But they do forget that it took a while for him to get into that role that we know him as now. During the campaign and his first year or so, he went through a number of personas: He was The Everyman President, The CEO President, The Tough President. It wasn’t until a couple of years in that we knew he was The Fuck-Up President who couldn’t do anything correctly and was dumb. So Obama's going to take at least a year. And then who knows how history will view him: When the robot-hosted Daily Show of 2200 looks back on this, what are they going to think of him? Who knows?
AVC: You helped create the infamous gay-Western montage at the Oscars, when Jon Stewart hosted. How did that come about?
EK: That was something Jon came to us with. Brokeback Mountain was the big movie that year, and he wanted to do something about how homosexuality in Westerns is not a new thing. There was always this undercurrent of veiled homoeroticism, and I was attached to that because I was known as the guy who knows movies at the show. So we spent a couple months scanning through Westerns for these very brief moments of guys locking eyes with each other, or touching guns in phallic ways. I watched about 25 westerns in one month. That was a very exciting dream come true. Unfortunately, it had the side effect of… The Academy Awards no longer seem real to me now. It was instantly like, “Oh, if I was involved, it must be like a fake Oscars that’s appearing on my television only and never anywhere else.”
AVC: For "Closely Watched Films," you talk about looking at old films as living, breathing, imperfect things. Do you think people have the wrong perception about films from the '20s, '30s, '40s?
EK: The wrong perception people seem to have about older movies is that they're boring or just in general not as good. People think old movies are too slow, which is the exact opposite of the case a lot of the time. When you watch a modern movie, they spend a lot of time setting it up. There’s a James Cagney movie called Each Dawn I Die where he’s a reporter who has a big exposé on the political machine in the city he’s in. So the politicians hire gangsters to, basically, knock him out, put him in his car, fill the car with booze to make it look like he’s drunk driving, and get him in a car crash. He goes to jail for drunk driving. And in jail he befriends a gangster, and there’s a riot. That whole section I just told you about takes place in seven minutes.
AVC: Your next screening is The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek, a slapstick-y comedy about unwanted pregnancy from 1944. Did this movie cause a scandal back then?
EK: Well, the movie doesn’t tiptoe around the fact that, like, listen… The only way that it happened is because she [the main character, named, incredibly, Trudy Kockenlocker] got drunk and spent the night with a soldier. It’s kind of taken for granted that she’s going to have the baby. But not in this self-righteous way that, say, Juno or Knocked Up have, where the characters say, “No I won’t have an abortion! This baby is mine and I’ll have it! I’ll have it, I tell you! I don’t care what society says!” Were people scandalized though? I have to assume so. There’s a quote from James Agee, I think from The Nation, where he says the only way this movie seems to have been made is that the production code “must have been raped in its sleep.”