Former Daily Show Head Writer David Javerbaum On Writing His New Book With The Almighty Lord
David Javerbaum, former head writer and executive producer of The Daily Show, has 11 Emmys, 2 Grammys, and 2 Peabodys. He’s co-written America (The Book) and Earth (The Book) with other Daily Show writers, and What to Expect When You’re Expected: A Fetus’ Guide to the First Three Trimesters solo. Now, after conquering such featherweight topics as the country, the planet, and the creation of life, Javerbaum has found a writing partner who may be even more powerful than Jon Stewart: God.
Javerbaum’s latest book, The Last Testament: A Memoir, is out in stores today. His Godly voice is already popular on Twitter, where it enlightens his 46 thousand followers via irreverent pieces of wisdom like, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Give a man seven fish and he’ll eat for a week, then say, ‘So… got anything besides seafood?'” I spoke with Javerbaum last week about writing a book with God, what he learned from The Daily Show, and what’s special about Jewish celebrities.
How did you first get the idea of speaking as God through your “Tweet of God” Twitter account?
Well that was set up to promote the book, so it’s been in the works for a while. We set it up a year ago before I had even started working on the book.
As you know the book is not tweets, it’s a whole testament, written in chapter and verse. And the idea for the book came when God visited me and asked me if I wanted to work with him on his new testament.
I didn’t know that he was in the habit of doing house calls.
He’s not. It doesn’t happen very often, obviously, but he did come to me. He interrupted me while I was working and asked me if I was interested in working with him on his book and I said, “You know I’m very honored but I have an agent and there’s a protocol.” So he went to my agent and his agent was my agent, as it turned out. Because he’s God and I’m Javerbaum and my agent’s Greenberg so we’re all on the same team, if you know what I mean. So it worked out very well and we’ve been working together for about a year now.
Was there a particular message that he wanted to get out to the public?
Just that he wanted to get some stuff off of his chest before it was too late. And by “too late” he meant December 21st, 2012.
Well that’s nothing new; I mean everyone’s been saying that that’s when it’s all coming to an end. That’s when the Mayans said and the Mayans, as it turns out, were right.
Interesting. I guess even God is kind of a procrastinator. With all of eternity behind him, he waits until the year before to get his word out.
Yeah, well as you know from reading the book he has spent the last century kind of getting his shit together and hasn’t really been that involved. So he’s kind of just now getting back in the swing of things.
So to step back a little bit to you as the transcriber, between this book and the recent success of The Book of Mormon, it seems like religious humor is enjoying a little day in the sun. Was there anything that appealed to you about working with God specifically at this cultural or political moment?
As a comedy writer I was, and remain, puzzled and stunned that nobody had done this before. It seems like something that is right there. There’s a whole bunch of stuff in the Bible and it’s God, so it’s the biggest possible topic and it just seemed like something where there was going to be a lot to say. Particularly just to find the character. And I did find the character once I found God and he came to me.
Yeah, it seems like it’s such a consistent voice throughout the book that it feels like there’s a lot of freedom, no matter what you’re talking about, to kind of riff on any topic.
Yeah, it’s a consistent voice because he’s fairly confident in himself, I would say. He knows who he is and so he talks in the King James style with “verily” and “thou’s” and “thee’s.” But he also uses some contemporary slang and speaks in chapter and verse. That’s his literary style. He likes to chapter, he likes to verse, he likes the ability to be cited by chapter and verse, because he’s very impressive sounding when you can say, “Oh I am this, and look it up in Genesis 4:22!” You know you can’t argue with something that can be cited like that. You can’t argue with it.
Did working with God in writing this book change your approach to religion at all?
Yeah, I started the book as an Agnostic and then met God and have worked with him for a year. And now I’m not an Atheist, but I wish I could be, having met him.
Do you think anyone reading the book will start to be a believer?
I think so. You know, the book is clearly by God, he’s on the cover, he’s on the back cover and it’s by him, so – I mean how else could you write a book by God? I mean obviously it’s not going to be written by somebody pretending to be God, because that person would be doomed to Hell for all eternity for his blasphemy. So clearly it’s gotta be God.
What was he like as a writing partner? Especially compared to when you’ve worked on other books with other Daily Show writers?
Well, I work with Jon Stewart and Jon is the best. Jon is a wonderful person to work with. God is a pain in the ass. God would come to me at all hours, and I have other things I’m working on. I’m working on a TV pilot, I’m working on another book, and I’m working on a musical. He would just, at any time, day or night, he would just come to my office and wake me up or sometimes, which was even more distracting, he would enter my body and make me walk to the keyboard and type through me. Which, I’m a working kid so I’ve got things to do, but once he gets an idea in his head and he’s working he wants me to do it. I don’t know why, he has a thing about me. He wanted me to do it. I’m not a prophet. I’m really not a prophet; I’m just a comedy writer.
Do you know why you were chosen?
He wanted a comedy writer in general to punch up. The one thing, in general, that he’s not good at is being funny. He never is funny. And I think if you’ve read the Bible, you understand that. He wanted a comedy writer and he knew that I had just left The Daily Show, so he heard and he just came to me wondering if I wanted work.
How did your time at The Daily Show inform you? What were the biggest lessons you took away as a writer in general?
The stuff I learned at The Daily Show is hard to encapsulate, even in a long phone call. But one of the things I learned is that a joke is richer and better and a fuller joke if it’s based on the truth or an observation that you perceive is true about reality. And the more other people agree with you about that observation, and the better you express observations through comedy, the richer the interplay will be between the joke-ee and the joker. So a lot of this book is based on truth, on stuff that is actually all in The Old Testament and The New Testament and The Qur’an and also the world as it is today. Based on my attempts to observe those things and comment on them.
Another thing I noticed about the book is there’s definitely a love of pop culture. Considering that you wrote the Emmy opening song, “TV Is a Vast Wonderland,” is that excitement coming from you or from God, or a combination?
A combination. There’s a whole chapter called, “Glossy Ones,” where it’s just a series of God insulting a hundred different celebrities, one at a time. And he’s really into pop culture. He’s into celebrities because the Jews were his chosen people and they still kind of are but now celebrities are kind of more of his chosen people, although really with the Jews there is a lot of overlap.
Does it cancel out, like a double negative?
That’s a good question. I don’t know, I guess if you’re a Jewish celebrity I think you’re doubly chosen. I’m chosen.
You’ve written for musicals, for TV, and books. Do you find it’s a similar writing process when you’re doing those three things?
No, they’re all different. I really enjoy working in a lot of different media and relish the differences between those. The biggest one is that I’m a collaborative, which I really like, and I miss The Daily Show a lot; I miss the collaboration. So this one was, apart from God, solo. But I really enjoyed it; it was a very enjoyable experience to do this. And the fun part is just finding out and exploring what the voice needs to be, what the book wants to be and just discovering how to anchor it and build this little structure with individual jokes forming chapters, forming larger chapters, just like any other writer does. But it was really a lot of fun doing this.
Did you start on more of a joke level and then see what form it ended up taking naturally?
Yeah, I kind of just had some ideas and I trusted that if I wrote them out they would lead to more ideas and then gradually they would put themselves in some kind of coherent whole, and I think they have. It’s a narrative that goes through The Old Testament, to The New Testament, to the Qur’an, through the last 1400 years, which were a bit of a question mark for most people, including God. And interspersed with that narrative are little essays on topics like sports, and love, and there’s even a section of some Mad Libs you can do that are very fun. There’s sort of recipes in there and all kinds of other little short essays. So I think the whole thing holds together pretty well. But I’m not surprised; I mean it’s God’s work. You would think it’s gonna hold together pretty well.
So you don’t think it’s a disappointing sequel in any ways to any of his earlier works? It definitely holds up the franchise?
I think it does, but what’s disappointing, and I told this to God, I don’t think he understands he has these previous books that sold an average of 2 billion copies each and I don’t think he understands that we’re probably not gonna see those kinds of numbers on this. And I don’t want him to start blaming me for it. Like for obvious reasons I just said, “You have to understand, no one reads books anymore. If we can get like, 200,000 we would be doing amazing.” And we’ll see how it plays out. But I’ve told him, “Don’t expect 2 billion. Those kinds of things only happen like once, twice, three times in an eternity.”
You mentioned that you’re working on a TV pilot now. Could you tell me anything about that?
I can’t really discuss it, but I’ll be happy to tell you more about the musical, which we’re having a workshop of tomorrow and Friday. It is a long-gestating musical which I am glad is finally gonna have a chance to maybe get produced. It’s a musical based on the life of James Watt. I don’t know if that name rings a bell but he was the Secretary of The Interior under Ronald Reagan. And he was very controversial and was fired for referring to a panel members as “a black, two Jews, a woman, and a cripple.” He banned the Beach Boys from the fourth of July, and it’s a rock musical based on his life.
Is it a comedy?
Yes. It is to people watching it; it’s not to him.
And do you have anything else coming up? Do you think we can expect more books?
I hope so. As God says in the book, “The apocalypse is scheduled December 21, 2012, but that’s penciled in. And that can change based on how the book sells.” If the book sells very well and there’s a call for a sequel, there’s nothing inherent in the plans for that day that couldn’t be pushed back. Like a year, or two. It’s up to humanity basically. I don’t mean to do a hard sell or anything; I’m just saying the fate of the world depends on people buying this book. But it’s up to them.