Editor's note: A Eureka High School teacher was briefly suspended last fall for showing episodes of The Daily Show in his class. Dan McCoy, a 1996 graduate of EHS and writer for the show, preferred not to give his opinion of the controversy.
Just nine years after moving to New York City, 33-year-old Eureka native Dan McCoy is realizing a life-long dream: He's working with one of his comedy idols as a staff writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
McCoy, a 1996 graduate of Eureka High School, is the youngest son of Dr. Jerry and Ginny McCoy. Jerry McCoy is the former academic dean and retired religion professor of Eureka College. Ginny McCoy is retired director of Melick Library at the college. McCoy has two older brothers, Robert, 46, an attorney, and John, 43, a media designer and information specialist at an art museum.
To the casual observer, going from small-town native to big city professional comedy writer in just under a decade might seem like a sprint. After all, it could take years just to learn to navigate the NYC subway system to a newbie from the Midwest.
But to McCoy and those who lived it with him, it was a marathon. And unlike most marathons, this one was filled with false starts, switch backs and rough terrain.
To the Big Apple
McCoy moved to the borough of Brooklyn in 2002 with his wife, Sarah Hampton, a photographer. After years of temporary office jobs by day and stand-up and improvisational sketch comedy by night, McCoy began writing for The Daily Show the day after Memorial Day 2011.
The Daily Show, a self-described "fake newscast," was created in 1996, with Stewart joining the show as anchor in 1999. In the Emmy and Peabody Award winning half-hour comedy, Stewart uses real news footage for his commentary and conducts interviews with politicians, entertainers and authors. It airs Monday-Thursday at 10 p.m. Central Time on Comedy Central.
In describing how the show is put together, McCoy shows his brand of dry humor: "Well, a lot of the details are top secret like the Colonel's mix of herbs and spices, which is probably why Jon's always wearing that white suit and bolo tie around the office."
McCoy continues, "We have a morning meeting where we go over the day's news, and writing assignments are handed out, which are worked alone or in pairs. Then Jon and the head writer and executive producers hand out notes for rewrites. In the afternoon all the writers might get together to brainstorm better punch lines for specific setups, and most of the final polish is done by Jon himself."
McCoy credits the production and research team for all the clips used to give shape and theme to each show. He adds, "Jon is front to back involved in the show."
McCoy spent the years since graduating from Earlham College, Richmond, Ind., in 2000, working various temporary jobs while plying his trade on the side. Before moving to New York, he pursued graduate school in film, but quickly discovered it was not the right path for him. For a brief period, he sought theater work in Minnesota, then did some maintenance and landscaping summer work at his wife's high school in Ohio, and even came back to Eureka for awhile and did some substitute teaching.
Since moving to New York, he has done "bug" testing for Scholastic's software division, was the assistant in the admissions office of Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, and found that "there's big money in writing improv for corporation retreats."
"It was all pretty bad work," he says, recalling some of the more memorable jobs.
He drew depictions of movie plot descriptions by comedians for Cinemax. But McCoy soon discovered that Hollywood doesn't have a sense of humor about its movies, so only one animated piece was purchased before the money for project was pulled.
"It bought me a new computer," McCoy notes dryly.
He walked off a job where he made $10 an hour for a company that ghost wrote for writers. "It was a scam," he says now. "We were making money off writers that shouldn't be writing."
One job only lasted one day. He was fired because of a misunderstanding and had no chance to defend himself, "because it's easier to fire temps than to talk to them."
At the same time, McCoy was successfully writing for a number of web, television, radio and print clients, including Slate, The Devastator, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Whim Quarterly, Moveon.org, Gawker.com, Fuse TV, Jest Magazine, Modern Humorist and Public Radio. He also created an animated comic strip for the web and has a regular podcast on bad movies that he records with two of his friends (see related story below).
McCoy and his wife initially moved to New York because Hampton had done internships there during college, and had contacts. He figured he could hit the theater circuit while she worked as a photo editor.
"When I first came to New York I thought I would be an actor, but I got sidelined by getting into improvisation and sketch," says McCoy, "and part of why I wrote material was so I'd have something to perform. Eventually I realized I was probably better at the writing half."
McCoy says he got through the tough times with "self-delusion and the lack of any other marketable skills."
"What's both helpful and absolutely terrifying is that the longer you try to become a comedy writer, the fewer chances you have to get a ‘real' job," says McCoy. "While everyone else is sharpening their PowerPoint skills and boosting their resume, you're stuck in a series of jobs that aren't filled with tremendous opportunities for advancement. It's a succeed-or-die situation, which tends to be motivational."
Meanwhile, back in Eureka, his parents, watched from a distance and tried to be supportive despite their worries.
"Of course it was hard," says Ginny McCoy. "On the other hand, he seemed to be making progress (most of it unpaid) toward his goal so we trusted him to make the decision as to whether to hang in there or to decide it might be time to go a different direction."
"It was painful at times," Jerry McCoy agreed. "When he moved to New York, he spent a lot of time in a lot of different part-time jobs while doing improv, stand-up, and writing. And Ginny and I worried a lot about whether he had health insurance, or clothing, and was ever going to ‘make it.' But he kept at it, and it finally paid off. I am very proud of his perseverance."
"Jerry and I certainly know nothing about how to succeed as a comedy writer," admits Ginny McCoy, "so we had to trust his judgment. On the whole, Dan has good judgment, so we tried not to worry too much."
In spite of his claims of coming into comedy writing through the back door, McCoy had a comedic style early on. Ginny McCoy says all her boys are funny and like to make one another laugh at the dinner table. The family shares a collective sense of humor that is observational, tinted with sarcasm and intellectual undertones.
McCoy has been inspired by an eclectic collection of comics and sketch artists from Monty Python, to Kids in the Hall, to the Marx Brothers. Older Steve Martin stand-up routines, Woody Allen movies and, yes, even The Daily Show with Jon Stewart have inspired him as well.
As early as grade school, McCoy's talent as a writer, artist and humorist was getting noticed by his teachers and other adults. Sitting through many meetings at Eureka Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), where his family was active, and Eureka College, where his parents worked, McCoy learned to entertain himself by drawing cartoons. People sitting in church behind the McCoys would ask to see the drawings McCoy did during the service.
His writing continued at EMS: "I distinctly remember copying old Monty Python sketches in a middle school typing class, and adding my own embellishments," he says.
Then it was on to EHS, where he drew a comic strip for the school newspaper, and was subsequently hired by the Woodford County Journal to provide weekly political cartoons. He performed in the annual school musicals and joined the speech team, where he wrote and performed a two-character sketch about rival movie critics getting into a fight.
"Dan always has had a "unique" sense of humor and definitely "high level," according to Diana Sluder, sponsor of the speech team. "Dan's humor is very subtle and has ‘depth.' It's not a humor of ‘laughing, shouting and turning red in the face'."
McCoy's humor was evident in other classes as well, according to Don Samford, retired government and politics teacher.
"I was always amazed at his ability to see the more complex ideas and write it in such a creative and thoughtful way," says Samford. "Fortunately for me, Dan's sense of humor was just like mine. We both loved satirical and sometimes sarcastic humor and loved to use this in class."
Samford, a fan of both Jon Stewart and Steve Colbert of The Colbert Report that follows on Comedy Central, thinks McCoy is a perfect fit for The Daily Show.
"Although I do tend to relate to Colbert more than Stewart, and wish he were a writer there," Samford admits.
And in college, McCoy widened and deepened his experiences in writing, performing and making people laugh. McCoy founded and directed "Stop Laughing," an improv troupe, acted in various plays and musicals, did two radio comedy shows on the college station, was the cartoonist for the school paper and directed the short film, "Love."
Even now, McCoy has doubts about his ability to make people laugh.
"I'm not sure I've ever realized (that I am funny)," says McCoy. "I probably still doubt it. I've never been the sort of extrovert who makes people laugh uproariously. I just don't have the energy."
Looking back on his journey, McCoy credits his wife and parents for their unrelenting support.
"My biggest supporter would be my wife Sarah, who quite literally supported me by taking breadwinning photo editor jobs while I was unemployed or temping for nearly 10 years."
Now it's his turn to provide for the couple while she builds her wedding photography business.
"The fact that my parents never treated this as a pipe dream went a long way," he says.
Finally, he credits both Eureka, where he grew up, and New York, where he found a new community of support, for encouraging him along the way.
"Eureka is a great place to grow up, because it's such a safe and stable community, and I can do several things my New Yorker friends cannot, like actually identify breeds of birds, or bait a hook," says McCoy. "But it also taught me when it was time to leave Eureka and strike out someplace new."
And of New York, he says, "For all the stereotypes about unfriendly New Yorkers, it's very easy to be part of a supportive community out here. I have a web of people I know from the comedy world, and a lot of folks I know from college who moved to the city - you can pretty much stay still and people come to you."
As for other kids who dream big, McCoy has this advice: "The most helpful thing I ever heard was the Woody Allen quote that '90 percent of everything is just showing up.' You can't get anywhere if you don't try, but if you keep showing up, day after day, eventually someone has to start paying attention to you."
He adds it's helpful to know whether you really want it, "because you'll probably spend at least 10 years banging your head against the wall, unless you're the son or daughter of a TV producer, in which case congratulations on your new fall pilot!"
McCoy adds just one more piece of advice: "If you do get into the business, please move to Toronto, and try to break in from there. We have enough competition as it is."
McCoy's ongoing projects
In addition to writing for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, McCoy has two ongoing projects in comedy.
McCoy created 9 a.m. Meeting in 2009. He illustrates, animates the strip and voices one of the two characters. The concept came to McCoy on a subway ride to his own 9 a.m. meeting where he was going to be reprimanded for a mistake he had made in his day job as an administrative assistant.
"I was pretty awful at being an administrative assistant," McCoy admits. "I'd try, but my heart wasn't in it. I thought that the only thing worse than being in an early meeting would be to be in one your boss had entirely forgotten about, in a Waiting for Godot kind of way."
So, he recruited his friend, Matt Koff to voice one of the characters and taught himself to animate. The series shows two characters waiting for the 9 a.m. meeting to begin and having a stream of consciousness conversation.
The series won the MTV-selected $5,000 "Best Animation" development award at the New York Television Festival in 2010. It's been mentioned in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and elsewhere. It earned first place a record six months in a row in a competition at Channel 101 NY. The series was also a two-time Channy Award winner for Best Writing and Best Animation.
The Flop House is a podcast created and produced by McCoy in which he and two of his friends discuss bad mainstream movies they have viewed recently. His co-hosts are Elliott Kalan, fellow staff writer for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and Stuart Wellington, a fellow Earlham graduate. McCoy credits Kalan, whom he met while performing in Manhattan clubs, with encouraging him to apply for the position at The Daily Show.
The podcast has gained notoriety in NYC. The trio did a live podcast in New York a few months ago, and there are plans to do another live performance. It's also been featured in articles on Gawker and the TruTV cable channel blog. It is ranked in the top 50 comedy podcasts on PodcastAlley.com and listed in top audio comedy of 2010 by Dusted Magazine.
"The Flop House just came out of loving to watch terrible movies for their comedy value," says McCoy. "I figured Mystery Science Theater had covered the classics, so we stuck to newer mainstream films."
The Flop House can be downloaded from iTunes. Both projects are accessible through McCoy's blog: http://danmccoy.blogspot.com.