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Department: Anthropology

Kutner Anthropology

Rob Kutner ’94

Writer, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

The power of observation

I majored in anthropology, not because I knew that’s what I wanted to specialize in, but because I had no idea what I wanted to specialize in—and it’s one of the broadest of the disciplines. However, truth be told, my professional interests were more stirred outside of the classroom.

Around junior year, I noticed that almost all my extracurriculars (Triangle Club writer, editor and chair of Tiger magazine, founding member of Quipfire!, announcer for the band) were linked to comedy. So I decided I might as well try and make money doing that. Which is what I do now as a writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In fact, it was a fellow Tiger and former Triangle/Quipfire cohort, Jacob Sager Weinstein ‘94, who helped me get my first break in comedy, working for HBO’s Dennis Miller Live. But in retrospect, I also think anthropology helped and helps me do what I do, as it helped enable the type of detached cultural observation and broad-mindedness that is essential to what we do on, you might say, a “daily” basis. For example, in some of my anthropology classes, we learned to view cultural practices as a “text,” a living document being acted out by societal participants—and therefore open to being plumbed for deeper or larger meanings.

At the Daily Show, we make a regular practice out of watching media coverage of events major and minor. But our focus is not on the facts or details—it’s more often on the subtexts or agendas of the media community, the politicians attempting to drive the discourse on that issue, or in many cases, the multimedia conglomerates behind the broadcasters. It’s about recognizing patterns, whether in a Japanese tea ceremony or a rash of blisteringly negative campaign commercials. In anthropology, we were taught not to get too attached to the values or paradigms our own culture constructs around us and projects as “truth.” That’s essential to good comedy, which cuts through the masks and filters and tries to get through to the underlying truth or observed reality. We also learned to practice close observation on rituals for their symbolic meanings. I try to bring the same interpretive sensibility to watching a press conference as Clifford Geertz did to a Balinese cockfight—though I’m still not sure which is the more dignified spectacle.