Chuck O'Neil adapts to comedy craziness
“I hear Will Ferrell may have a baseball bat.”Composed and casual-cool, Chuck O’Neil sits in the control room of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” His eyes are glued to the big brother-like wall of monitors. Some are tuned to the news, some screen footage from the editing room or graphics being constructed by designers. The two big ones in the center show the episode in progress. O’Neil’s crew nods, eyes mesmerized by the visual cacophony. “What happened to the beard?” ventures Paul Pennolino, O’Neil’s longtime assistant director. See, earlier in the day, O’Neil, the director of “The Daily Show,” was informed that Ferrell, the evening’s guest, wanted to come out with a bag full of Conan O’Brien’s beard and hold it up to Stewart’s face. The gag was cut minutes before taping. Then, in act two, Stewart showed a clip of a lawyer demonstrating anal sex on a baseball bat — strokin’ away. This must have sparked something, because mere seconds before Ferrell appears on screen, O’Neil is told about the bat; as if happening simultaneously, there’s Ferrell, on camera, with a bat — strokin’ away. This juvenile (if not hysterical) bit is the only major curveball across O’Neil’s plate today. Playing latenight TV director is like playing a massive video game, and it can easily slip into disaster avoidance, mitigating problems as they arise. But after 11 years with “The Daily Show,” O’Neil — small frameless glasses, a mop of dark curly hair and a tight amiable grin — handles the grind with aplomb. “There are few things that stress me out,” he says after the morning production meeting, which lasts all of seven minutes — three of which are a “motivating” clip from a horrible-yet-awesome action film. “I always joke: We’re not landing planes at the airport. If we crash and burn, we can fix it in post.” O’Neil is rarely flustered, despite the fact that this meeting — core team members around a conference table, massive support staff along the wall watching, like an arena — is the first time he hears what’s in store for the evening’s show. Tonight features two standard desk pieces and a visit from Ferrell. This is nothing. “At one point, we had to build a bathroom and set up a fake live shot from the stall,” O’Neil recalls. No matter what the writers come up with, he tries to make it work. “I don’t think I’ve ever said ‘no,’” he says. “My role is to do everything possible to do what they envision.” Employees at “The Daily Show” operate, for the most part, autonomously. The morning is for the writers to hone the satire; O’Neil, meanwhile, remains in a holding pattern until close to 3 p.m., when scripts trickle in. Meanwhile, he checks his email. He pets the office dogs. Lunch is catered every day, and O’Neil sits with his jovial crew, lingering well after others go back to work. O’Neil took over shortly after Jon Stewart inherited the show from Craig Kilborn. Craig Spinney, O’Neil’s stage manager from 1990s FX morning show “Breakfast Time,” was already working there. Pennolino, O’Neil’s second in command at “Good Morning America,” came shortly after to join his former boss. Turnover on “The Daily Show” is minuscule. Ask any employee about O’Neil, and they trash him for being horrible. John Oliver, a writer and correspondent, goes so far as to say, “You’re writing about Chuck? Has Variety really stooped that low?” Here, these are the ultimate compliments. The show itself is synonymous with Emmys, but though O’Neil’s been nominated seven times, he’s never won. This year could shake up his self-proclaimed Susan Lucci status: O’Neil was integral in the show’s full-episode Glenn Beck parodies. And he singlehandedly helmed October’s Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, D.C. — three hours of live TV, with scripts only materializing a few hours beforehand. No rehearsal. Now that … “That’s the most stressful thing I’ve done,” he admits. In the familiar control room though, he’s at ease, even when hiccups arise. After the 4 p.m. dress rehearsal (journalists aren’t allowed to watch), O’Neil, Stewart and select writers-producers disappear to rewrite the script. Jack, an elderly, shifty-eyed gentleman — a holdover from before the show hired a full-on security staff — sits outside the room, ensuring no one bothers them. The crew scarfs on Mike & Ikes, waiting. O’Neil is running late when he bounds back into the control room. “We’ve gotta get moving,” he says; the cadence has escalated. This is O’Neil’s show mode — he delegates in a snap, remaining firm, but calm and in control. Once the show begins, O’Neil’s comments shorten to direct orders: “Go!,” “Ready two!,” etc. He’s spent all day at the show, but “I’m paid for these 22 minutes here,” he’ll say later. O’Neil wants the show as tight as possible, even on the fly. Thus when Ferrell grabs the bat, he adapts. When Stewart calls for an earlier clip during the Ferrell interview, he adapts again — but it’s the wrong clip. No big deal. “We can fix it in post.”
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