Rachel Axler’s wit was already apparent when she came to UC San Diego for an MFA (’04) in playwriting—only here would she discover how her humor could best apply to the world. “Coming in, I was 100 percent theatre-focused,” she says. “I actually resisted encouragement to write for sitcoms, thinking, ‘No—I should write for theatre. I’m just funny, and that has a place in theatre too.’ But I realized I was built for television as well. I was built for both.”
With an unprecedented career break that started at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and then led to writing for hit shows like Parks and Recreation, How I Met Your Mother and Veep, the versatility of her humor has proven the one standard that keeps us all from taking ourselves too seriously.
On choosing UC San Diego: “UCSD’s playwriting program was hooked into its acting, directing and design programs in a way I found unique. It functioned like a small theatre company, which is what I wanted. They also offered TV writing classes and screenwriting classes, and while that wasn’t what I wanted to focus on—amusing, given my career—I knew I wanted that experience and knowledge. And the fact that they didn’t look down upon the idea of writing for television too—that was a big plus.”
On an unexpected education: “I was actually really surprised as a graduate student by how much I learned by teaching. I taught Playwriting 101 and I would have bio majors, chem majors, students from all backgrounds who wouldn’t necessarily approach a story as a theatre student would. I learned so much teaching that class—seeing the leaps students made coming from a different perspective. And just being thrown into teaching, being told, ‘You have the authority to lead this class’—it forced me to have that authority, to look critically at both their and my own work, and see it from different perspectives.”
On what could have been: “When I was deciding what to do once I graduated, I went to my professor, Adele Shank, for advice. I told her, ‘Well, I can go to L.A., where people seem to be egging me to go, and try to break into writing sitcoms.’ And she’s like, ‘You sound very unhappy about that. What do you want to do? What would your absolute dream be?’
I told her I wanted to go to New York, to write plays and try to get a job at The Daily Show. So she said, ‘Do that! If you wind up in L.A., you’ll wind up in L.A., but why not go try? Go pursue your dream, even if it seems like a pipe dream.’ I did, and it worked. She was really mothering yet fierce at the same time. In that very direct way, she was amazingly helpful and inspirational in my career.”
On her big break: I had been watching The Daily Show since college. I couldn’t afford cable, but I had a friend who did and taped a lot of episodes for me. These were the days before you could get anything on your computer, so I was literally watching a video cassette tape, like in a VCR. And it was broken. We had to hold it open with markers.
I would watch the episodes to the very end, and when the list of names scrolled up, like, you know, insanely quickly, I would pause it and write down the names. I saw the name of the writer’s assistant and found his email address online. I emailed him and said, “You have my dream job, may I ask you a couple questions about how you became a writer’s assistant there?” I tried to sort of beg off being needy, but also be a little, “I’m simply searching for information… I don’t have any sort of ‘ins’ to this world, but it’s a world where I think I could belong.” And he wrote back and said, “Well, I don’t know how you got this email, but your information is a little old.” (Which, if you recall, I was watching a taped version on a video cassette tape.) He had been promoted to writer by that point, but he said pretty much, “You sound pretty alright, and I think you don’t sound annoying or obnoxious. I’m going to give you our writers’ assistant’s info just so you see what the submissions are like.” I wrote to the assistant and I got submission materials, and I then I practiced for the rest of the year. And all of this was while I was still a student.
Once I graduated, I went to New York. While in New York, I found an class being taught by this guy, J.R. Havlan, who is—and who was at that time—the longest tenured writer on the show. He was teaching a class in New York called “Writing for The Daily Show” and I thought, “Okay, this is a way to test my ability to write for the show without sending in this one-shot application.” It was six classes taught through the People’s Improv Theatre. My plan was that I didn’t want him to know who I was. I didn’t want his opinion of me to be affected by anything—especially anything that someone reading an online submission would not know. I figured he’d know I was female by my name, but I didn’t want him to know if I looked young, if I was attractive or not… just any of that. So, I didn’t talk in the class. But I heard back from him and he said, “This is kind of fantastic, just do it again next week.” And, “Speak up because I don’t know which one you are.” I did it again the next week, and he wrote to me again and said, “Well, you did it again this week, and if you don’t tell me who you are now, I’m gonna figure it out.” And then in the next class, he said “Hey, there was a great joke in this packet written by Rachel Axler. Rachel, can you read it?” He waited for me after the final class and basically said, “You should be doing this for a living.”
We struck up a friendship and wrote some stuff together while I was temping at a law firm. Several months later, The Daily Show was finally looking for a new writer for the first time in a year and a half. At that point, J.R. said, “I can’t help you with this, but I can tell you that I think you’re ready for it. And if they choose you, I’ll put in a good word because I know you.”
And that’s how it happened.