Comedy Writer and Producer
A funny bone isn’t required for admission to UW–Madison, but most Badgers quickly catch on to the university’s unique wit. Eleven-time Emmy award winner Ben Karlin BA1993 has spent more than two decades making a living off of laughter in print, television, and film, starting with a senior-year job at a Madison comedy institution.
Karlin wrote about music and sports for the Daily Cardinal, the Badger yearbook and local newspapers. “Comedy was integral to almost everything I did,” he told On Wisconsin Magazine in 2008. “In terms of when I wrote papers for classes, they were not always appreciated by the professor, but they always had a comedic bent to them.”
Traditional journalism bored Karlin, though, and he applied to work at the Onion, the satirical newspaper that had been founded by UW students four years earlier. Karlin started as a contributor and writer, and he was promoted to editor before he and some fellow co-writers journeyed to Los Angeles to pursue bigger projects.
In large part because of his Onion experience, Karlin caught the attention of the new host of Comedy Central’s the Daily Show. Jon Stewart offered Karlin the job of head writer in 1999. The two bonded over a shift in focus for the current events show: covering stories that mattered, and creating comedy out of what’s not inherently funny.
While with the Daily Show, Karlin won nine Emmys, co-wrote the best-selling America (The Book) (fact-checked by UW professor emeritus Stanley Schultz), and cocreated the Colbert Report with Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Karlin was invited back to campus in December 2006 as a commencement speaker. “Not all of you should follow your dreams,” he told the graduates. “For example, if your dreams are ridiculous. That’s what hobbies are for… When you get to the fork in the road, always go left. Don’t ask why.”
Exhausted and ready to try something new, Karlin quit Comedy Central in 2007, and in the following months compiled Things I’ve Learned from Women Who’ve Dumped Me, a collection of essays by some of his funniest friends, including three UW alumni and former Onion contributors.
Karlin won two more Emmys as a writer and producer on ABC’s “Modern Family,” a sitcom created by Steven Levitan BA1984. He also produced the darkly funny film 50/50, starring Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in 2011.