Six Degrees: Interview with “Colbert Christmas” lyricist David Javerbaum

David_JaverbaumI cannot tell you how excited I was to land an interview with David Javerbaum. In addition to being the Executive Producer of ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’, he managed to find the time to work with Stephen Colbert and Fountain of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger on “A Colbert Christmas – The Greatest Gift of All!” Please enjoy the full interview, after the break!

DB: First of all, I just wanted to let you know I really, really enjoyed [the special], and I think it’s going to be a really big fan favorite. I hope it is appealing to a lot of different people, because I just think it’s fantastic. But I also think that it has enough fun and cheer that a lot of different people are going to like it.

Javerbaum: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, we’re all happy with it, obviously.

DB: What were the origins of the special? Who kind of came up with the original concept, and how long have you guys been working on this?

Javerbaum: We were hoping originally to do it in 2007, but we’re both very busy; Stephen especially, you know, and so we put it off for another year. But I wanted to do some Christmas songs for a while, and Stephen wanted to do a Christmas special, and we sort of knew each other from way back from ‘The Daily Show’, and mentioned it for a long time and, so, you know, we just — we really wanted to do it.

DB: So, you were basically involved since the conception of the entire idea?

Javerbaum: That’s correct. A lot of the scenes in the show followed the music rather than vice versa. And in some cases, the songs followed the actions and things, and we worked very closely with Stephen and with the guys at the show who wrote the script for it, which is unbelievably funny. We tried to be sure everything synched.

DB: What were some of the steps after saying, “Okay, we’re going to do this.” Did you develop the plot at that point, and then develop the songs? Or did you say, “I want to do these kinds of songs,” and then work around that? How did that whole developing process work?

Javerbaum: There were a couple of songs we wrote relatively late – like Feist was a late entry, and they had an idea for the kind of song Feist would sing. She’d be an angel, and so I wrote a song — we wrote a song for Feist that reflected that. And some of the songs, I know the “Christmas Song” was written a long time ago, because I think that preceded this thing. And the Hanukkah song that Jon sang, actually, there was a whole other Hanukkah song that we had that was funny but also, kind of a little hacky. Jon wanted to change it and and make it much more real, and I think it came out really well. Jon does an amazing job with that.

DB: How in the world did you get Jon Stewart to sing?!

Javerbaum: [chuckles] Ah, you know, he trusts Stephen, and he liked the song very much. And, you know he’s a good sport. If he’s going to be in something, he’s going to go all out and commit to it, and that’s part of what he does and he does an amazing job with that. And, you know, it’s really sweet. Everybody loves it … it was really sweet.

DB: Oh, it’s — yeah, that’s a good word to describe it. It was very sweet. It was one of my very favorite songs in the whole special. Just the camaraderie between the two is really just amazing, and you could see it in that particular song. It was very, very cute.

Javerbaum: Yeah, yeah. It was Jon’s idea to make that song much more “call and response” back and forth, to give them more of that opportunity. And so, we wrote a new song that fit that description.

DB: The songs kind of seem custom-tailored to the artists that were singing them; did you pick the stars and then develop the songs, or did you write the songs and then find the stars to fit them?

Javerbaum: Toby Keith, we knew we wanted to do a song like that, and that was written for Toby Keith because he was involved — I mean, he said he was interested back in 2007; he was pretty early on. And then, the Willie Nelson song was – I think that was written without Willie Nelson in mind, but then Willie Nelson came along, and … you know. It fits him rather perfectly. And like “Nutmeg,” there was a whole other version of it. Originally, I could see this being for somebody like Fantasia Barrino, and it would just be sung by someone, like, just the word “nutmeg” sung passionately over and over again. But we got John Legend, and he’s just an amazing soul singer and so sincere when he sings that it seemed like this was a better way to go. And it’s really … it’s a ridiculous, stupid song.

DB: How much guidance from the writers did you get? Did any of them say, “I want” — and with Stephen; did any of them say, “I want a song about this” or “I want a song about that”? Did you get, or was it, you said, “Here’s some concepts, here’s some ideas, let’s go with those”?

Javerbaum: In most cases, it was dictated by the access we had to the artists. If you have Toby Keith, you need a song that’s going to fit Toby Keith, you know? The point is to make Toby Keith look good; the point is to make all these people look good. You know, you have access to Toby Keith and Willie Nelson and Feist and John Legend and Elvis Costello and and Jon, and knowing that, you just work in the songs that are going to fit for them.

DB: How much did the lyrics kind of drive the music? Did you say, “Well, let’s build these lyrics,” and then say, “Oh! This should be a — it sounds very Christmas-y” vs. very “soul-y”?

Javerbaum: I wrote the lyrics and I explain or ghost direct Adam Schlesinger the kind of song I imagine it could be, or the kind of song it would sound like. And then he would take my ideas and make them just much, much better. And along with Stephen Gold, the way they produced it, every song sounds like, in the proper style of that song. And that’s a tribute to their work in the production.

DB: There’s a lot of corny elements in the show; bad lip-syncing and pumped in audio applause and kind of hokey props. How big was this kind of old-fashioned “let’s put on a show” Christmas special concept in place as the songs were being written?

Javerbaum: It was actually, it wasn’t that hard. I mean, those old kind of specials, they’d always have a wide variety of musical styles on whoever. And you know, Dinah Shore would be on and sing a Dinah Shore song, and so-and-so would be on and sing a so-and-so song, and so — assuming that any song we came up with that had a reasonable reason for being — it fit with the celebrity, we’d be able to make fit into the confines of the show. And also, the guys, in some cases, who wrote the script made everything flow so perfectly that it seems very naturalistic.

DB: Were there any other kind of genres that you wanted to do, but you weren’t quite able to fit into the special?

Javerbaum: There’s a whole bunch of other songs we have that, for whatever reason, we didn’t get either finished or it just didn’t fit. There was one I really wanted to do and, unfortunately, we just couldn’t make it happen. But I have an idea for a song, Metallica — actually Metallica — would sing, “Enter, Santa”? And it would be like “Enter, Sandman,” except it would just be like [adopting Metallica-style vocals], “giving gifts to good girls and boys … ” … but just everything completely fierce except the lyrics, with like this bright and innocent lyrics. But it would have to be them doing it; we couldn’t get that to happen. But hopefully, in the future, I’d love to have Metallica.

DB: Here’s a question about one of the DVD extras. I cannot tell you how many times I have watched, “Cold, Cold Christmas.” It is such a cute, funny song! What was the concept behind that? Did you want it to be a DVD extra, or was it supposed to be in the original special?

Javerbaum: I knew early on, we knew early on that there would be a total of seven original songs in the special. And recognizing that Stephen’s trying to work around — has to, for the show … you know, that’s an amazingly high number, so I was very happy with that. But there were a couple of others that I thought we could add to a possible DVD. Only one of them really worked out, which was “Cold, Cold Christmas” – I wanted, like an Elvis song, with “Blue Christmas.”

DB: I like it because it brings an element, a very strong element of Stephen’s character, which is kind of “crazy, stalking Charlene,” “restraining order” kind of feel to it. I love the subtlety of it.

Javerbaum: Yeah, it has to be written with a level of restraint. He’s a strong performer, and you just need a little twist in the wrong direction, and then he’ll take it from there. You know, I’ve read a couple of reviews, and talking to you, but my favorite song is “There Are Much Worse Things To Believe In,” by far. It’s everybody’s favorite song. No one ever talks about that. It’s not meant to be funny. It’s not meant to be funny, it’s actually meant to be — or hopefully, it’s all a little funny, but it’s also a little sad.

DB: Well, and it’s a great way to end the special.

Javerbaum: Yeah.

Comments

  1. [insert keyboard smash here]
    david javerbaum.
    you interviewed david javerbaum.
    yay!
    if only there were more …

    I would give anything to write such lyrics someday. A job fantastically done on his part. I was creeping on his Wikipedia page and apparently he went to Tisch for musical theatre writing, which sounds exciting and awesome.

    and for the record, I LOVE “There are much worse things to believe in” – the others are all great and hilarious and so on, but that’s the one I listen to over and over again.

    A redeemer,
    and a savior,
    an obese man* giving toys for good behavior.
    The faith in what might be,
    and the hope that we might see
    the answer to all sorrow in a box beneath the tree.

    *(According to NFZ’s transcribed lyrics; I always hear it as “and a beast-man”)

    That second sentence is heartrending, though.

    • Um, I fixed that lyric. :)

      • Flatpoint Grief Counselor says:

        Interesting… it sounded exactly like “beast-man” to me too… it must be a quirk of EC’s accent.

        (for the record, I’m a huge Costello fan, seen him live 5 times)

        • I just listened to John Oliver talking about obese people, and what he said sounded very much like “abeece” to me. so it must be the accent.

  2. Great job, DB, and congrats on the major “get”!

  3. superduper says:

    great interview. lucky. :)

  4. SazzrahUK says:

    What a great interview! Thanks NFZ, you pretty much asked every question I wanted answered =D mmm….think I might watch the Christmas Special again now!

  5. I like that Jon wanted to change the song. It is really sweet.

    • ColbertGirl27 says:

      Yes. The fact that we wanted to be closer to a “call and response” model just shows how he cared more about the work rather than centerting the song around himself.

  6. Fantastic interview, DB! You really can’t get more behind the scenes if you tried.

  7. gasp! “It’s not meant to be funny.” gasp!

    excellent interview! the questions were just what I wanted to know, and I appreciated the very insightful responses!

    “there are much worse things to believe in” has been confusing me actually. I have been pondering the lyrics a bit…the “if you believe in nothing then what’s to keep the nothing from coming for you” part just leaves me scratching my head! it feels like doing poetry in high school English…what do those words really mean?? haha.

    • @ tiger: “then what’s to keep the nothing from coming for you”

      I take it to mean then there’s nothing to prevent your soul from being consumed by existential despair.

      • ahh, that is a good take on it! I think I was approaching that but I couldn’t figure out the comical caveat. but I guess there isn’t one!
        now that I’m not trying to find the joke to find the meaning, so I think I understand a bit more.

        (I have to admit that for a little bit I was imagining some monster character called “nothing.”)

        a very nice line though! I like to think, even if I come up with strange ideas!

  8. Wonderful interview and thanks for the insightful questions. As a tinkerer w/ lyrics myself I love reading about process. David Javerbaum is one talented guy, bravo to all behind the special and congrats on the interview.

  9. “Please Be Patient” remains my favorite song from the special. It’s so quirky. “There Are Much Worse Things To Believe In” is probably my least favorite. Sorry, Mr. Javerbaum. >_>

    Too bad they couldn’t get Metallica. That would’ve been so out there.

  10. SusieBlack says:

    Great interview, love learning all the inside info, and that Metallica might have been included. Superb idea to rock ‘Enter, Sandman’ with fun lyrics. With Hetfield being a wrist violence survivor, hopefully Colbert sent him a bracelet.

  11. Ms Interpreted says:

    A thousand thank yous to Mr. Javerbaum for being kind enough to give us this interview; I really appreciated hearing about what went into making that sweetly hilarious Christmas special.

    I was talking to my parents over the holidays and found out that even they watched some of it (I never heard whether they watched it all, oddly enough), and they told me that they thought it was “silly” and “funny” (and that they were surprised by how well Stephen could sing). Just a note: my parents are NOT regular Colbert watchers and my mom, in particular, doesn’t really like much TV at all; that they praised it is huge.

    One thought about “There Are Much Worse Things to Believe in”: I think this is one of those songs that really grows on you. When I first watched the special, I was doubled up laughing at “Can I Interest You in Hanukkah” and “Nutmeg,” etc., but that was due to some “hook,” whether because it was Jon Stewart singing or because of the Al Greene-y hilarity of John Legend singing such a filthy (hee!) ode to a spice. I thought other reviewers’ focus on “War on Christmas” or “Little Dealer Boy” stemmed from the same reasoning. On repeat viewing, though, I found that the more low-key, earnest songs like “There Are Much Worse Things” started to stand out more; I was listening to that one and smiling while I did a few Christmas cards last night.

    And I thought everyone did a great job with the whole show, regardless. :)

  12. I loved the whole show, but “There Are Much Worse Things to Believe in” was also my favorite song. It’s perfect for Stephen, and it was a perfect way to end the show.

  13. ColbertGirl27 says:

    “…but my favorite song is ‘There Are Much Worse Things To Believe In,’ by far. It’s everybody’s favorite song. No one ever talks about that.”

    Is Mr. Javerbaum saying it’s the crew’s favorite song or the general public’s favorite song? I was a little confused. Forgive me for being dense:(

    For the record, this is one of my favorite songs. For all the silliness of the show, I’m glad they decided to end the show on a touching note. It made all the difference. Thank you so much Mr. Javerbaum.

  14. Spoon at a Spork Fight says:

    Deeply, deeply awesome interview DB. I loved that Mr. Javerbaum (may I call you DJ?) said the point is to make Toby Keith—and the other contributors—look good. Very sweet, and it paid off.

    And to whoever on the staff wrote the line about Elvis Costello being like an older, male Avril Lavigne except instead of singing about skateboards he sings about folks dying in shipyards: I owe my eternal, undying affection and/or many, many drinks for the joy it brings me. So. Much. Joy.

  15. I really appreciate the blend of Christian themes and humor in “There are Much Worse Things to Believe In,” which is why it’s one of my favorites from the special. It never fails to make me a little teary. I think that it gets a bit overlooked since it’s low-key compared to all the other songs, but it is the perfect song for the end!

    With that said, I’m also very fond of Alternate Ending #2.

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