by Jacqueline Rupp
TV viewers, little did you know it’s a local writer you have to thank for those belly laughs and guffaws you’ve enjoyed courtesy of your favorite TV comedy. Meet Dan Sterling, writer and producer for some of this past decade’s most popular comedy shows. His writing credits include “South Park,” “King of the Hill” and “The Sarah Silverman Program,” not to mention helping also to produce such shows as “The Daily Show” and the final season of “The Office.”
West Philadelphia-born and raised, Sterling, 43, now calls Chestnut Hill his home away from home, returning to the area several times a year to spend time with his family in Wyndmoor. We caught up with the Germantown Friends School (GFS) alum after a visit to his alma mater on Dec. 18, where he spoke to students about his career and how GFS influenced his work and social awareness.
“I wasn’t a great student,” admitted Sterling, who graduated from GFS in 1989, “but GFS is a very rigorous and challenging academic environment. And, as I told the kids in my address, it really is impossible to escape from GFS without some degree of erudition, sophistication and social responsibility. So whatever my performance was as a student, I managed to get to college, and I am frequently viewed, at least in this world of TV writing, as one of the smart guys in the room.” Which sometimes opens Sterling up for jokes himself. “You get teased sometimes if your vocabulary is too good, which is bizarre as a writer, but in television, that is the case.”
Besides getting schooled in the use of multi-syllabic words, Sterling credits GFS with grounding him in becoming a politically active citizen. “The work I do, more and more, is geared towards making some sort of political statement or to comment on something cultural or political. And that was incubated during my time at GFS, that social consciousness.”
Some other things have stuck with Sterling since high school. “I have nightmares about three or four times a year, and it’s always the same thing. I forgot to go to some class all year long, and now it’s final exams, and I’m a senior, and my life is about to be ruined. If I could forget the generalized anxiety about being under-prepared for classes, give me that pill, and I will take it.”
Aside from that recurring fear, Sterling, who now splits his time between Los Angeles and location shoots, had a fairly typical childhood in Northwest Philly. “I had all the normal humiliations and joys of high school; I think I was reasonably well-liked, and I was sort of frustrating to my teachers. I was an imp, particularly in middle school, but it was mostly a good experience.”
Today, when he visits, Sterling has several favorite places around town to frequent, including the restaurant scene and Woodmere Art Museum. You can also find him driving around Chestnut Hill, fantasy house hunting. “I stare hungrily at the beautiful old revolutionary-era limestone mansions and dream about one day moving back to the area and living in one of those homes. I feel nostalgic about the region and wish I could find some way to move back here and still make my career work.”
One thing Sterling especially misses about Philly when he leaves is the food. “A hoagie is just a metabolic catastrophe, but you can’t really find them in L.A. I mean people don’t even know what they are. But when I come back, I love going to indulge in a cheesesteak late at night if I’m already being indulgent.”
Recent work has kept Sterling busy in other parts of the world. Last year found the writer/producer spending full days in a filthy Van Nuys writers’ room figuring out the best ways to end the decade-long run of “The Office.” For the last four months, however, he has worked from a double-wide trailer in the mountains of Vancouver, shooting “The Interview,” a new feature film starring Seth Rogan and James Franco, set to be released next fall. It was directed by Rogan and his partner, Evan Goldberg, but Sterling wrote the screenplay and acted as an executive producer. “The movie is about a vacuous and intellectually limited, vain celebrity gossip talk show host (James Franco) and his producer (Seth Rogan), and they manage through a series of circumstances and ethical lapses to score an interview with Kim Jung Un. On their way to North Korea to interview him, they’re approached by the CIA and asked to assassinate him. It’s an action/comedy adventure, quite outrageous.”
Although he’s had limited TV viewing capability while shooting in Canada, Sterling still watches “The Daily Show” nightly and “South Park” and “loved ‘Breaking Bad.’” And even though Sterling is not a fan of reality TV, he took a chance with “The Voice.” “There is something about ‘The Voice;’ it’s like a tsunami of positivity. And just the sheer number of positive adjectives they dump on one single human being, it’s clearly intended to be the antidote to ‘American Idol,’ but I gave up on it because it is just a karaoke contest. I’m still mourning the loss of ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire.’”
And speaking of missed programs, Sterling says he has a particular fondness for some shows from his past. “Probably the most fun job I had was working on ‘The Sarah Silverman Program.’ Sarah and I are very similar, and it was a crazy, anything-goes show and a crazy, anything-goes writers’ room. It was my first real job of major executive responsibility, so I’m very nostalgic about that.”
Looking ahead, fans of Dan Sterling’s work can await “The Interview,” due out October, 2014, and look forward to new projects from this local funny man. “I’m technically unemployed right now, but happily so. Probably the right word is ‘on vacation,’ but come mid-January, I’ll start talking to people, and there are a lot of opportunities out there for the future.”
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