Dispatches from Hollywood: GFS alumnus, producer Dan Sterling returns for speaker series

Not long after graduating from Germantown Friends School, an aspiring comedy writer contacted his alma mater to provide a progress report of sorts.

“I’m studying filmmaking at NYU,” wrote Dan Sterling — a West Philadelphia native — to the GFS alumni bulletin. “I’m also doing the whole ‘live in the Village, Mr. Cool, wear black, drink espresso, super-affected, toss my hair, it’s all about me, misunderstood artist, politically apathetic-yet-cynical’ thing.”

For a young writer — who would later discover that his personal brand of humor stemmed from having a “clear target” — the comedic mark was himself.

Coming back to GFS

Some 20 years later, Sterling returned to Germantown Friends School last week to address a packed auditorium of students as this year’s GFS 2013 Alumni Speaker.

Established in 2004, the series highlights the accomplishments of alumni who have drawn strength from the school community and feel their lives have been informed by their time at GFS.

Following his six-year stint at GFS, Sterling graduated in 1989, and went on to receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Sterling’s professional writing career began on the first season of Comedy Central’s “South Park,” when he was hired as a staff writer and wrote several episodes. Following “South Park,” Dan rose through the ranks as a writer and producer at FOX’s animated series, “King of the Hill.”

After four seasons, he returned to Comedy Central, as a writer and producer at “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” and as an executive producer and show runner for “The Sarah Silverman Program.” During the 2012-2013 season, Sterling served as executive producer of NBC’s “The Office.”

“The alumni speaker series represents all the possible paths that one can take in life, and Dan’s path certainly is a unique one,” said GFS Head of School, Dana Okeson Weeks.

Equal opportunity targeting

For Sterling, the comedic thread that unifies his career is the target-based attack. The theme came together for him in the writers’ room at South Park, where series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone used the show to lampoon the people and events that angered them.

“They eviscerated sanctimonious celebrities, rednecks, liberals, Mormons, Christians, Jews, Scientologists, and for some reason, Canadians,” Sterling explained, who reasoned that an attack — when placed upon a powerful person, an idea, or an institution — is the highest form of comedy.

“The world is filled with stupidity, evil, and hypocrisy, and most of it you can’t do a thing to change,” Sterling added, “but when it’s publicly exposed, brilliantly ridiculed, and is used to inspire laughter, it does make me believe that there exists something close to justice.”

However, Sterling was quick to point out that he targets with equal opportunity, with his own identity being the frequent point of attack. But for this GFS grad, it’s all in a day’s work.

“You might say that this is a career built on anger and negativity,” he said. “I don’t dispute that.”

A script of his own

Just days before his speech at GFS, Sterling wrapped production on his first feature film, entitled “The Interview.” It’s described as a political action-comedy set in North Korea, and stars Seth Rogen and James Franco.

It’s scheduled for nationwide release in the fall of 2014, but GFS students got a sneak preview of a few scenes on Wednesday.

“It’s highly profane, and quite violent,” said Sterling, who joked that it would skirt an NC-17 rating.

While the screenplay is his first to be produced, it’s not his sole attempt. His first, known as “Flarsky,” reportedly made Hollywood’s 2011 “Black List” of Best Unproduced Screenplays. At present, Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron are attached to star in the project.

The idea of writing movies, he recalled, came at a turning point in Sterling’s career: Despite having credits that included several successful shows, Sterling realized as he approached 40 that he had not created original material using his own voice in quite some time.

“I had spent a decade not thinking about what I wanted to say, or what I wanted to attack, but rather what makes my bosses happy,” he recalled. In response to this, Sterling took a season off to write.

While the possibilities were infinite, Sterling felt like he needed boundaries, describing total creative freedom as being “a catastrophe.”

Eventually settling on the world of Washington politics and broadcast journalism, he created a script that caught the attention of Rogen, which spawned a fruitful working relationship.

And what fomented this creative outpouring? “I located targets I wanted to attack,” he said.

GFS’ impact

Despite the mordant quality of his humor, Sterling reserved praise for his alma mater. Reflecting upon his own mixed academic performance, he noted that “you really can’t get out of [GFS] without deeper critical thinking skills and a deeper sense of social responsibility.”

“If I had actually engaged for several hours a day in the intellectual discourse that my parents were bankrupting themselves to pay for,” he said, “I wouldn’t be in this situation of sitting in a de facto fart-joke factory and feeling like a real philistine.”

Avoiding bromides about the benefits of hard work, Sterling shared with GFS’s students a frank assessment about the realities of a career in show business.

“No one is great at everything, even within a single discipline,” he explained. “There are certain things in your career that you were born to do, and other things that you will just have to pretend to be good at — and if you’re lucky, marginally improve at — to stay alive in your given field.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal