Daniel Chun continues to check his emails on his smart phone. I ask him about his day, but my voice is drowned out by the restaurant's music -- a pounding techno remix of a 1960s acoustic pop song. Sitting across the table, Chun looks like a serious-minded liberal arts graduate student, wearing an outfit straight out of the Fall J.Crew catalog. I almost expect him to tell me about his dissertation on linguistic pathology in the Uyghur communities.
In actuality, Chun is a television writer. He was a writer and co-executive producer of The Simpsons until 2009, and since then, he's been a writer and co-executive producer on NBC's hit show The Office.
I speak louder. "So, how are --"
"Just a sec," he says, cutting me off. He starts to jot down some notes on a piece of paper. I decide to take out my own phone and check my emails. I come across an earlier email message from Chun.
can we go to Bann on western? i will eat dinner if you don't mind. you are obviously welcome to eat as well, or you can just awkwardly watch me eat.
He's not eating yet, but I watch him in the way that his email suggests. The situation is somewhat fitting. After all, Chun writes for a show whose comic success relies on embracing the awkward. After three minutes and twenty-three seconds (according to the clock on my phone), he finally looks up.
"Hi!" we say simultaneously over the din of the thumping baseline. The song is now a 1980s remix.
I ask him if he can hear me.
"Sorry, can you speak louder?" He cranes his neck forward.
I contemplate whether or not it is possible to conduct this interview via text message. I also notice that he does not smile very much. A friend told me once that comedy writers can be rather stoic. Because they are so adept at finding and crafting amusement, they are rarely surprised.
The intimidation of Chun's stoicism is palpable. One eye slightly crinkles when I make a witticism.
"So, you're interested in comedy?" he asks.
"Oh, yes," I say.
"Okay," he says without expression. Chun must be an exceptional poker player.
Chun remembers finding his interest in comedy while watching shows such as Kids in the Hall and Saturday Night Live with his brother. Inspired especially by the raw and edgy style of Kids, Chun started making his own comedy videos around the Pennsylvanian suburb where he grew up.
"I just always liked comedy, but I didn't know if I really liked being a comedy writer," says Chun. "I was just trying things out."
Trying things out led to Chun writing for the Harvard Lampoon, the prestigious humor magazine at Harvard University. The Lampoon boasts comic alumni such as Conan O'Brien and B.J. Novak. In fact, it was Novak who helped Chun get his start in TV.
"B.J. Novak forwarded my stuff to his manager, who forwarded me to an agent," Chun explains. "It's nothing special. A very conventional way of getting your foot in the door -- just a little bit accelerated, in my case."
But don't let his modesty fool you. Chun's work is anything but conventional, and his accelerated rise is no fluke. Veteran Simpsons producer and writer, Michael Price, agrees.
"There is no doubt that he is a very talented and funny guy," says Price. "One of the sharpest people I've had the fortune to work with."
In 2008, Chun received a Writers Guild Award nomination for his work on The Simpsons, but instead of resting on his laurels, he opted to join Novak on The Office, as a creative producer and staff writer. This was a welcomed change for Chun.
"The Simpsons is a great place to work for people who have families, because the hours were so good, but I wanted a more intense experience," says Chun. "Also, a live-action writer/producer has more say about the production of the episode. We have a lot more say about the casting. We look at the props and the sets and decide what they look like. We have the final say on a lot of things."
However, unlike some of the other writers who are also actors on the show, Chun's interactivity does not extend to the front of the camera.
"I've never really been excited about being on the show as a cast member," says Chun. "I think it's a little bit self-indulgent to cast the writers as actors on the show -- unless they've had previous experience like B.J. [Novak] and Mindy [Kaling]."
The background music is now a techno grunge song. I make another attempt to make Chun laugh.
"What?" Chun asks blankly.
"It's alright. Never mind." I cringe.
Thankfully, the food arrives and ends my misery. While we eat, I remember that Chun converses on Twitter with Jonathan Gold, the famed food critic. The two tweet back and forth about the latest good eats and restaurants. Chun has an array of interesting Twitter followers, ranging from his co-workers to fans of The Office, and even a Playboy model. Chun says he enjoys having a Twitter presence because it is an opportunity to be creative outside of the writer's room.
"TV is a great career to be in, but it can be a tiny bit frustrating because unless you're a powerful show runner on a hit show, you don't have 100% control of your material," says Chun. "So I've always been drawn to projects where I have complete control, and Twitter is just an easy way to express myself. And it's a good format for writing comedy."
As for other creative endeavors, Chun is working on a few screenplays, but for the most part, he is enjoying his time on The Office. With the impending departure of Steve Carell, the world of Dunder Mifflin Inc. is more dynamic than ever, and Chun is both excited and confident about the show's new direction.
"It is a show that has almost too many talent actors on it -- and so many potential avenues of ridiculousness." says Chun. "So even if the show was completely changed after Steve [Carell]'s departure, it would still be a great show."
Although, at the time of the interview, Chun is unable to reveal any spoilers for fans of The Office, NBC will soon announce that Will Ferrell is going to guest-star in a four-episode arc that will end the season.
The same 60s techno song from before is replaying, and Chun has still yet to smile. We are at the end of our interview, and I have one last question.
"So, on a scale of one to ten, how would you rate the level of awkwardness of tonight's experience?"
Chun gives a little chuckle.
"Huh," I shrug and smile back with satisfaction.
For more information, go to Danny Chun's Twitter page or NBC's official site for The Office.