The Daily Show: Abandon news all you who enter here
'The Daily Show' is a US institution: a thorn in the side of Bush and voice of a young, disaffected generation. John Oliver, a British comedian who has become one of the show's stars, explains its unique satirical power in a world of 'suspicion and panic'
Sunday 22 October 2006
First days at work are often difficult. You don't know anyone, you're worried you won't be able to do the job properly, and you're not sure where lunch is. On my first day at school, I saw a boy wet himself and simply stand there waiting for someone to come and clean him up. On my first day as a stand-up comedian, I nearly had a similar experience. My most recent first day at work, back in July, involved waking up in my clothes on a sofa in New York after two hours' sleep, and ended on the same sofa, in similar clothes, having just appeared on one of my favourite shows in the world. The following 2,000 words are an attempt to make it one of your favourite shows in the world as well.
The Daily Show, a satirical news digest fronted by a comedian called Craig Kilborn, began in 1996 just in time for the slow, sad implosion of the Clinton administration. But it was probably with the appointment of Jon Stewart as host three years later, and perhaps with the arrival of George Walker Bush as self-styled 43rd President of the United States of America two years after that, that the show really began to find its distinctive voice - a voice that today has made it a touchstone for political comedy on television around the world. It is a small show by some standards, but for the 1.5 million people who watch it four nights a week on cable station Comedy Central - it is repeated here on the digital channel More 4 - it provides a much needed daily dose of dissonance for disenfranchised Americans everywhere.
Jon Stewart, or "Mr Stewart" as I am now able to call him, was recently asked in an interview whether the show was practising "an old form of satire or a new form of journalism"; he replied that it was probably a "new form of desperation". And it's important to remember just how difficult it is to be an American citizen at the moment, especially if you're one of those citizens who has chosen not to deal with global issues by surgically implanting your head into a bucket of sand. Think about it: not only do you have to live with a president who you didn't vote for, you have to live with the people who did.
I'm very aware of how lucky I am to be working on this show at all. That has been repeatedly drilled home to me by numerous people I met when I came back to England recently. "I saw you on The Daily Show," they would begin pleasantly enough, before adding, "How the hell did that happen?" The truth is I'm still not entirely sure myself. I went to New York to meet Jon Stewart and the producers in March - my first time in the US - and did a not very good audition tape. I'm not exactly a household name, even in households who know quite a lot about comedy. A few of you may have seen me on BBC2's Mock the Week looking like I wanted to be somewhere else. A handful of you may have heard me on Radio 4, where with Andy Zaltzman I've been writing and performing shows such as Political Animal and The Department. But it would be a small handful.
And yet each morning I get to turn up to "Comedy Central's World News Headquarters", which is in fact a fairly modest building in the Hell's Kitchen district of Manhattan. On a hot day there is a potent smell of horse excrement from the courtyard two buildings down which houses the Central Park tourist carriages. Besides Stewart, there are five on-screen correspondents (of which I am one) and a team of writers. I will often work on British and European sketches - in my first sketch, I was presented as European Courrespondouent and I've also been Senior Carryonologist, discussing the restrictions on hand luggage in the aftermath of the terror alerts in London in August.
As the day goes on, a script is written and rehearsed, then filmed at 6.30 in front of a small studio audience, who have walked under a sign painted over a door that reads "Abandon News All You Who Enter Here". By 7pm it's over, and the show is broadcast at 11 that night. It's really not a bad way to spend a day.
One of the most wonderful things about working on the show is the total lack of ego involved. When I used to watch the show at home in England I always imagined that after each recording they would gather together (omega) high-fiving, popping champagne corks and excitedly discussing what they'd just done. In fact, each show ends with a quick postmortem meeting, discussing what went well, what went badly, and how best to make more things go well and less things go badly tomorrow. Then everyone goes home. And comes back the next day to do it again.
Why can we not produce a show like this in Britain? That's the question continuously posed by TV executives shortly before destroying any attempt to do so. The answer is that there is absolutely no reason whatsoever why we can't. But it takes standing by the courage of your artistic convictions. The whole script on The Daily Show passes through Jon Stewart, which gives the show a sense of integrity and a unified voice. To get yourself into the kind of position where you can demand this from a broadcaster takes hard work and cojones of steel. Especially when the broadcaster is Viacom - hardly a company known for its philanthropic investment in cutting-edge comedy.
In the face of significant obstacles, America is producing some of the best satirical comedy around. If you doubt that Americans have irony, or a sense of shame, you should read The Onion (available online at theonion.com). It ran with headlines just two weeks after the World Trade Centre attacks such as "Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell" and "God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule". Not bad for a nation about to go absolutely medieval. Many of the writers from the early days of The Onion now help make The Daily Show. And The Daily Show in turn recently spawned The Colbert Report - presented by old correspondent Stephen Colbert in the guise of a reactionary Republican. It's brilliant, and led to one of the greatest pieces of mis-booking of all time, when he played the White House Correspondents Association dinner earlier this year. Here is just one of the things he said:
"I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least. And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq."
That joke takes nerve to tell anywhere in America - it takes superhuman nerve to tell when the President of the United States is sitting three people down from you, and not laughing.
And how we love to blame America in Britain. I think you'd struggle to find a single person across our green and pleasant land who at some point over the past year hasn't found themselves watching the news while mentally penning a thank-you letter to the White House:
Dear United States of America,
Thank you so much for the state of the world at the moment. You must be very proud of yourselves. I like to think that during our stab at an empire we were more elegantly destructive. Like Godzilla in a cravat. Instigators of mayhem, yes, but with that certain British gentlemanly swagger.
Please stop whatever it is you were about to do.
Lots of love
Gary, from Sydenham
But this is clearly not fair. We in Britain have been with the United States every step of the way in many of the appalling things it's done over the last few years. Ours is a "special relationship", we're constantly being told, albeit the kind of "special relationship" that exists between a businessman and a prostitute.
In a climate such as this, is it any wonder that The Daily Show has become so popular? Much is made in the media of reports that some young people in the US even use it as their main source of news. Whether that is true or not (and personally I doubt it), that reflects less on the programme itself and more on the state of television news in America. Because it is bad - I mean really laughably bad.
Fox News, in particular, is incredible. It's almost like a beautifully constructed self-parody and I find myself watching it with a mix of hysteria and horror. However, after a few minutes of incredulous laughter, the uneasy feeling sets in that there are millions of Americans watching this and not laughing. Not only that, but nodding, turning to each other and muttering agreement.
I know someone who knows someone who swears blind that Fox reported the London bombings of last year like this: "A major European capital has been the victim of a major terrorist attack. We'll tell you which European capital, after these messages."
I find it far, far more worrying that millions of US citizens use Fox as a primary news source, than a few hypothetical young people who prefer jokes to facts.
Perhaps this also contributes to why US audiences laugh so loud, and so excitedly at The Daily Show. This can grate to a British ear and, when you're performing, it can become genuinely unhelpful, to the point where you are thinking, "Oh, come on, it's not that funny." But once again, you have to remind yourself what it must feel like to hold a US passport nowadays.
There is always much debate about what political comedy is for. Journalists since the dawn of time have wondered whether political comedy has an agenda, and if so, whether it has the ability to change anything. Jon Stewart has always insisted that The Daily Show is a comedy show, nothing more nothing less, saying: "We just make comedy about things we care about."
Before each recording, he takes questions from the audience. A few weeks ago a woman put up her hand and said "I'd just like to thank you for providing such catharsis for all of us." As questions go, it lacked some fundamental elements, but she was clearly not alone in her sentiments. Maybe we should all cut them a little slack next time they whoop at a joke and our toes begin to curl. And at least they're whooping at good jokes. If whooping has a place in the modern world, and it doesn't, then it's there.
Satire is something that is alternately pronounced dead, then flourishing with life, then dead again, then showing signs of life, then in a persistent vegetative state with other forms of comedy campaigning to have it put out of its misery. The truth is that some people will always find comedy to be a useful way of releasing tension, whatever the cause. Being of no specified religion and as someone who views the world with a mixture of suspicion and panic, I am certainly one of those people.
I'm writing this on a flight from London back to New York - you can probably imagine what security has been like. There's an armed guard at the front of the plane, who everyone self-consciously smiles at as they walk past. The little animated plane is crawling across the screen in front of me and a row of Hasidic Jews are watching the second showing of some film with Lindsay Lohan in. They seem to be enjoying it - I don't know why I find that so surprising. I still can't quite believe that I'm working on The Daily Show. If I'm not performing on it tomorrow, I'll certainly be watching it. It's great. You should watch it too.
'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart' is on More 4 Monday-Friday at 8.30pm
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