'Daily' producers reveal process, future plans
With George Bush back in Crawford, Texas, and Barack Obama in the White House trying to deal with the nation’s woes, will “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” still have enough satirical fodder for its four-nights-per week/161-episodes-per-year broadcast?
“With a whole new administration, we’re going to have to adjust,” admits exec producer Josh Lieb. “It would be backwards to plan the adjustment first,” explains the vet comedy writer, who notes that in the waning days of the Bush administration the ex-president was an easy laugh. But the future is not without promise. “There’s going to be plenty of scandals, plenty of missteps and plenty of things to take out of context to get our 22 minutes of comedy every night. I’m not worried.”
As exec producer Rory Albanese explains, the show’s objective is to find stories that are not only funny but are meaningful, a directive that comes from the show’s top comical voice, Jon Stewart.
“With Bush, we found the narrative pretty quickly. He was doing what he was doing and we were calling him on it,” Albanese says, comparing the show’s attitude to that of the smart-mouthed kid in the back of class who challenges the status quo.
The 2000 election certainly provided a clear narrative for the show that will be missed. “We knew we had a ton of election stories and pundits spinning stories and saying ridiculous things. We were not worried about material coming in, it was just a matter of sifting through it,” Albanese recalls.
To respond to the 24-hour news cycle, the show has developed a streamlined approach to developing stories. A team of eight in the studio production department constantly monitors the news network and wire feeds, recording and then editing choice bits. All the show’s writers and studio producers stay connected by email, and when something stands out, the clip is quickly disseminated. Stories can be rapidly turned around — much the same as a “real” newsshow.
“There’s just so much planning you can do,” Albanese explains. “We find that when we plan too far ahead, stuff doesn’t feel organic and natural as when we’re in the fray.”
In addition to the nightly sendup of news (and often news orgs), “The Daily Show” has patented the offbeat field report: narratives that are more than just interviews with crazy people (although there seems to be an endless supply).
As Albanese explains, “The field producers go out all around the country and whittle down hours of footage into these four-minute golden nuggets of comedy that tell a story.”
Unlike legit news orgs, “The Daily Show’s” field reports are preconceived and come from staffer and writer pitches that begin with the actual story coupled with “The Daily Show” point-of-view, and even though the show’s irreverent tone is well publicized, there’s never a shortage of folks willing to be interviewed on TV. Maybe the thought of acting as an authority about a particular subject weighs more heavily that than the thought of being mocked on national television.
Some subjects are usually hands off, if only because it would be difficult to mine laughs on issues such as genetic manipulation, prison reform and cameras in a slaughterhouse. “It’s hard to get comedy out of that,” Lieb deadpans. That being said, the show has done some dark bits: An extreme makeover of a traveling Guantanamo prison cell stands out.
“It’s stressful, but it’s a comedy show, not a hospital,” Albanese explains about the tone of a typical production day. “A bad day for us is, the joke doesn’t work. We don’t lose a patient. It gets intense, but there’s no real tension or too much drama, which is rare for the TV business.”
Though the show’s content evolves daily, Albanese promises no change to program’s trademark ironic close or “Moment of Zen.”
“What we do for ‘Zen’ has gotten more serious over the years,” Albanese admits, “but a robot jazz band is tough to pass up.”