Welcome to “Remote Controlled,” a podcast from Variety featuring the best and brightest in television, both in front of and behind the camera.
Ever since he left the “Daily Show,” Helms says he has missed that sense of feeling connected to social satire or pop culture. “My brain is always working that way, thinking those jokes,” he says. “[But] I didn’t want to create another ‘Daily Show’-type show. I feel like that is a pretty well-filled niche,” crediting Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver. So instead, he came up with the idea of a fictional news world — in the vein of Monty Python. “It felt like a gaping hole in the news satire world, to commit to a fake newscast,” he says.
The world of the show is a “parallel universe” where Donald Trump is president, but also trying to be “as silly as possible.” “We take everything for granted, and we create new emergencies,” he says. “We take tons of soundbites out of context and just grotesquely re-contextualize them and abuse our access to editorial equipment to make people look silly, including ourselves.”
The name Ted Nelms, he reveals, was conceived by “Daily Show” writer David Javerbaum back when they were working together on that series. “It just sort of stuck in my mind, and that really felt perfect for this show,” Helms says. “Because I didn’t want to be myself. I didn’t want to be a comedian commenting on the news. I wanted to be a fake, fictional person completely immersed in a fake reality.”
He took pains to make sure Nelms isn’t a “reprehensible” character like Ron Burgundy. “He’s not sexist or racist, he’s not overly angry, he’s not mean-spirited,” Helms says. “We really wanted Ted Nelms to be neutral in the way that anchors like Wolf Blitzer and Shepard Smith and Brit Hume [are].”
Instead, his aim is to mock cable news. “We really wanted to poke fun at cable news as its own target,” says Helms, a self-confessed news junkie, who likens it to professional wrestling.
“In looking at the news outlets, you realize pretty quickly that they have more in common than they are different,” he says. “They do have an editorial ideology that’s different, but once you peel that back, they’re all the same.” He points to their use of tired tropes and “cage matches,” adding, “It’s heartbreaking sometimes to see how transparently jaded and biased some of the news presentation is.”
Among the tropes being sent up is a weather reporter who keeps getting put in increasing danger. “That’s just a nod to the gratuitousness of the danger that hurricane reporters put themselves in,” he says. “You hear them justifying it in a such a dumb way: ‘He’s there so you don’t have to be.’ Well, no one has to be! So why is anybody there?” And yes, the president is a target as well. “Donald Trump takes his lumps on his show, but he’s the president. Leadership needs to take a couple of lumps,” he says.
But as for the concept of “fake news,” which has taken on new meaning in the Trump era, Helms says, “It shouldn’t be controversial what’s fake news. It should be the things that are demonstrably untrue are fake news. Nothing else. Not the things that bother us or the things that don’t line up with our worldview or that we think make us look bad.” That’s why he titled the show “Fake News,” he explains. “What is fake news are the things that are explicitly made-up. That’s what this show is. It’s our way to reclaim the meaning of that term.”
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