In 2017, the United States was ranked No. 49 on the World Economic Forum’s report on gender inequality. This finding inspired an hour-long special from “The Daily Show” during which correspondent Desi Lydic traveled to three territories ranked significantly higher than her own — Iceland, Namibia and Spain — to find out what they are doing better, all with the show’s signature brand of mixing facts with humor.
“There’s always that little bit of tension that happens when you make a joke, especially when there’s a language barrier. We’d have to settle into those moments and make them at ease that the joke was not on them; the joke is on America,” Lydic tells Variety.
For Lydic, who considers herself a comedic actor first and foremost, not an “actual journalist,” the approach to her work on Trevor Noah’s version of the late-night talk series is to play a character who is a heightened version of herself. But because of the show’s format, and the fact that the issues she investigates, whether in five- or six-minute segments on the nightly show or in this hour-long special aptly titled “Desi Lydic: Abroad,” are serious, she acknowledges the importance of research and preparation.
“There is definitely a journalistic responsibility,” she says. “There were pretty extensive conversations that our producers had with everyone we spoke to. They were familiar with what our intention was and what we’d want to talk about.”
Iceland was ranked No. 1 on the aforementioned report, which made it a “no-brainer” to visit in the special, Lydic explains. “They have a lot of women in government, their wage gap is closing quite a bit and a lot of that has to do with their parental leave policy, which levels the playing field in the workplace, and that we found really, really interesting. They also have an all-female rap collective.”
Lydic not only interviewed that female rap collective for the special but also commemorated the experience by getting the tattoo they all share. “I’ve got a 3-year-old at home so I’m in bed by 9 o’clock every night, so I just went balls to the wall in taking this as my spring break or semester-at-sea,” she says.
Lydic also sat down with Halla Tomasdottir, the first female CEO of Iceland’s chamber of commerce who also ran for president, to talk about whether or not some of the policies of that country could work to push America closer to parity as well.
“She said, ‘Well, is what you’re doing working right now?’ It was a great point. They were all very matter-of-fact about, ‘Why wouldn’t you just try this and see if it works?'” Lydic says.
This is a sentiment Lydic feels was carried across all three countries. “The thing that surprised me the most was that it seems too difficult here to get anything done. It feels like any small step takes an eternity, and there’s so much pushback and so much resistance.”
Meanwhile, in Spain, “the country that invented machismo culture, and their men prove their masculinity by throwing themselves in front of a bull,” Lydic points out, there is an openness to changing the narrative that is trickling down into their culture. Spain was ranked No. 24 on the report.
Namibia, a still-developing nation Lydic admits “kind of crept up on” her and writers Lauren Sarver Means and Devin Delliquanti, was ranked No. 13. “They’re a relatively young country; technically they’re a millennial and lots of times you don’t have your s— figured out until you’re in your 30s. So that was interesting to us,” Lydic says of the visit. “Plus it’s the only place in the world where the desert meets the ocean and [this special is] technically part travel show, so going there and actually getting to shoot in insanely beautiful locations was amazing.”
Unlike on “The Daily Show,” the team behind “Desi Lydic: Abroad” made a conscious decision not to include interviews with “contrarian points of view,” Lydic shares. “America represented that perspective in general, so we didn’t sit down with any men’s rights activists group, and that made our lives a little bit easier.”
What they did want to do was bookend the special with the findings from the next year’s report. “We discussed in the writers’ room that we thought it would be funny and my character would take it that seriously — and that she would think that her acts of activism would cause a great result and that she single-handedly would have fixed it,” Lydic says.
Instead, America fell two spots on the 2018 report — to No. 51. (Iceland was still ranked No. 1, while Namibia rose to No. 10 and Spain fell to No. 29.)
“The truth of the matter is there is so much to talk about on this issue and it’s not going anywhere, unfortunately,” Lydic says. “Gender equality does not exist anywhere. Nothing is perfect. There were challenges everywhere we went, and women feel it; women care about it. There were a lot of things we would have loved to cover in the special that we just simply didn’t have time for: sex education, education in general, women’s health and health care.”
While Lydic acknowledges there is still a long road ahead before anyone, anywhere achieves true, full equality, she admits she is hopeful that America will see an incremental climb on this report in the next couple of years.
“I do think things are moving in the right direction,” she says. “We do have more female representation in the House now. I feel like right now, as opposed to any time in the past, people seem a little more open to having this conversation, and I think that’s a really good thing.”
“Desi Lydic: Abroad” airs May 13 on Comedy Central.