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So What Do You Do, Stephen Colbert?
The Daily Show correspondent on making fun of the news.- May 6, 2003
Remember when Geraldo Rivera was thrown out of Iraq for revealing information about troop locations and movements? Journalism scolds everywhere condemned his actions, but they all did so with a repetitive sameness. One reporter whose criticism stood out was The Daily Show's Stephen Colbert.
The Daily Show airs on Comedy Central, of course, and it's not a real newscast but rather an Onion-like parody of one. Colbert—one of the show's earliest correspondents—comes from the world of comedy, not journalism. But his segment on Geraldo, "Cry Me a Rivera," was somehow more spot-on than any other coverage of the Fox News reporter's snafu. Colbert didn't just make fun of the easy-to-make-fun of Rivera; he lampooned the weirdly patriotic but simultaneously self-interested motivations of all the embedding reporters. Which is what The Daily Show does regularly: It makes jokes about the news, but it also makes pointed—if subtle—social commentaries about the news and those who cover it. The New York Times recently described the show as "taking the facts of a news story more seriously than real TV journalists sometimes do," and, since the 2000 president election, the show's been garnering more and more praise for its coverage and commentary—including an Emmy and a Peabody Award. Colbert spoke to mediabistro.com last week about his own transition from Second City comedian to faux-news correspondent and the show's evolution since its creation.
Born: May 13, 1964
Hometown: Charleston, South Carolina
First section of the Sunday Times: The food column in the magazine
You started out with Second City, but I recently read that you'd briefly been on Good Morning America before you came to The Daily Show. How did that happen?
I desperately needed a job. I had been working for ABC Entertainment at The Dana Carvey Show in 1996. That show got canceled, my wife wasn’t working, and we had a baby. Someone from entertainment division recommended to the news division that if they were looking for somebody who was funny but looked really straight, for a correspondent for Good Morning America, that they should consider me. So I had a meeting with the head of ABC News—whoever it was at the time, in 1996, I wasn’t that cognizant of the news. They asked me if I could do it, I said yes, and they hired me. I did exactly two reports.
Only one of which ever made it to air.
How did you then end up at The Daily Show?
After those two reports, I pitched 20 stories in a row that got shot down. At the same time, my agent, who also represented the executive producer of The Daily Show, Madeline Smithberg, said, "You should meet with Madeline. She’s doing this other show and I bet that they would do those stories." And I went and met Madeline and the people at the show at the time, and they liked my ideas. They had me on for a trial basis, and for the next nine months I worked here occasionally. But it was totally a day job. I never expected to stay here because I did sketch comedy and I wrote, and I really didn’t think that this show was going to go anyplace.
That was when Craig Kilborn was the host?
He was still there. It was right before the first anniversary; Craig was gone a year and a half later. And so I worked with Craig as the host for about a year and a half, and didn’t do that many pieces because I was also working in California at the time. Anyway, I just didn’t think the show was going to be sticking around, until I started working there for a while. And then I found out that it was full of these incredibly nice, talented people, and I couldn’t wait to get there in the morning. It was a complete happy accident that I ended up being here.
There’s been so much news coverage recently about The Daily Show, having won the awards and the CNN Global Edition. You’ve been around to see the changes in the show, so I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that.
Well, in the old days—and it’s funny to say that sentence, in the old days—it was much more like a local newscast. Craig was reading some national headlines, and then the field pieces that we did were all human interest-y—you know, squirrel-on-waterskis kind of stuff. Freak shows, Big Foot stories, alien abductions, stuff like that. But we treated it like hard news. We took a ridiculous thing and we elevated it. But now, thanks to sort of the editorial vision of Jon and Ben Karlin and now D.J. Javerbaum, our new head writer, the show has a far more political bent, which obviously started during the political campaign. As soon as the campaign started off in 2000, you could see the show begin to shift.
Right, "Indecision 2000."
At the end of that campaign, I put a hundred dollars down on the table and I said to the field producers, "if you can get us a Big Foot story, I’ll give you the hundred-dollar bill." Because I knew that none of that shit was going to get past Jon anymore. Everything has to be grounded in reality, in something that’s happening in the world, so we can use our field pieces as an addition to the satirical take that’s happening at the desk. It’s great. I mean, I did enjoy occasionally flying to Portland to talk to a Big Foot expert. But I’ll take stories that have more of a satirical bite to them, any day.
Have any non-parody news shows approached you with positions? Have you even thought about doing serious news?
We’ve all been invited to comment on the cable channels like CNN or Fox or MSNBC, to be part of a panel talking about some social issue or political issue. But, an actual job? No. I’ve never been offered an actual job.
Would you consider doing an actual news show?
Hell, yeah. Absolutely. I would love it—if anybody at the networks is calling.
Part of the reason I ask is because for so many people The Daily Show is a primary source of news. How you feel about that?
I don’t buy it, necessarily. For two reasons. I think you have to have some handle on what’s happening in the world to get our jokes. Because we only do the most cursory explanation of what the issue is in order to set up our punch lines. We don’t talk in depth about any stories. I suppose you could watch our show and sort of get a sense of what’s going on in the world, but you’d also be missing half of our joke. Half of our joke is the way news is reported, not just what the news is.
I think, nonetheless…
That what you said is true? I weep for our nation.
But one of the good things, and an article in The New York Times talked about this a little bit, is that The Daily Show gets away with critiquing the government and the news in ways entertainers can’t.
I think the reason for that is simple. We’re making jokes, and the entertainers who were attacked were not making jokes. They were not doing what they’re good at, which is entertaining. They’re not good at having policy positions. They’re not good at playing political games. They are good at entertaining. I admire all of them for trying. I think they might have been more effective—I don’t know if anything would have stopped the juggernaut of that war, but certainly not using the thing that you’re best at doesn’t help your cause.
Is there a piece from The Daily Show that you are most proud of?
Um, no. I mean there are things that I have fond memories of. I have a piece that I think captures the kernel of what I try to do as a correspondent. It’s a piece called "Death and Taxes." And in Saratoga Springs, New York, on the annual tax forms for the county employees, the printer put the X in the wrong box on all of the tax forms and the 1040s said that everyone was deceased. They checked deceased for everyone, three hundred people—dead—in one fell swoop. So we went up there and we covered it as if there had been a disaster, three hundred people had died. We were there to cover the grief and the rage about it. And what I liked about it was that it highlights the reporter as single-minded idiot. The reporter desperately needs the story to be what he thinks it is. The story is written before you leave; you’re just going there to verify what you already want it to be. In this case, the reporter gets there and it is not what he thought it was but he won’t let it go. He cannot let go the idea of this tragedy and that the people there are filled with rage, and I actually eventually got people to say that they were sad and that they were filled with rage. And it was a great triumph for me as a fake reporter to get them to buy into my idiocy. I like that piece because no one in town looks like a fool. I look like a fool. You know, we’re not shooting fish in a barrel like with alien enthusiasts or Big Foot hunters; this is really spoofing the self-important, hyperbolic, vulture-like quality of tragedy news.
Compared to the other comedy writing you've done, what's it like writing for The Daily Show?
Well, there’s sketch, there’s narrative, and then there’s The Daily Show. Writing for The Daily Show is wonderful because as a correspondent you have to come up with a particular take on a specific issue. There is an actual event in reality that you’re spoofing or an actual event in reality that you’re talking about, you come up with a wrong headed view of it, and you explore that wrong-headed view through the lens of your newsman, and it’s easier to turn out a lot of material that way. Which is good because we’ve got to do it every night. And I think one of the reasons that it is a little easier to turn out material in that way is that you can’t feel precious about it. Because you know there’s another one tomorrow and we’ve got to get this damn thing on by five o’clock It has got to be written by three, and the story just broke this morning. So, you can’t be like egotistical about it and be precious about your words. Which is probably one of the reasons why it’s most liberating. Because you’re like, you know if I fuck up, then I fuck up, there’s another Kleenex in the box. That’s sort of how I feel about it. It’s Kleenex comedy, just pull another one out tomorrow. It doesn’t mean that we don’t try our hardest, or that it can’t be really hard to do this work, but of the three things I’ve done this is the most immediately enjoyable.
Jacqueline Schneider is an editorial intern at mediabistro.com
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