August 28, 2008

Behind the Convention’s ‘Daily’ Grind

By Gary Levin

DENVER -- Forget Rock the Vote. Inside the Pepsi Center this week, the true rock stars are the correspondents of The Daily Show, besieged by politicos and press, posing for pictures and being filmed by fans as they film their fake news reports -- or try to, anyway.

"If ever you're going to get recognized and adulation, it's going to be at the Democratic National Convention," says Larry Wilmore, the "senior black correspondent" of Comedy Central's satirical news team.

Problem is, all that love is interfering with their task at hand: catching unguarded delegates in funny outfits acting foolish. This is the show's sixth road trip, having covered the 2000 and 2004 conventions (including one in the show's home base of New York City) and having gone to Washington and Columbus, Ohio, for midterm elections in 2002 and 2006.

But as the show has grown more popular -- averaging 1.8 million viewers this year, up 13% from last -- things have changed. Among a certain crowd of news media, politicians and educated young viewers courted by them, it's a sacred institution.

"There are tons of people who still have no idea what our game is and what we do -- but not in this setting," concedes executive producer David Javerbaum.

"The show's gotten to the point where people know it and know what's going on," says correspondent Rob Riggle, who is warmly greeted by New York Sen. Chuck Schumer in the corridor outside the convention hall. "It's different than it was four years ago."

A rare backstage look at the process of producing the show on the road this week reveals things don't always run smoothly.

Monday: Meet the press

Convention opening day is chaotic. The correspondents are clustered together, drawing even more of a crowd. A field producer has disappeared for another assignment. So the fake reporters, with only a camera and sound man in tow, gather on-the-fly interviews with delegates; they're flattered but annoyed by the disruptions. Sometimes they coach each other; other times they'll take turns with one delegate.

Funny outfits make easy targets. Aasif Mandvi zooms in on a man in a flag shirt and cowboy hat from Deadwood, S.D., to ask him the "greenest thing" he has done, for a planned package on the hypocrisy of the convention's environmental embrace. (His answer: drinking green beer at an Irish bar the previous night.)

As the reporters arrive at the downtown convention early, Stewart is at the show's temporary University of Denver studio 8 miles away, hosting a breakfast with 15 top political writers and editors from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press and other outlets. Many are wearing suits and ties; Stewart, unshaven, sports a gray T-shirt, olive khakis, hiking boots, a Mets cap and a venti Starbucks.

Time managing editor Richard Stengel says Stewart's role has gone beyond court jester.

"I think he sees himself as ... a truth-teller and an antidote to what he sees as being artificial and false. Has he helped the perception of the press in general? Probably no. He makes people in the media look buffoonish and silly and toadyish, and that has an effect." But, "it's an honor to be skewered."

The assembled writers want to know who's funnier, Barack Obama or John McCain, but the talk turns unexpectedly serious as Stewart complains about the 24-hour news channels and urges the journalists to "earn your authority back" and to focus on what's important. He chastises their willingness to be co-opted by political players at off-the-record social events.

And Stewart, self-effacing, minimizes his role in changing the political or news media climate: "The whole idea that we're the beacon of integrity is ridiculous. We get far more attention from you guys than we should."

Says Richard Korson, a former Daily Show staffer who heads Busboy, Stewart's production company: "He writes really good jokes, and everything else is a byproduct of it. Because he can say things they can't, they treat him like a peer. But he's not a peer, he's a comic."

Bagging the guests

Late Monday, just 24 hours before taping, the week's first guest is booked: Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who was on the short list for Obama's vice president slot, to discuss the vetting process. ("Does Sen. Obama give a rose to each person to go to the next round?" Stewart asks on air.) This is highly unusual; guests are normally booked weeks ahead. But Stewart "wanted to be reactive and more topical" at the conventions, says talent producer Hillary Kun. "We're living on the edge."

Stewart offers a different reason. "Even though everyone's here, it's harder to get them," he says of guests. "We're a little out of the way." But if anything has changed since he joined the show in 1999, it's that "I've grown more comfortable with the idea it's OK not to get access, it's OK not to get a big interview as long as we feel good about the content." Producers have plenty of material and can easily fill later slots without guests if needed.

Still, back-to-back conventions are a challenge. "It's harder in that it's a momentum game, and we've never produced two weeks in a row on the road," Stewart says. "It's always the fear you run out of juice."

The turnaround time is also intense, and this week, the fake news show is produced more like a real one. Taped segments usually plotted weeks in advance must be turned around in two days. An exception: satirical "biographical" films on the candidates that have been planned and rewritten over a month.

After Friday night's show, they'll trek to St. Paul for the Republicans. Though the crowd will likely be less welcoming to the news team -- the Democrats "are more open and less controlled," Javerbaum says -- the GOP has given the show plenty of material over the last eight years and won't likely stop now. "The big contrast next week is probably that J.Lo won't be throwing an afterparty," Stewart says.

At the convention center, the correspondents are still roaming in search of on-the-fly interviews. John Oliver lies in wait for eventual vice presidential nominee Joe Biden to emerge, but Biden dodges his question.

Meanwhile, the dozen writers split into teams and hunker down in front of TV screens to monitor news channels' prime-time coverage of speeches by Sen. Ted Kennedy and Michelle Obama, looking for jokes from the event and, particularly, the coverage of it. Stewart says late-night comedians' current narratives -- McCain is old, Obama elitist -- are like the "compulsories" of figure skating. The challenge is to go beyond that.

Two hours after Michelle Obama's speech ends, they've written drafts of jokes about her need to prove her bona fides as a patriot, her modest upbringing, her husband's surprise appearance by satellite, and their daughter's penchant for interrupting his banter with the huge crowd.

But they decide to lay off Kennedy, a frequent target.

"We're not going to force a joke just to be reflexively snarky and cynical," says Javerbaum, especially so soon after his life-threatening brain tumor, which would be "uncool" unless "he said something that would be asking for it."

Instead, they pick on the CNN commentary of frequent and "distasteful" target James Carville, who is likened to a bald-headed alien.

Tuesday: Fine-tuning

At 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, a production meeting with 30 or so staff runs down the schedule for the week's first show that night. (The show airs Tuesday to Friday at 11 ET/PT during convention weeks instead of its usual Monday-Thursday schedule.)

A few of the 265 ticketholders, 50 more than fit in the show's New York home, have already begun lining up, and there's talk of bringing in an ice-cream truck; by noon it will be 91 degrees and sunny. The college's performing-arts center must be mentioned by name on air, one staffer notes.

Stewart doesn't attend this meeting. But he firmly controls every aspect of the show, from suggesting how a correspondent delivers a line to deciding on a last-minute graphic change that superimposes Michelle Obama's head on an Uncle Sam drawing.

His anchoring duty, the most obvious to viewers, is perhaps the least of his contributions. At a late-morning editing session, he asks for precise changes to a taped piece on "healing" disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters: a funnier descriptive reference here, a more vague one there to avoid telegraphing a joke.

At midafternoon, audience members are ushered out of the heat and into a holding area in the building, while Stewart, the producers, correspondents and crew gather in the studio for a rehearsal on a freshly built "Indecision 2008" set festooned with stars, stripes and a Denver skyline. (Another is already being built in St. Paul by an advance team.)

A suit, a tie and a shave

Stewart, now in suit and tie, has shaved, had his graying hair styled and makeup applied. The correspondents tape a bit for the opening segment, and Stewart runs through his script. Deciding some clips don't match jokes and some jokes simply don't work, they quickly mull changes. Besides, it's determined the show will run nearly three minutes long, so some have to go.

The pretaped pieces that air during the show's second segment are finished. But Stewart, Javerbaum and head writer Steve Bodow retreat to a small basement meeting room where Stewart rewrites much of the opening script off the previous day's headlines, out loud and off the cuff, with a laser-like focus. He knows precisely which jokes play and which video clips don't. The jokes are sharpened, obscure references deleted. He wants each of Obama's daughter's interruptions included, and he wants Kennedy's introductory film clip -- showing him piloting a schooner -- seen as projected in the convention hall. The correspondents file in and tentatively suggest changes of their own. Some stick, but it's clearly Stewart's exercise.

Meanwhile, the audience is ushered into the theater, where a warm-up comedian primes the crowd, which has been waiting hours for their 22-minute brush with Stewart, into a raucous frenzy. Stewart visits two editing suites to watch changes he has just ordered, and briefly greets Kaine. Then he bounds onstage for a jokey 10-minute Q&A session with the adoring audience.

The questions could have come from within the Pepsi Center: "This crowd is really liberal," whispers Javerbaum from a producer's table at the edge of the small stage. But Stewart takes cheap shots at everyone. "A harsh joke about Obama," says Javerbaum, would "make this audience turn on us. They think we're always with them, but we're not always with anybody."

The taping begins at 5:45, 45 minutes behind schedule, but goes smoothly. Reshoots are rarely needed. Still, the show still comes in a minute too long, requiring trims before the episode is transmitted to Comedy Central in New York, and from there to TV screens a couple hours later.

Then it's back to work watching convention coverage and writing jokes for another day.

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