Telling jokes on television is tricky enough without throwing in a global pandemic, patchwork production facilities, empty rooms and poor internet connections.
However, the correspondents on The Daily Show have been valiantly ploughing through to support Trevor Noah on the Comedy Central show for the past four months to provide entertainment in tough times.
Ronny Chieng, Michael Kosta, Desi Lydic, Dulcé Sloan, Roy Wood Jr. and Jaboukie Young-White gathered on a Zoom call with Deadline to discuss how they are coping in quarantine, how they’re planning to cover the upcoming U.S. elections and revealing how they’ve each received support from Daily Show alum including the likes of Stephen Colbert and Steve Carrell.
“It’s hard to be funny on Zoom. I’ve tried hard four times this interview and I can’t get a laugh,” says Kosta.
“The technology is solid but I’m over the philosophy of it,” adds Chieng. “I’m feeling that same Bitcoin regret; I wish I had gone back in time and had gotten some Zoom stock,” says Young-White.
Comedy Central provided each of the correspondents the necessary equipment including Zoom recorders, microphones, tripods and lights to film their segments at their own homes or as Kosta puts it, “a flute, three different type of pasta and dynamite”. They also sent new iPhones.
However, as Lydic and Young-White highlight, this proved more complicated than expected. “I accidentally synced up my work phone with my own personal iCloud photos, which has 6,000 photos,” she says. “Desi, your wedding photos looked lovely,” says Kosta. “Yeah, but the breastfeeding photos were a little off putting,” jokes Lydic. “There’s going to be a scandal, because I don’t know how to get my photos off this work phone. If you wanted my nudes, you could have just asked me,” says Young-White.
Joking aside, Lydic says, “It’s definitely a trial and error situation, it’s all hands-on deck. We just shot a sketch, I got my husband to hold the camera, we rigged the iPhone camera to my son’s scooter, my husband was doing the dolly shot. My son is coming in with catering. I have so much more respect for our crew.”
Roy Wood Jr adds, “What’s crazy is that they’ll mail you props and by the time it takes the shipping to get to you, they’ve rewritten it or the news cycle makes it irrelevant.” “I’ve got a gavel in here that I don’t even know what to do with,” adds Sloan. “It was for the Supreme Court sketch that never happened because more COVID shit happened on top of it,” replies Wood Jr.
Sloan, who joked that her Zoom set-up was being held up with a box of grits, says that it’s harder to get a feel for someone over the internet. “When you do a field piece, the person would give you a day or two days and this was all they were doing. It seems now because you can do stuff over Zoom, they can give you three hours, so we don’t get the chance to learn about that person and then see where you can go with the jokes and then maybe flip it another way. You have to start with ‘what do we have to get’ and then you fill out the extras,” she says. “You can get a feel when you’re in someone’s presence how far you can push. The thing about the Zoom is I don’t know where they are. Getting a feel for someone through a screen, you’re making different kinds of adjustments.”
Kosta says there are pros and cons of working from home. “It’s great because we can wear what we want and I didn’t shave for two weeks because I wasn’t on the show. When you are on the show, of course, it’s a disaster, the UPS guy rings eight times that day, your roof leaks, it’s chaotic. What’s awesome about all TV viewers right now is everyone’s ok with it,” he says. “I miss the non-Corona field. But with the new cases, I might have a tight apartment, but I’m cool right here. I love getting out to talk to people in their environment, but let’s get the country healthy first.”
Trevor Noah has discussed how he was forced to retool the show when it flipped to an at-home edition in March. “It really speaks to the resourcefulness of the show that within a week of the pandemic happening, they completely reconfigured it, the way that the show is made, the writing, the way decisions are made, the way the producers produce the segment,” says Chieng. “It’s been a lot of adapting and trying to figure out how to actually film the sketches. There’s a lot of support staff helping so as long as we get the footage, they handle the rest. There’s also been a huge shift in terms of how we write it because it’s a completely different way of doing comedy than we’d have done in the field or in the studio.”
The show was also extended from 30 minutes to 45 minutes with reports that it will move to a full-hour by the end of the year. “We all work a bit more now. I think things that we might have shot to try out and it might hold for a bit, it’s going on the air because we have more to fill. That’s been nice. We’ve also been able to work on more sketches together. Normally in the studio, there might be three or four of us, but now we’re all available, we’ll do more together.”
As many comedians have found, they are no longer just writers and performers, but cinematographers, directors and lighting engineers. “Where the fuck is the on button and where does the audio go?,” jokes Young-White.
Kosta jokes, “We should all make fun of influencers but the first day in my apartment I was like, ‘how the fuck do you turn on Zoom?’. They are one man and woman production houses, if only they learned how to be funny.”
Covering the U.S. Presidential Elections has always been one of the highlights of The Daily Show, but under the current circumstances, the shows coverage of Votegasm 2020 is going to look a lot different.
There are still question marks over how both the Republican National Convention in Florida and the Democratic National Convention in Wisconsin will take place.
Roy Wood Jr. says that the team hasn’t decided how they will cover both events next months. But he adds, “As different as the production of the lockdown has changed, the M.O. has remained the same, to point out the bullshit that’s going on in the political world and expose it to the people that are most affected by it. There’s still going to be Presidential debates and we’re going to cover them live, I don’t know how yet. I know we’ve got satellite trucks and there’s ways for Trevor in the corner with one of those damn hoodies to do a live show at 11pm after a debate and break down what happened and the correspondents with decent internet and a box of grits will join live and do the same thing. In that regard, it won’t really change, where we do it from, that’s probably up for debate.”
The Daily Show is one of the most diverse late-night shows on television. Wood Jr. says that he is often “Trevor’s anger”, particularly when it comes to matters of race, showing another side of the argument. “Coming up under apartheid, a lot of this is not new to him, it gives him a different level of analysis, whereas someone like me… that’s always going to be my approach to use my emotions to drive the stories. It complements his thinking.”
Sloan says that having talented people with different experiences and from different backgrounds is beneficial to the show. “Talking politics in America and having everybody being a white man is not helpful to anybody.”
Young-White adds all of the correspondents started doing comedy long before Hollywood became interested in diversity initiatives. “It’s not like I was like ‘they’re hiring minorities, let me see if I can get a shot now’. I was going to be a comedian whether or not people appreciate what I say, so it’s nice that people ended up being interested in hearing these things. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to hire someone because they offer an alternative view.”
Chieng agrees, “It’s not diversity for the sake of diversity. The real difference between tokenism and diverse thinking is authenticity of thought. Everyone here authentically brings a different point of view.”
Being a correspondent on The Daily Show has long been a path to success with former correspondents including Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell, Samantha Bee, Ed Helms, John Oliver, Hasan Minhaj, Olivia Munn and Rob Riggle.
Wood Jr. says being on the show has made him a better comedian. He says, “I don’t consider this college, where you get the four-year degree and you go and do something else. Everyone is quick to talk about the correspondents that went on to do great things, but there’s a lot that went on to a diversity of different careers, that maybe aren’t as high profile because they’re not on camera. There are a lot of different ways you can go. I’m here as long as they’ll have me.” Having said that, he adds, “Michael Che started here and then eight months in got the offer to do Weekend Update. Holler.”
Chieng, who starred in Crazy Rich Asians and launched a Netflix stand-up special last year, says that the pace of the show is so fact that they often don’t have time to think about the future. “I am pretty focused on doing the show and making sure that the product that we put out every time is good. The Daily Show, for correspondents, is like Harvard Business School, you learn so much, and you make a lot of connections. When you collaborate with talented people, you make more ideas. There’s so many movies and TV show ideas from correspondents that started gestating on The Daily Show,” he adds.
There is, however, an official support network of ex-correspondents. Wood Jr. says he bumped into John Oliver in the street and they talked for 20 minutes. It’s like the old frat brothers that used to be active in the fraternity giving you tips instead of a nuggie.”
The group also revealed that there is an email from ex-correspondents that is often shared. Lydic says she received the note from Jordan Klepper, who got it from Rob Riggle, who got it from Stephen Colbert. Sloan says, “It’s one email from the other correspondents who were there before giving you tips and things to help you succeed. This is fucking hard and it’s going to be ok. That felt very significant because I moved across the country to a very intimidating job and to get these emails where someone was saying ‘I understand what you’re going through, let me give you some advice’ kind of grounds you and helps you realise that you’re not the first one to be scared or nervous.”
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