Late-night comedy writers have faced a few challenges when it comes to writing jokes during a global pandemic and the presidency of Donald J. Trump.
The writers for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show tell Deadline about the pros and cons of that process as well as how they’ve adjusted to writing for a house-bound Trevor Noah and how they plan to celebrate their eventual return to the studio.
Head writer Dan Amira says that he has adjusted to working under lockdown “terrifyingly well”. “I’m actually nervous about going back out into the world, because this has really worked out, for me, staying in, not talking to people. It’s been a dream.”
Amira admits that it took a bit of getting used to, but his team has got the routine down. “It’s working. I mean, we’ve had to change a lot of things, but we’ve found a way to adjust to these unprecedented times, this unprecedented situation. I think we’re doing a pretty good job of adjusting to it,” he adds.
He says under the old rules, the writers would have been crammed in a small room for an hour, “talking, laughing, yelling, basically, a coronavirus wet dream” but that this has been replaced with a FaceTime call with Noah and a few of the producers. An outline is created before jokes areas are handed out to the writers.
Kat Radley says, “I definitely miss being in the room with people, and riffing, and making jokes, because we’re all doing the jokes on our own, now, but I feel like you kind of miss opportunities, for maybe different, or even better jokes. When you have two or three people riffing off of each other, you might come to a joke, or an idea, that you wouldn’t have thought of, on your own, and also, it’s just more fun, to be in a room with everybody.”
Josh Johnson admits that replicating the feeling of hanging out is tough. “Christiana [Mbakwe] and Kat share an office, and I usually come and bother them, periodically, throughout the day, and I’ve really missed that, because it’s nice to be able to pop in on a person, and get a perspective, like did you guys hear? And they’re like, ‘Yeah, we heard’.”
He laments his office hang out space with fellow writers Devin Delliquanti, and Randall Otis. “I’m not going to lie, for the two months leading up to the pandemic, our office was really the hang. It was. I was finally popular. Things were going so well, and this pandemic derailed me.”
Mbakwe, who has worked on the show since 2017 and became a writer in 2019, returned from maternity leave during the lockdown. “I’ve been in quarantine for a whole year. So, it’s been a mental shift, because I kind of, came into the process later than everyone else, but I was impressed by how much of a well-oiled machine it had quickly become, and the way this feels like how we always did the show, even though I know that’s not the case, but the thing I do miss most is kind of, Trevor’s takes in the mornings, and just the camaraderie of our writer’s group, and then, Josh coming in, and bothering us, in our office.”
Given Noah is now taping the show from his own home, the pace of the jokes has changed, as has the fact that he’s not telling them to a studio audience. This has been something that many of the late-night hosts have discussed, including Seth Meyers.
But it has an upside. Amira says that they can now get away with certain jokes that would not previously have landed. “There’s a type of joke that you wouldn’t get a big laugh from an audience, but it’s a good joke. It’s well-written, or pointed, or clever, but in audience days, you wouldn’t really get a big laugh out of it, but there is no audience, now. So, I think we feel a little more comfortable, making that joke.”
During COVID-19, Comedy Central extended The Daily Show from 30 minutes to 45 minutes and has plans to extend it further to an hour by the end of the year. Trevor Noah recently told Deadline that this was, in part, to allow him to tell more jokes about international news and focus on global news without reducing the focus on domestic stories.
Brit Mbakwe says The Daily Show has always been an “inherently” international show. “Even our writer’s room is super global, in that sense. We have Ugandans, South Africans. I’m black, British, Nigerian. We already had this global-ish lens that we see. I think we mention Boris Johnson a lot more than other shows may do.”
One of the challenges for The Daily Show writers, like all late-night writers and comedians, is how to tell jokes in the age of Donald Trump.
Josh Johnson says the trick is to get to the root of an issue rather than just repeat Trump’s own words. “There’s definitely a misconception that everything that Trump does is great for comedy, because he is so silly, or ignorant, that the joke writes itself, but that doesn’t necessarily happen. There’s nothing really funny about just repeating what someone else said. You do have to bring perspective it.”
“I would just try to almost treat Trump like a mad libs game, or Cards Against Humanity game, where it’s like, let’s just fill in even dumber things, than the thing that he said, or the thing that you thinks he means, when really, if you try to look at him the way that the people who support him look at him, and the way that people who oppose him look at him, there’s a lot of fodder for other jokes, in there, that can speak to more people than just the people that you’re already speaking to,” he adds.
Mbakwe adds that Noah and Amira encourage the writers to stay away from the easy laughs such as Trump’s color or his relationship with his wife Melania and analyze him as a “political creature”. “Trump is a stand-up comedian. All that is, is stand-up, and so many great jokes came out of just seeing him as a stand-up comedian, rather than just Trump,” she says.
The writers admit that they have no idea when they will return to the studio in New York. Radley says that when they eventually do, she’d like to see “a lot of crying, balloon dropping, and champagne popping”.
“It’s going to be a great, whenever that is… in a year, or two years, or fifty years from now,” jokes Amira.