I have been impressed with the ability of shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to fairly consistently deliver high quality topical news comedy. Starting today, host Jon Stewart takes a hiatus for two months to make a film about an Iranian journalist. Jon Oliver will take the anchor chair in his absence and The Guardian used that transition to interview Oliver about his own career. In the process, the article shed some light into how each show is constructed.
A day in the life of The Daily Show begins with the 9am writers’ meeting where, as Oliver puts it, “we work out the point of view, the rough argument of the whole show”; writers are then given individual assignments, which are drafted and redrafted through the morning, in response to notes from Stewart. At 1.30, the writing staff hand over to the production crew, who have a couple of hours to track down film clips, obtain props and design graphics; by 4.15, Stewart and his colleagues are rehearsing the show to an empty studio. There is an hour for final rewrites, before the recording, in front of a live audience, at 6pm. “It’s a well-oiled machine that Jon’s built here,” Oliver says, “but it’s still [rushed] enough to make you go through the day in a state of perpetual controlled panic. There’s enough time in the day to get a show on air. But there’s definitely not too much time.”
Oliver’s talk of “arguments” and “points of view” highlights the real, enduring strength of The Daily Show: not that it’s a replacement for conventional news, nor a vehicle for radical social criticism, but that it sets its comic sights marginally higher than most news-related comedy. If bloodshed in Syria is what’s leading the news, the show’s writers will usually resist the urge to gravitate towards some sillier, more minor story, and will find a way to focus on Syria instead.
“I think sometimes that’s the problem with British shows,” Oliver says. “It’s ‘John Prescott said something stupid, and he looks like an idiot’ – but the skill is in trying to get one step above that. To tell bigger jokes about bigger things. People are always going to say stupid things, and you’re always going to be able to make jokes about that, but it should be the last thing you add in, because it’s the easiest thing.”
I am really surprised that they start as late as 9:00 in the morning and that the show is basically written by 1:30 pm. Given that they have so little time to put together their pieces, not to mention dig through the archives for those seconds of footage to make their jokes, it really speaks to the skill and professionalism of the people behind the scenes.