Talking with ‘Daily Show’ Producers Tim Greenberg, Miles Kahn, and Stu Miller About ‘DL Hughley: The Endangered List’
Should the black man be on the endangered species list? Comedian and former CNN correspondent DL Hughley wanted to turn this question into an hour-long mockumentary special for the past eight years, but it wasn’t until Comedy Central stepped in with seasoned Daily Show producers Tim Greenberg, Miles Kahn, and Stu Miller that Hughley finally got a chance to explore the ways the California Tiger Salamander gets more benefits and protection from the government than the black community. Last week, I got a chance to ask Greenberg, Kahn, and Miller how they got involved in making DL Hughley: The Endangered List, their thoughts on the claim that we live in a “post-racial” America, interviewing a certain Neo-Nazi, and much more.
So how did this project fall into your lap?
Miles: DL had been trying to pitch it for eight years. The impetus of it was him golfing and hitting a ball into a section of the course that was cordoned off because it was protected environment for some rare California salamander. That got him thinking, then he got in contact with his people, and his people knew Stu’s people.
Stu: We shot it over the summer. It took up basically all of our free time – nights, weekends – but it was a lot of fun. From our first conversation – DL and I – he had a very rough idea of what he was thinking. And the three of us kicked it back to the lab and came up with a bunch of ideas, and the four of us worked it all out.
Tim: DL had this idea for a long time, and he wasn’t exactly sure how to bring it to fruition. Although it’s very different from what we do at The Daily Show, we were able to bring a lot of the kinds of expertise we learned there to an entirely different kind of project, and I think it filled in the gaps in a way. It was a combination of art, expertise in what we do [at The Daily Show] and DL and who he is, and it really created something that, without one or the other, wouldn’t have worked as well.
Did all three of you travel with DL for the whole special?
Tim: We split it up three ways, basically. We all collectively wrote and directed it as an overarching collective piece. But then we split it up, so each of us took two acts, and then there was some overlap.
Miles: That way there was always a key person on the project who knew it best and could shepherd and lead it, which is nice because the way that we work at our day jobs is similar, where someone will be the key person then everybody else comes in and comments on it, works on it, and helps tailor it. Our usual working environment is a meritocracy where the best joke wins, so if I did my piece and thought something was really funny, and Tim and Stu shot it down, then it’s out. The nice thing about a trio is that majority rules.
Stu: And don’t think for a minute that we wouldn’t gloat about who won. [laughter] And whoever was the tiebreaker vote – that was always a fun position to be in.
Miles: We literally take a vote in the room.
Tim: “We want it? Done, moving on.” It’s a very quick way to do it. I’ve never worked in a triumvirate before; we’d done other projects before…
Miles: [laughs] Triumvirate? That was a fancy word.
Tim: I’ve never worked in a three-headed rotation like this, other than when we worked together on previous projects, but it works really well. It’s nice.
Stu: And frequently we’d all agree on some stuff too.
Tim: Yeah, that’s true. Most of the time it’s obvious what’s funny and what sucks, and it’s only when there’s some disagreement that you have to do that. We all trade the role of “Okay this guy’s presenting these two, because it’s his piece” or vice versa. It just works really well. Although our editor did say she never heard three people yell at each other so much.
Miles: Or be so mean to each other. [laughs]
Tim: It took like a month before she finally admitted that she’d been sitting there going, “Oh my God these guys scream at each other all the time.”
Miles: And she’s this very sweet, at the time pregnant woman, editing this thing for us. And we’re just screaming our heads off at each other.
Tim: I felt terrible for her unborn child getting all this energy through that.
When DL’s idea was first presented to you, what was your first reaction?
Stu: I liked the idea. We all liked the idea and we all thought that we could do this. Like Tim said, it was right up our alley. We didn’t know exactly what the elements would be at that point, but we knew we’d figure it out. You didn’t know what the path was going to be, but you could see that “Okay, yeah I get it. It’s going to work.” It’s going to be an easy pitch and there you go.
Tim: One thing that I think took some figuring out is on its surface, getting the black man on the endangered species list – we have a black president, so you think “How is the black man endangered?” That’s maybe your first reaction, but if you look at it, black households lost I think 53% of their net worth in the recent recession, which was stunning. I think that statistic first came out when we were just starting this special. And there’s various other things – when you look at it closely, you’re like, “Oh, right.” Like Tavis Smiley was saying in his interview with DL, in many ways, Obama has not necessarily been great for the black community on a day-to-day basis. Obviously he’s inspirational on one level, but because I think he’s sort of been boxed in, there’s only so much he can do for the black community. And obviously times have been tough in general for the last however many years, so it really felt like the premise had a lot more validity to it than at first glance.
Miles: And when we looked up the criteria for the endangered list it was like this happy surprise. You can plug in so many things that fit in the black community – in a comedic sense, but also in a thematic sense this actually kind of works out. Even though it’s a ridiculous premise on its face, you could still plug in the data points.
Tim: There are very specific things that line up. There are seven criteria that it takes to be on the endangered list, like one is their habitat is being encroached on by commercial interests, which for animals means malls and stuff, but obviously if you look at black communities all over, they’re being encroached upon by all kinds of things. [to Miles] What were some of the other things?
Miles: Disease within the species, predators within the species… And there’s also ways that it doesn’t work out, but we just ignored those. [laughs] But it did match up really succinctly in so many different ways. It was like “Oh, we can actually pull this off. This isn’t such a crazy idea.” And what I liked about it – and it was like DL’s insistence – was that he didn’t want it to be just stories about victims. He was like, “We’ve seen this before. We’ve seen those stories. I want to point the finger at everyone, including the black community.” And that, to me, was a huge thing. It’s a nice way to do it, we haven’t seen it before, and it’s great that he’s going to be able to stand up and say, “Hey, let’s look at ourselves. Let’s look at what we can do better as well.”
Tim: And you know, a lot of what we’re talking about here is not funny, but you can always write jokes. But it works a lot better if it’s about something and there’s an actual point underlying it all. So for the overarching thing that’s true, and for each individual act, that’s what we looked at.
Stu: I got an email this morning from a friend of mine, and it’s funny how people want to just enjoy the serious stuff and connect so much with very real documentary aspects of this as opposed to the jokes, which you would think oh, it’s on Comedy Central, it’s just comedy. Comedy Central had a great vision for what this was and could be from the start, but a friend of mine at CNN, he’s like, “Oh yeah, I understand you had to do all that stuff with the guy and the endangered species list in the first act to set it up,” but he couldn’t wait for that to end to get to the actual meat of what it’s about, which is the more serious, non-comedic aspects. There are jokes in there, but…
Tim: Like the joke about the private prison industry, which is publically traded companies whose business is locking up human beings, and some of their ideal candidates are young healthy inmates who will be there for a long time. So for example, we talked to these gangbangers in LA and the joke about giving them – who know they’re going to possibly end up in prison – a stock certificate from the private prison industry. So they’re shareholders in the prison that they’re going to quite possibly be going to. And that joke works because it’s a fucked up situation – it’s incredibly fucked up.
This special explores the claim that we’re living in a “post-racial” era, especially now that Barack Obama is president. Do you agree with that claim?
Tim: Well as a white Jew, I tell ya…
Miles: Yeah, DL hired three white Jews to work with him on this.
Stu: From the suburbs.
Tim: It’s the dream: Instead of the forty acres and a mule, he gets three Jews working for him.
Miles: Which he was very excited about. At our first pitch meeting, he’s like, “I don’t just have one Jew, I’ve got three Jews working for me.”
Tim: On one level, obviously it’s post-something, because Obama’s a black president. He’s the most powerful, most looked-up-to man in the entire country, so there’s no going back from that. No matter what, forever, people will always go, “Well, there was a black president.” So in that one way it obviously is post-one big hurdle. But the fact is, there’s still so many problems that are endemic to the African American community that are not necessarily just tied to economic status. Like the thing we did about environmental racism – when I first heard about that, basically the idea is that they put all kinds of dumps and poisonous toxic sites in African American communities. When you first hear about that and a lot of these other problems you think no, it’s just because they’re poor – like compared to whites, the African American community are lower on the socioeconomic scale. So you think that’s why. But the fact of the matter is the guy we interviewed did the studies, removed all the other things, and it turns out no, the differentiation is because they’re black.
Miles: Specifically because they’re black. Yeah.
Tim: And there’s a lot of things that really come down to that, so when you look at that you say, “Well, it’s not post-racial anything.” But that still exists. If anything, in a way, it’s harder to do it, because if you have a black president, and you can always go like, “Hey, you had a black president, what the fuck do you want from me?”
Miles: “Everything’s fixed.”
Stu: What we tried to do in that act with the “White DL” was… Here’s a story where they put hazardous material dump sites within the black community. A white person would respond to that like “That’s crazy, they would never do that,” and black people respond to this like “Yeah, that sounds about right.” So what we were trying to do was to get that point of view across and show that it is real, because Dr. Bullard has the research and facts to back it up, to show case after case, they actually are putting these in minority communities. And what we were trying to do in that moment was to show that hey, this is how the white person would respond to that: “That’s crazy, wait ‘til all the facts come in” like we’re equivocating on some level, whereas DL and the family we interviewed are like “No, this happens. This happens all the time, and we’re used to this.”
Miles: It’s evidence that there’s still classic forms of racism in 2012, despite having a black president. Despite that great hurdle that we finally overcame, black people do not have economic power in this country, they don’t have political power in this country, and they don’t have social power in this country. They still are the minority in those three main areas, and they are still being held back by a lot of things.
Tim: And don’t forget the Neo-Nazi that we interviewed.
Miles: That’s where it’s different.
Tim: No but he said straight up, like, something else that happened is we get a black president, and then the racists really come out of the fucking woodwork. He’s saying “Yeah, President Obama…”
Miles: …inspired membership in his group.
Tim: President Obama was good for business for him. So there’s that, too. In a way, yes it’s post-racial, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever felt such an undercurrent of racism as we’ve had over the last, say, five, six years since Obama started running. A lot of the anger against Obama – I don’t want to say it’s all racism because it’s not – but some of it, it’s got to be. It just feels like it. I mean, if it smells a little racist and sounds a little racist, I think sometimes it’s just fucking racist. And I think that a lot of the reaction to Obama has some roots in that.
Miles: Here’s the thing: I do think sometimes when I watch those conservative pundits, I feel bad that they’re called racists – I think they just hate liberals. And I do think sometimes they just really hate liberals so much and they get tarred as racists, and that’s not always fair because they’re dicks about every liberal, not just Obama.
Tim: Right, but then you head out into America, which we do a lot in our day jobs, and you get some sense – not always – but you do get some sense that there’s a kind of, “That person is different than me. I don’t recognize him. I’m scared of him.”
Miles: I’ll tell you, we’re post-racial in the sense where I had no problem doing the Neo-Nazi story because we paint them as clowns, and we didn’t have to do that very hard. We didn’t take him out of context; what he says is what he says. And they’re trying really hard to now appeal to a broader mass, like “We don’t use the N word,” and “We don’t say ‘hate,'” and everybody sees the swastika and it’s a recognizable symbol of hate. It’s laughable and it’s clownish. So when you see blatant racism and people who perpetuate that – stereotypes who perpetuate hate – that’s so obvious, and the entire country can get behind that and say “Well, that’s wrong.” That’s not the racism that’s a problem anymore. To me, they’re not really a huge problem. They’re a little minor blip on the screen. It’s the undercurrent that’s still there, and that’s not gone yet. And this is like the least funny interview for a comedy website. [laughs]
Oh it’s perfect. By the way, I’m not sure if you’ve gone out of your way to google that Neo-Nazi guy, but I found a blog post he wrote about appearing in this special.
Miles: Oh, did he really?
Yeah. He briefly complains about how his interview was edited, but he’s really happy you kept his peanut butter joke.
Miles: [laughs] I have to read that, that’s hilarious. The weird thing is, I came away from that interview not really hating the guy. I wasn’t seething with anger or hate for the guy, I thought he was kind of buffoonish.
Stu: I didn’t get a strong sense that he hates black people, which I would imagine is the number one job requirement for him. [laughter] And I’m watching him like, “You know, really? He’s not that much of a racist.” They probably should have cleared that up before he was hired.
Tim: Stu’s been worried that the guy is literally going to lose his job over this. That the Neo-Nazis are going to say “What are you doing sitting around with a black guy?”
Stu: …not sounding that racist.
Miles: Yeah. He’s going to get called in and told “Listen, you’re just not hateful enough for us.”
Stu: How should we feel about that? Is that a good thing? Like, “Great!”
Tim: Should we feel bad? We’re going to have to get him a job, teach him how to be racist all over again.
Stu: But the question is, if he loses his job, okay great, a Neo-Nazi lost his job. But then you think, wait a minute, the guy they put in his place is going to be a serious Neo-Nazi.
Miles: Yeah, they’re not going to mess around.
Stu: It’s like, now you kind of want him to keep his job. It’s a very interesting moral dilemma.
Tim: Even just saying that is probably not doing him any favors. [to recorder] Sorry man. If you’re reading this, sorry man. I hope you keep your job.
Miles: I hate to say this, but he was a really good sport for a Neo-Nazi. He really was. He went out in the city. He took a little petty cab ride with DL, and I didn’t have to twist his arm about that – he thought it was funny.
Tim: Cut to four days from now – some massacre somewhere…
Tim: …and it’s this guy, and we’re like, “Yeah he was all right! He’s our friend!”
Miles: Listen, if Jeff Schoep is reading this, you guys said you were non-violent. Stick with that. That’s the way to go, if you want to get your message across.
Tim: Don’t make us look bad. Don’t go shooting anybody.
See? This interview got funny.
Miles: Well, we had to talk about Nazis for it to get funny.
Tim: They’re always funny.
So were there any cut segments that you particularly liked?
Stu: Oh yeah, we actually filmed this one segment with the LA Gang Tours, which is pretty self-explanatory. It’s basically run by a former gangbanger who gives a tour in South Central of all the big gang hotspots, talks about the gang history, will tell you where Training Day was made, gives you a tour of the Metro County Jail…
Miles: He does a little art demo of all the different tags, graffiti…
Tim: So there were all these white college students going on a tour of LA gangland, which obviously fits into our premise. Ultimately it didn’t…
Stu: …it just didn’t quite pay off, and it didn’t quite fit. But, if you’re in LA, and you’re looking at day attractions – amusement park kinds of things – it’s a $67 ticket, whereas SeaWorld…
Miles: Yeah it’s a steal.
Stu: …SeaWorld and Disneyland are about $85 for a day ticket. So it’s a pretty good deal.
Miles: Yeah it’s a really good deal.
Tim: 20% less.
Miles: Do they provide a sandwich or something usually?
Stu: No sandwich.
Miles: No sandwich. BYOS.
If you missed the premiere of DL Hughley: The Endangered List, you can still catch these airings on Comedy Central:
Thursday November 1st @ 3AM ET/PT
Friday November 2nd @ 11AM ET/PT
Saturday December 8th @ 4AM ET/PT