Inside ‘The Daily Show’ During a Truly Crazy Election Year with Zhubin Parang
Yesterday, Comedy Central announced that Jessica Williams is leaving her post at The Daily Show after four years, and while we’ll feel a big void at the show after her departure, that’s a challenge the team behind the scenes is used to, considering the show is still finding its footing in its post-Jon Stewart era. That team is led in part by Zhubin Parang, a writer, comedian, and UCB alum who joined The Daily Show as a staff writer in 2011 and took over as head writer when Trevor Noah made his debut last year. Ahead of yesterday’s news, I recently spoke with Parang about writing for Jon Stewart vs. Trevor Noah, how to find comedy in an already hopelessly absurd real world, what he thinks of Noah’s detractors, and why he thinks 2016 is such a great year for late night television.
First off, I really can’t imagine what will be in the news when this interview goes up. It feels like every day there’s another terrible tragedy or headlines about something stupid Trump said. I don’t know if it’s just because it’s an election year, but do you feel like that as a Daily Show writer? Is it hard to keep up?
What do you mean? With the gun tragedies, or the news in general?
Good question. All of the above?
[laughs] Yeah. I mean, part of the job is to be surfing as best you can on top of this massive wave of news that’s always happening, and with election year it’s always fifty times bigger. But at the same time, we do four shows a week, so news is always good for us to break down and gobble up and talk about. Election years are always kind of fun in that way. It’s kind of like drinking through a fire hose a little bit with all the news, especially this year with Donald Trump, who I think is somebody who’s made previous election years seem kind of slow in comparison. But then every now and then you have stories that come out, especially with gun violence, where the election suddenly feels so small and you realize that there are issues in this country that we are not addressing, and our electoral system and government are so dysfunctional, and people die as a result of it. And so you take a step back and process that, and you have to have a couple days to think about it and talk about it before you can slowly ramp up again to “Oh, Donald Trump said something stupid again about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit!” I think that’s the challenge of any job, really — just trying to maintain that kind of perspective between these stories that are such fluff and stories that really matter.
When it comes to covering Trump, is there any push and pull between “I don’t want to give this guy the free PR he wants” and “Wow, this is real and happening and lots of people voted for him”?
Absolutely. And I was one of the ones who, from the very beginning of his candidacy, was convinced he would not win a single primary, that he was just a summer flash in the pan like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann from the last cycle — I was 100% convinced of that.
More and more, when I think about it, it’s amazing how Trevor called this from the very beginning. I think Trevor was one of the first people who, from the very start, got Donald Trump. And because he’s from South Africa, he could see right away that Donald Trump was an African dictator. And we talked about that the first week of the show, and I don’t think anything’s ever been said about Donald Trump that is that accurate or that much of a devastating comment on where America is today that we are falling for this African dictator.
And when you look at it from that perspective, he makes a lot more sense to me. It’s not so much about him as it is about a very large fraction of this country is ready to go with the guy who openly flouts any convention of integrity or accountability or consistency and just promises over and over again that he will take care everything, and this country has started to be seduced by a strongman. Other countries have fallen for that before, and Trevor, being from another country, recognized that long before I think anybody did — definitely before I did. That, especially, has been why I think it’s important to talk about him as much as possible. It’s not just about him — this guy represents a real decline in the American integrity of our politics. So I like talking about him a lot. To me, you can’t discuss him enough, because you’re talking about the state of our own politics when you talk about him. Also, he says a lot of really dumb shit that’s really funny to make fun of. That always helps.
You’ve written for both Trevor Noah and Jon Stewart. One has a fresh, outsider perspective, and the other was already very familiar with how things work politically in the US. Did your approach as a writer change for the host turnover in certain ways?
Very much. Writing for [Trevor] just kind of makes you question your very base-level assumptions of American politics. Jon is so intimately familiar with the nitty-gritty of American policy and cable media, but when Trevor came in, we’d talk about these really basic things that we never questioned before. Even things like “Why is Congress the way it is? Should we really even have a Senate?” Stuff like that where Trevor would be like “What? That doesn’t really make sense,” and as you’d start explaining it to him you’d realize “Yeah, that doesn’t really make a lot of sense.”
It’s been very eye-opening to look at America from the point of view of someone who doesn’t have that level of “Well of course it has to be this way, because of the Second Amendment!” or “It’s always been this way, so it has to be this way!” So you get to write a lot more challenging stuff, because you have to consider “What do I think about this? What is funny about this thing that I never even thought about, much less made jokes about?” That’s so much more fun than you would think, and you learn a lot more about yourself, if that makes sense. I’ve seen a lot more of my own blind spots than I ever thought I had thanks to Trevor just coming in being like “That’s kind of dumb. Why do you even have a two-party system? Why do you have these primary systems? Why do you have caucuses?”
Maybe this is a cliche question, but I have to ask: How do you find unique, funny takes on news when so much of it already feels so absurd?
Right? Which is such an already sad thing to say. But I think politics comes with a certain puffed-up gravitas that always presents a target for mockery and for jokes. Even Donald Trump is trying to be serious — the thing he’s most upset by is ridicule.
The level of ludicrousness in our politics does sometimes make it hard to think, like, “Where can we take this that’s funny? It’s already hilarious.” It kind of relates to the issue of gun violence, when you think about it. The silliness of our politics right now is being played out against a backdrop of very severe problems for this country, and I think that’s where you can find the visceral reaction that gets you comedy: the fact that this country’s infrastructure is crumbling, the fact that half the globe right now is on fire, the fact that we are radically repositioning America’s place in the world right now, and to react to it we have this orange blowhard rallying people to kick out people based on their religion.
I think the contrast there is endlessly renewable in terms of what you can make fun of. Because politicians act so foolishly, but they all mean it. It’s that gap between what these people are asking us to give them — our trust and our consent to be governed — versus how they’re going about doing it that I think is a target of comedy. I think that’s the thing: If it’s not funny, you can make fun of it.
How do you run the writers’ room? When you were promoted to head writer, were there things you changed or tweaked a bit based on your experience as a staff writer?
A little bit, to match Trevor’s style more. When he comes into most issues, he’s an outsider. He’s new to American politics and to American issues, so when he comes in he kind of wants a conversation, honestly. He wants to sit there and talk about the different sides and the opposing viewpoints. Jon would have an argument he wanted to make, and he would make that argument with jokes. Trevor’s style is much more of a conversation — going through an issue, looking at one side, looking at the other side, and picking apart different ideas with jokes. So that style calls for a lot more thinking through all the different issues and how you personally feel about an issue, your own digressions into what you think is funny about something, and what you think about that maybe no one’s thought about. All of this Trevor wants.
So the writing now is a lot more expansive, especially in the early drafts, because Trevor often asks “What do you think about this? What would you say about this?” What’s the thing you want to bring to this idea that Trevor doesn’t think about? And from there, Trevor wants to incorporate that stuff and kind of have this walk with the audience through an issue or an event. So that requires a lot of different things from the writers, as opposed to Jon’s style, which was “Jon wants to say this — let’s figure out the funniest way to make this argument and present it.” It’s definitely been a challenge to shift to that kind of writing style, but I think our writers are the best in the business. I’m so phenomenally lucky to work with them, and I think they’ve adapted so well to Trevor’s style. And it also gives them a lot more of a voice in the show.
I’d say you had a pretty unenviable position of being the first head writer after Jon left, because a lot of critics have been rough on the show since then. What do you think of negative criticism of the show these days?
I think the mistake a lot of our critics make is trying to compare Trevor to Jon. It’s not just unfair, it’s a nonsensical comparison. They’re two completely different people. Like I said, Jon approached his show with a point of view and an argument he wanted to make, and the show was tailored to that. Trevor’s perspective is completely different, and his style is completely different. He wants to talk about things. He wants to have a conversation and go through issues. He doesn’t bring that level of outrage, I think, that Jon does, and I think there are some critics who think that if it’s not outrage it can’t be satire. And those critics miss out on a lot of incredibly good stuff we’ve done.
I think our conversations and analysis on Trump are some of the best that there is, our segments on the Bernie Bros was phenomenal, our debate coverage has been great, Hillary’s Benghazi hearings, and on Hillary’s campaign too. And we’ve expanded the ensemble and have segments that feature them now where they have their own points of view that come out. You’re always seeing new things on the show. Trevor always talks about how he wants it to get to the point where you never know what you’re going to see on The Daily Show, and I think we’ve moved so far into that. It’s always new and it’s always exciting, and for critics to expect that it’s going to be just another Jon Stewart clone, I think they miss out on how great the show is right now. Trevor is such a different voice in late night and has such a different style, and critics who expect him to have been just like Jon…I think they missed that.
Like anybody, I think Jon is the comedian of our generation. With late night right now, mostly I think we’re all just children of Jon in a lot of ways. But I think the great thing about late night now is if you want more outrage or if you want your comedy to be more familiar with policy or stuff like that, there are so many options now, so many hilarious options. Obviously there’s Sam Bee, there’s John Oliver, there’s Larry Wilmore — there’s so much stuff, so whatever your flavor of topical comedy is, there is a late night show for you. I think Trevor is the perspective of topical news that is sort of an outside observer who looks at all the different sides, offers his own perspective, and just calls it like he sees it — and if you like that, great, watch our show. I think it’s just unfair some critics are watching Trevor and expecting something else. You can’t really react to that, because they want him to be someone else, and it’s like “Yeah, all right. Sorry!” And I think the stuff we do is as high quality as it’s ever been, so I’m not really worried about that from my own perspective as a comedian.
Aside from the one you work on, do you have a favorite late night show?
I hate to say this, but just because I’m a comedian, I like hearing as many jokes as possible from all sides, so I watch all of them. I love Sam, I love Oliver, I love Larry, and I know a lot of the writers on those shows and we’re all friends. And they’re all definitely a different perspective from our show. After I’m steeped in our perspective for a day, I love hearing the other sides and points of view and jokes you just don’t think of because you’re not that voice. It’s funny…the thing is, Jon is kind of the prism of everything through which we all kind of just spread out in this glorious rainbow of colors — if you want to put it into a really awful analogy. [laughs] So I really like all of them, and at the end of the day I just love listening and watching jokes.
I learned recently that you wrote the segment Sam Bee did on The Five back in 2014. I think that’s one of the weirdest things The Daily Show has ever done, and I absolutely love it.
Oh thank you! I appreciate that. That was definitely a labor of love. [laughs] That was the outpouring of years of ingesting that show.
And Sam knocked it out of the park, obviously.
Oh she killed it, she killed it! Thank you very much. I think one of the really great things about late night is that writers have so much power. If you really believe in something and you push it, a good show will go “Yeah, let’s do it! I can see your passion, let’s do that.” There’s nothing greater than putting something up of yours on air and being like “This is something I can’t stop thinking about, so now you look at it, world!” And right now, I think late night’s as good as it’s ever been. You need as much comedy as you can get, and I feel very lucky to be working with a guy who is able to look at things and be like, “As an outsider, this shit’s crazy!” and I can be like “Yeah! It’s not just me!” It’s always good to know that America is falling apart in the eyes of the rest of the world too.
Photo credit: Gavin Bond