How Trump Has Changed the Way the Daily Show Writers Work

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Trevor Noah. Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images for Comedy Central

In the weeks since Donald Trump assumed the presidency, the pace of the news cycle has gone from relentless to utterly overwhelming. Journalists are racing to keep up with it all, and so has the staff at The Daily Show With Trevor Noah.

To learn how The Daily Show has adjusted to the Trump era, Vulture checked in with head writer Zhubin Parang last Friday afternoon, the two-week anniversary of the inauguration. In the interview below, he explains how he and his colleagues are handling the onslaught of executive orders, Trump’s nonstop tweet storms, and the last-minute changes to every show.

We’re two weeks into this administration, but it already feels like five years …

And how. And how.

… so I wanted to take the temperature of The Daily Show. In terms of your routines, has anything changed under President Trump?

Things have definitely sped up. We used to be able to predict what the show would be the afternoon before the day, and now we just can’t ever assume that the show we have planned at 7 p.m. the night before is going to be anything like the show that’s ultimately going to air the next day. He does so much stuff and finds so many new ways to make news, whether it’s alienating allies or passing astonishingly inept executive orders or saying something on Twitter that blows something up.

There’s so much to choose from in terms of news events, and everything is happening so fast.

We always are watching TV and have our ears to the ground, just in case anything new comes up and we have to kick something in the script to make room for it.

On Tuesday night, we all were watching the Supreme Court announcement and preparing a script for it on Wednesday morning, assuming that, of course that’s going to be the major story of the day. Within three or four hours, we had to start rewriting, frankly, because [Trump] had a meeting with various African-American leaders because of Black History Month, and that itself created this hilarious story about the pastor who said he had met with the top “gang thugs” in Chicago, and that they respected [Trump] and wanted to make a deal with him. That’s something we can’t not talk about. So even on days when we are positive that something is going to be a major story, he keeps surprising us. The pace of the day is dramatically sped up.

Even within the context of that day, Trump’s statement about Frederick Douglass also was a story. Within a single event, there are five things that could conceivably be a Daily Show segment.

You have to constantly be recalibrating. What is it about these six different things that happened do want to talk about? Then, when the next event has six more things to talk about, which of those is important enough to kick back the two things that you thought were important from the last one? It’s exhilarating, in a way. It’s refreshing to be hit with a firehose constantly. It’ll be very energizing until we all have heart attacks in a few weeks.

A few weeks? You’re being optimistic.

I’m giving my heart a lot of generosity.

On the day of the show, you have a morning meeting and usually have the scripts locked down for rehearsal in the early afternoon, right?

Yeah, usually around 3:30 p.m. or 4 p.m. we have rehearsal, so the scripts are usually in around two o’clock. But these past few weeks, there are a lot more impromptu meetings where three or four of us meet in the hallway, like, “Should we do this now? Yeah, let’s write that up.” So we grab a writer, we grab a studio guy and a graphics guy to find the clips. Instead of one nice, organized morning meeting where everyone gets on the same page, it’s a lot of frantic hallway meetings that allow for a lot more chaos and confusion. Which is how I assume the Trump White House itself runs.

Are you still adhering to the schedule, where after 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. you go with what you’ve got?

No, even then we still are able to shift stuff around. Just yesterday, after rehearsal, we threw in an extra update to the Black History Month meeting, where that pastor walked back his statement that he had talked to the top gang thugs. Even though we decided to hit that after rehearsal, we just crammed it in. We’re very lucky: We have a very efficient team that can turn things around very quickly. Otherwise, it would be even more of a nightmare than it is.

It is a slight advantage that we are able to consume a bit more water from the firehose than weekly shows. But it’s a blessing and a curse. You can drink a bit more water, but you’re still consuming all that water.

Has anything changed in terms of how you decide which stories merit airtime? Do you consider factors that you weren’t considering when Obama was president?

It ultimately goes down to: Does Trevor want to talk about it? That’s ultimately a visceral feeling Trevor has. Like, Yeah, that’s important, I want to say something about that. Or if there’s a really great joke or a pitch off that event. If a writer or producer comes with a really great idea for a response or a joke, that alone might carry the decision to talk about it. Otherwise, it’s always up to Trevor and whether he feels personally connected enough to that story to want to say something about it.

As we’re talking this morning, people are discussing Kellyanne Conway and the “Bowling Green massacre,” which, how could any of us have forgotten it?

I remember we all updated our Facebook profile pictures to include that overlay.

The bowling ball with the yellow ribbon around it?

Yeah. The nation really came together.

So this Bowling Green thing is a talking point on Thursday night and Friday. You guys don’t come back to air until Monday. Do you do anything with this? Or do you let that one go?

I guess it depends on whether something happens over the weekend that kicks it off the radar. At this point, I’m very confident it will. But who knows? It could be that something reignites it or brings it back into the news. Right now, I doubt that by the time it comes to Monday, it won’t have just washed away by some new news.

Our expansion team also addresses all this stuff. [Note: The expansion team is the group responsible for The Daily Show’s digital presence.] As we’re pitching stuff for all these events, the stuff that we don’t address on the show, expansion will take and run with. It also helps with fun, smaller stories — for example, Beyoncé’s pregnancy — that we have great jokes for but we want to get them out right now.

Speaking of Beyoncé, obviously there is other news outside of the Trump administration. The show recently opened with a piece about Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement. How do you decide when to veer off the political stuff? Or again, is that up to Trevor?

Honestly, news that can break through the Trump noise is always welcome. It’s always fun to have some dynamism in the news that we cover. We’re also always looking for anything to give us a break from our full Trump diet.

Do you feel that viewers need that?

Yeah, especially because, during the last two weeks, it’s hard for any news story to not involve Trump in some way. Even the Super Bowl right now, I feel like the dominant story is that Tom Brady calls Donald Trump all the time. So it’s like, God, we can’t even have the Super Bowl without this becoming politicized, or without it becoming a Trump event? Any time we can talk about something that’s fun and interesting that doesn’t relate to Trump is great.

Even the Beyoncé segment you did came back to Trump, with the Star Wars references.

Yeah, it always comes back to Trump. This is our new world order now.

I was watching an old Seinfeld episode.This is a week ago. For a moment I forgot when it aired, and I thought, maybe that’s a commentary on Trump. Then I was like, what am I talking about? I’m not even watching a new episode.

Have you tried to invite the president or any administration officials to appear on the show since the inauguration? Is that something you want to happen?

Trevor is a very good host to his guests. I’m sure if the administration officially wanted to come on and have a discussion, we would definitely — I don’t see why we wouldn’t. Trevor is a very firm believer in talking to everybody and having a conversation with everybody. You saw in the Tomi Lahren interview. His style is, let’s talk. We can always connect through a conversation. If they want to come on the show, we’d be happy to have them. I’m not sure they would, but they are always welcome to.

But you haven’t invited them at this stage?

I’m not sure. Our booking department would know that. I don’t know, sorry.

What’s the most important Trump story that The Daily Show will track going forward?

To me personally, I would say the Trump administration’s relationship to the fight against terrorism is going to be the most concerning aspect of the next four years. When it comes to domestic policy, Congress and the party system tend to present a measure of checks and balances to Trump.

But when it comes to foreign policy, he has so much more leeway and the potential for irreversible damage is so much higher. With respect to his understanding of, for example, Islam and the relationships that the United States has with Middle Eastern countries, I think he has the potential to do damage on a generational level. When you look at the past week, with the refugee ban, with the ban on these seven countries, with the new Iran sanctions, it doesn’t seem like he has any kind of nuanced grasp about this massive thicket of weeds that the Middle East represents.

The potential for danger and a misstep is so enormous. That’s what keeps me up at night. That’s the area where he has the most power and he’s the least equipped to handle it.

You and your colleagues can’t take a mental-health break from this stuff. How is that affecting you?

It definitely helps that we have that catharsis of joking about it and gathering together multiple times a day to make fun of what’s going on in the news. I don’t know how I would handle it otherwise, to be exposed so constantly to everything that’s going on, if I had no other way to joke out all that nervous energy that’s built up. So that’s definitely helped.

It’s very exhausting to be so overwhelmed by everything that’s happening all the time. But having a bunch of the funniest people in the entire world sitting with you, making fun of it, it does wonders to alleviate your anxiety.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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