‘Daily Show’ Correspondents Discuss Election, Comedy
President-elect Donald Trump’s candidacy was once the punch line for late night comedians and political pundits alike. Last Tuesday night, Trump surprised the nation and the world by turning the punchline into reality. Throughout the campaign season, Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” became the gold standard of political satire. In an interview with The Hoya, correspondents Hasan Minhaj and Roy Wood Jr. discussed topics of comedy’s role in the election, the navigation of race in entertainment and when free speech goes too far.
In such a divisive election, how essential was the role of politically oriented comedy shows?
Minhaj: The rising popularity of political satire, especially if you look at the marketplace right now, owes its success to the fact that we’re basically comedic synthesizers. Not to nerd out, but you know how when your body’s enzymes help you catalyze and digest things? That’s basically what we do. We take really, really complicated, esoteric information, and in seven-and-a-half minute acts, we’re able to break it down, pepper in really funny stuff, and I think that’s why people like it. To get the college analogy, we’re like funny history professors, essentially. Does anyone have time to sift through everything on WikiLeaks? You can tune in to “The Daily Show” and we will sift through all of it and be like, “Here are the main things that are important,” with some jokes along the way.
How are you using comedy to make the results of the election a little less heavy than they may currently be?
Minhaj: Well, we had a comedian as a candidate, so it’s not that hard.
Wood: I think comedy is important to help people keep their sanity in the midst of all of this because, otherwise, you look up, and it’s literally a madhouse. You get to laugh with people.
Minhaj: Yeah. You know what’s crazy? When we were up at the [Democratic National Convention], I saw E! News and VH1 there. What’s wild is that political culture has become popular culture, and that wasn’t always the case. It was never a thing that E! News would be covering, and now because the GOP ran itself like a high school election, where one of the popular kids could run or basically someone who’s infamous ran for president. Now it’s one of those things where it’s a free-for-all and our job as comedians is becoming more important.
A lot of the material we are seeing post-election is scary, depressing or serious. Does comedy make people forget by making things lighter or does it draw attention to these issues and make them more serious?
Wood: Comedy is a safe entry point into serious discussion. By keeping it lighter, you make the conversation more palpable and more productive, in my opinion. Nobody wants to be barked at. If you laid out all the topics “The Daily Show” does in a week and you compare it against any legit, straight-up news magazine show like “60 Minutes” or “20/20” or anything that’s on any of the cable networks, I would imagine there’s a great deal of overlap. The way in which we try and approach those discussions, however, is more akin to a conversation. At least what I try to do is not make it as preachy as substantive.
How does being a minority in the arts and entertainment industry shape your work and how you approach your work, especially with the current push for representation and diversity in media?
Wood: I feel like I have a responsibility to make sure that I’m doing my job well. I don’t know who I’m being judged by, or who’s using me as a barometer for my race as the whole. That’s one of the issues of being a black person in a white space sometimes — you don’t know how much of what you’re doing is influencing other people’s stereotypes about your race. I also feel like I have a wonderful opportunity on this platform to not solely do this, but when the opportunities present themselves, tell stories that I feel like should be told about my race or things that are important to me, and the things that I might go through because I know I’m not alone. I’m glad I have the opportunity to tell that story because I can’t guarantee that that story would have been told otherwise.
How do you navigate race humor, both in writing and performing, without being overly inflammatory while still making an effort to cover its more sensitive topics?
Wood: If somebody is going to be mad, they are going to be mad. I choose not to concern myself with that. For me, where race humor is concerned, on the show and on stage, it’s not so much about the perspective of “I’m right, you’re wrong” as much as it is about finding that third point of view. For me, the issue is not, “Should [Colin] Kaepernick take a knee or is it disrespectful to the national anthem?” — for me, that’s not the discussion. The discussion is, “Who are these people that are shocked that black people have issues with the country?” For me, where race has always been concerned, it’s been about trying to find the ridiculous point of view, not necessarily the right point of view, and let’s talk about that.
Minhaj: Obviously, it varies from issue to issue, but I think in general, society has progressed in a positive way. When people are saying they can’t say the same words that they said before, yeah, you can’t call a certain minority group those slurs, you can’t call women this slur. Learn different words! Become a better debater and communicator. I’m sorry. You have to learn how to communicate your problems and grievances now, and I think that’s a good thing. I have no problem with you expressing your concern toward me or any other group for that matter. Just do it in an eloquent way.
What do you think about third parties and third-party candidates in this election?
Wood: Third parties matter. A two-party system is a very narrow-minded way to conduct elections. I don’t necessarily buy into the notion that they throw elections, like “Oh, if this third-party guy hadn’t run, then the Democrat would’ve gotten in.” I think third-party candidates, if nothing else, bring attention to issues that the other two parties may have left alone. Anybody with bright ideas should be welcomed into the election, at a minimum, invited to the debates. That’s what I feel really bad about third-party candidates is that, they can’t even get a seat at the table to have a conversation because the news network has decided that you aren’t relevant enough. Well, let the people decide that.
What do think is the importance of the millennial vote?
Minhaj: This democracy thing, do not take it for granted. We are a very lucky 350 million people of the 8 billion people on this planet; don’t take it for granted. I know you want to crack jokes on Snapchat, but this stuff is not funny in Syria, in Aleppo, in Pakistan, in places where elections literally get rigged. So, despite the leaks, despite all the stuff that you’re reading about, it is a flawed system, but it’s the best operating system currently in the market where there’s tremendous flexibility for change. America’s lack of rigidity is pretty great, and we’re living probably in one of the greatest social experiments of the past 300 years called American democracy. Please do not take it for granted and just be on Pokémon GO all day. Please, because there are plenty of kids that would love to switch spots with you.
In certain circles, there is a big push against political correctness, led mainly by conservatives. As comedians, what are your thoughts regarding the idea that political correctness is a form of censorship?
Wood: The difference between freedom of speech and harassment is a gray line that seems to move all parties involved. I think noting the differences between the two though is, unfortunately, what has to happen for progressive conversation on freedom of speech versus what is speech and what is straight-up sending death threats on the internet and hiding behind the American flag.
Minhaj: We talked about this on the show. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do something. I think under the guides of free speech a lot of things get done, but that is a very, very, very powerful lightsaber you’re wielding — please use it responsibly.