Credit for The Daily Show's popular ascent and increased acclaim most often falls to quick-witted host Jon Stewart, whose easygoing comic presence and penchant for ad-libbing have been hailed by reviewers and fans since he replaced Craig Kilborn in January 1999. But Comedy Central's nightly news parody has many less-publicized weapons at its disposal, including an outstanding writing staff, funny recurring commentators in Lewis Black and movie reviewer Frank DeCaro, and a team of news correspondents well-suited to the show's straight-faced format. The latter group has revolved and evolved over the years, with contributors coming, going, and periodically taking leave, but the group's features and commentary segments remain some of the show's most consistent pleasures. In November 2002, shortly before the return of longtime contributor Steve Carell, The Onion A.V. Club visited the show's Manhattan headquarters and conducted a group interview with correspondents Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms, and Mo Rocca.
The Onion: Let's go around the table and have you introduce yourselves.
Stephen Colbert: This is the voice of Stephen Colbert. I'm from South Carolina, I went to school in Chicago…
SC: Yes. Evanston. A stickler! Good for you! Anyway, I'm from South Carolina, I have three children, I'm married, and I'm a practicing Roman Catholic. [Laughter.] Godless Ed, how about you? Top that—I'm saved!
Ed Helms: I'm Ed Helms, and I'm from Atlanta, Georgia. I went to college at Oberlin, and I've lived in New York now for seven years. I moved here right after college. Oh, and I play the banjo.
Mo Rocca: I'm Mo Rocca, I'm from Washington D.C., and I'm also Catholic, but my mother is Colombian, so there's a mystical, spiritual dimension to our Catholicism—Indian aspects. Santeria, we use with our Catholicism, as well.
SC: You run through a lot of chicken blood, don't you? [Laughter.]
MR: A lot of chicken blood. To me, Angel Heart was a watershed moment growing up. Lisa Bonet is a patron saint in our household. And, um, I went to Harvard… [Everyone shouts, Rocca laughs.]
SC: Interview over. Checkmate.
MR: "I went to school in [covers his mouth, mutters] New England." Where? "Massachusetts. Boston area. Near Harvard Square. Harvard." [Laughter.] I was rejected by the Lampoon, so that puts me down a few notches, down to basic cable. I did a lot of theater stuff, like this thing called the Hasty Pudding show, and then I did the Southeast Asian tour of the musical Grease—I played Doody in that. I studied kabuki in Japan…
SC: Is that anything like Bukkake? [Laughter.]
MR: It's a little bit like Bukkake. It's like boring, slow-moving Bukkake.
SC: It's Bukkake with face paint.
MR: I don't know what else to say about myself.
SC: Well, I think you're great. [Laughter.]
Rob Corddry: This is how Rob Corddry sounds. I'm from Boston…
SC: So you went to Harvard, too.
RC: I went to a state-run school, UMass Amherst… [To Rocca] You didn't get into Amherst, did you? [Subtly slips into Boston accent.] I'm from Boston, as I said, and I'm not Catholic.
MR: Ugh, that fake accent. Sorry.
RC: I didn't! I just slip into it when I talk about Boston. Or murdering someone. [Laughter.] I was the only person from Boston who wasn't Irish or Catholic. I was actually kicked out of my own backyard once for not being Irish-Catholic. This guy said, "You're not Irish? Get outta here!" And I actually backed off a little bit, but it was my own backyard. I had an Irish-Catholic girlfriend, from a huge family, and her father said to me, "Rob, are you Irish?" "No." "You Catholic?" "No." He looked really disappointed and asked, "Do you play hockey?" I said "No," and he just turned away from me and made his sons do defensive stances in the living room.
MR: Stephen and I play hockey on the weekends together.
SC: And give each other Communion.
RC: I already feel ostracized.
MR: Actually, the staff is becoming increasingly apostate.
SC: Yeah, we used to be all-Catholic.
MR: Churchgoing Catholic.
SC: Very rare in the comedy world—and the journalism world, I'm guessing.
O: You still go to church?
SC: Uh, yeah. One True Bride Of Christ. [Laughter.]
MR: Maybe you've heard of it.
SC: Founded by this guy named Jesus! [Laughter.] The gates of hell shall not prevail against it. It's in The Bible, read it.
O: How did you all get involved in the show?
SC: I was a correspondent for Good Morning America when I got this job. I had been in New York working for various comedy things, and I was desperate for a job. Good Morning America called and asked me to be a correspondent, because I kind of looked straight but they wanted somebody to be funny—but like a weatherman is funny. I did two pieces for them, and then I pitched 25 stories in a row that they said no to. While I was still under contract with them, I had an interview with [Daily Show executive producer] Madeleine Smithberg. They said, "What are you doing now?" I said, "I'm a correspondent at GMA." They said, "You're kidding." So I told them my ideas and they said, "Oh, we would do those." It took a while for me to be brought on full-time, but that's how it started.
EH: Let's see… I moved here after college, and I majored in film. I started working at an editing place that did TV commercials, as an assistant editor. I'd been there for three years, and I was all set for a career as an editor, and then I started doing voiceovers. I was getting paid well for that, so I realized that I had an opportunity to pursue something that I was actually kind of scared of.
O: Were you doing stand-up at the time?
EH: I was doing sketch, but not stand-up. But then I quit my job and the sketch group, which I hated, and I started doing stand-up. Of course, because I was new to it, I wasn't getting any jobs.
SC: Give us your tight five on cell phones. [Laughter.]
EH: They're so small these days, it's like [pinches fingers together, holds them to his lips] "Hello?"
SC: If you're reading this at home, he's holding his hand up, and it's a tiny, tiny cell phone.
EH: Um, so I dug down in the trenches of stand-up for like four years, and then this audition came up. I actually applied to be a writer a year earlier and was rejected.
MR: How did that feel?
EH: I was actually crestfallen, because I was very excited about my submission. I'd gotten a lot of great feedback from people I admired and respected, but then I got rejected. [Pauses.] Was that too honest?
MR: I think it's important that this interview have moments that are earnest.
RC: I think we're doing great.
SC: I would read this.
EH: Well, as cheesy as it sounds, that's an important thing that I'm always continuing to learn, which is that you never miss the train. It's always coming back around.
MR: Well, Ed is very hopeful. I am completely driven by fear in everything I do. I did plays, and then I went and worked on a kids' TV show called Wishbone on PBS about a Jack Russell terrier that teaches children about classic literature. It's really practical. [Laughter.] It was a fun show to work on. And then I became a consulting editor for a magazine called Perfect 10, which is the only magazine that features models without breast implants [exclusively]. It's very eco-friendly. After that… I'm a big history buff, so I started driving around the country visiting the homes and gravesites of past presidents, and I couldn't sell any of the articles I was writing about them. I had met a couple of great characters that worked at the more marginal presidents' homes, one of whom was a guy who was obsessed with Florence Harding, Warren Harding's wife. He's so obsessed with her that he dresses up as her and gives tours of the house, and what was great about it was that it wasn't like a shticky drag-queen act. He was really good at what he did, and knew what he was doing. Eventually, it was going to become all of Ohio's eight first ladies, but he's still on Ida Saxton McKinley right now. I brought his story… Everybody has committed at least one betrayal to get this job, and this was mine, because I set out to write an article that didn't happen, but when I brought his story to The Daily Show with a couple of others, they hired me. They hired me as much for my stories as for anything else, because I had no tape on myself. That was my audition, and the story that made them decide to keep me.
RC: I was hired for just the opposite reason: my charm, my good looks, my charisma.
MR: Your dick.
RC: My cock had nothing to do with it. People will say that.
SC: A lot of people will.
RC: A lot of people who are very close to me will say that, but that has nothing to do with my job here.
SC: Your beautiful, beautiful cock.
RC: My beautiful, rock-hard job. [Laughter.]
SC: Your beautiful, blue-veined, throbbing job. [Laughter.]
RC: I… I don't want to intimidate anyone at this table, but I did a lot of Shakespeare before I got into the comedy world. I was hoping to make a lot of money at Shakespeare. [Laughter.] Somebody I met in a Shakespeare company was auditioning for a sketch group, and I got involved in comedy sort of reluctantly, and then found that that's where I should have been from the very beginning. I had always played the small, dopey roles in Shakespeare anyway. So I was in a sketch group for a couple of years, and we were horrible, but we worked really hard.
RC: Third Rail Comedy, because we were dangerous!
SC: In Chicago, every third sketch-comedy group is called Third Rail, because there's a third rail on the El. It was either Third Rail or Contents Under Pressure. [Laughter.]
RC: But then I started my own sketch group with a bunch of friends, called Naked Babies, and we're still sort of at it today. I haven't officially fired them yet. [Laughter.] I'd heard that if you keep acting for 10 years, you'll achieve something, and sure enough, in my 10th year, I got on the show, and did a feature film, and got married.
SC: What's the feature film?
RC: It's called Old School. I've got a tiny, tiny, tiny role, but my naked behind is in it. I signed a nudity waiver that says they can show me naked in any form of media, even that which is not yet devised, in any part of the universe.
O: So they could put you in hologram…
RC: On Jupiter. [Laughter.] DreamWorks has huge plans.
MR: Now, this is sensual nudity, not sexual, right?
RC: The part called for it, and I will not do nudity unless the part calls for it. I saw the dailies, where my ass is hanging out, and I look pretty good.
MR: Is your dick so big that you can see it from behind?
RC: No, I had a little sock on it—a little jewel bag, which is actually more humiliating than having your penis hanging out. I mean, what if Gwyneth Paltrow showed up?
SC: She actually tied it on. [Laughter.]
EH: She was the fluffer for that movie.
RC: She was dating Luke Wilson at the time, and she came over while 15 of us no-names were sitting with our pants down.
SC: So, Gwyneth Paltrow was the fluffer for Old School.
RC: I'm not saying…
SC: "…but that is specifically what I'm saying." [Laughter.]
RC: "…but absolutely that is true."
SC: "I will say on a stack of Bibles that Gwyneth Paltrow is a fluffer for second-rate porn. Call your lawyer! I'm right here! Public figure!" Just kidding—satire! Magic word! Poof! It all goes away! Watch your lawyers evaporate.
RC: So, what was I…
O: You've also done commercials.
RC: Yeah, I've done a lot of bad commercials. I was the Carrot Top guy for a while—voted the worst series of commercials in 2001.
EH: I'd say I totally agree with that. [Laughter.] Just horrid.
RC: Worse than David Arquette, though?
SC: Did David Alan Grier do that one for a while? Did they have an African-American on there?
EH: It was a Wayans brother [Marlon] and David Arquette together. They did a karate thing with an Asian element, so basically, Stephen, you're extremely racist. [Laughter.]
SC: [Emphatically.] I hate black people. You can print that anywhere you want. Yes, I want to hold public office later in life. [Laughter.] I don't trust them.
MR: You're the racist correspondent. You've staked out that territory. It's your shtick.
SC: Obviously, I don't mean any of it. [Mouths words "I mean it," everyone laughs.] I don't mean it. I… enjoy every aspect of every culture. Except… [Laughter.] Except some of them.
MR: It's so ironic that Stephen's an octoroon. [Laughter.] A self-loathing octoroon.
SC: The nice thing about voice inflection and irony is that it plays well in print. Self-indicting statements really play when they're laid out on the page. It's easy to say, "I was kidding. Satire!"
RC: I hope there are lots of stage directions.
O: There's a tendency in humor to pick on people in power, and as the Republicans have taken over, the show naturally seems to have taken on more of a partisan edge. Have you put thought into that? Do you take issues personally, or is it a matter of taking on the powers-that-be?
MR: You can't make jokes about someone unless people know who that person is, and the star right now, if you will, is the president. The most famous Democrat who's currently serving is Tom Daschle, and he's really boring.
SC: At the same time, on tonight's show, unkind things were said about the Democrats' choice of Nancy Pelosi. We'll attack anybody. We've got four shows a week to fill, so we're not going to be like, "Nope! You lay off those Dems, you hear me?! Yes, it's funny and it would fill five minutes, but…"
MR: We'll see what happens, but the Democrats in the Senate have been fairly vocal, and we made fun of Democratic congressmen going to Iraq. We piled on them for being traitorous.
SC: And when Clinton was in power, we clearly didn't pull any punches. So, are people here fairly liberal compared to, say, someone in my hometown? Uh, yeah. People here are far more liberal—both in the city and specifically on the show. I don't want to speak for anyone else, but people here generally are Democrats and wish political ill of the Republicans. But that doesn't mean that on the show we pull punches against either side.
O: Within the show, within the writing staff and the correspondents, are there differences of opinion and squabbling about politics?
MR: I don't think there's any squabbling, but there certainly are differences.
SC: You are wrong! Shut up! [Laughter.]
MR: No, but there's definitely a voice of the show, I think, and there's a sensibility that's been honed over the years, and I don't think you have a lot of different political voices coming through. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but there's a general sensibility that's probably left of center.
EH: The thing everyone here can agree on is a healthy disdain for hypocrisy. The times I'm most proud to be on the show are when… I can't think of a good example.
SC: Ed did something on prescription medication… [Pauses.]
MR: Take the ball and run.
EH: Okay, it's ridiculous that they're pitching chemicals to consumers who don't know anything about them, and they're trying to sell them with traditional advertising means. So it's good and fun and delightful to point out how ridiculous that is, and basically—and this was not said in the piece that aired, but is an underlying subtext—the prescription-drug lobby is… [Pauses.]
SC: They pretend to be doing things for our welfare, but transparently it's for money. When they couch it in the Trojan horse of our welfare, it's mockable, and that's what you did so well tonight.
EH: Oh my God. That was so much better than what I was going to say.
MR: I think our comedy is unsafe at any speed.
RC: Like Third Rail!
SC: You know what it is? It's the evening news on acid. [Laughter.] Isn't that it, guys? Oh, God, that's actually going to be in print.
MR: Colbert was serious.
EH: Guys, I think it's pretty clear that I've made the biggest ass of myself so far.
RC: Now, hold on. I haven't given my answer yet. This might be pretty dumb. I don't know if it has so much to do with partisanship as with the amount and severity of the news right now. It was a pretty crazy news day today.
EH: That's a good angle.
SC: I'm gonna agree with you. Run with this one!
RC: And, and… Four years ago, people were pretty content, and satire was based on blow jobs…
MR: Yeah, I think Clinton…
RC: Ha ha! Corddry scores! Rocca, go!
SC: Yours to lose.
MR: Clinton couldn't keep his dick in his pants, Bush speaks English as a second language. Each of them has a flaw that is irresistible to satirists like ourselves. Now, what's the parenthetical that you put to describe the way I just said that, so I don't get screwed?
SC: "…he said, patronizingly." [Laughter.]
O: [to Rocca] Well, you do bring up a point, which is that each president is bound to have a limited number of obvious foibles that everybody points out. How do you come up with a fresh angle?
MR: People may disagree here, but I think that after Sept. 11, with so many more people in love with the president, the onus is on us to pick on things that are different from, "Oh, another syntactical train wreck." We have to think of something else. I think we've tried to find different angles, like Republican legislation on prescription drugs, or being in bed with Big Oil, and things like that.
RC: He also hasn't really fucked up too much, either. It's almost like, once he got into office, The Daily Show was like, "Come on! Say it!" And he didn't say it, you know? He says "nucular" a lot, but that's about it.
SC: Yeah, we ride that horse a lot.
EH: We aren't the only ones who know that Bush is an inarticulate buffoon. His handlers know that, as well, and that's why he's so protected. It's an unfortunate thing, because it shields us—not just as people in the media, but as citizens who should know who our leader is. Whereas when I watch C-SPAN and see Tony Blair in the House Of Commons, I'm like, "Yes! You are awesome!" He is so in control of every nuance of information that has anything to do with the world. Imagine what would happen if we held our president to that standard of articulation and awareness of what's going on around him.
O: The structure of your jobs…
SC: Wait a second: Don't start telling them our jobs should have structure. [Laughter.] We might have to start showing up in the morning.
O: Well, there are correspondents and writers. How much overlap is there?
MR: The field pieces are essentially collaborations between the correspondent and the producer, as well as the editor, although we do bring in writers at the beginning to help us brainstorm ideas and jokes. The in-studio pieces are a whole different bag.
RC: I was surprised at the beginning how much input correspondents do have.
SC: And then later shocked by it. It was a very quick transition.
EH: I was surprised by how much correspondents were allowed to say.
RC: …and then the writers were surprised by how often I'd run into their offices with ideas. [Laughter.]
SC: …and how infrequently I would leave their offices until my ideas were written on paper. [Laughter.] It all depends on the piece, but it's better to get the correspondent involved early so that we're part of the writing process. But we're frequently busy with other things, too, like working on field pieces, or being in the field, or shopping. [Laughter.] We can't always be there, but when we're available, we're there. It helps individuate us, because we establish our own voices by being involved early on in the writing process. Otherwise, we're trying to [project] other people's imagined ideas of how we might say it. If we're involved, then we begin to establish our own asshole personas.
O: On a given a day, what goes into the job? For example, Rob, what did you do today?
RC: Well, I interviewed a Native American about Thanksgiving this morning, and spent the rest of the day in the editing room, working on the piece.
MR: I sat down with a producer to talk about a piece about the Supreme Court that we're shooting. We're always working on something.
RC: Every minute of the day.
O: For the on-location pieces, how much are you flown around?
SC: We used to fly a whole lot more, and used to do way more field pieces. We do a lot more in the studio than we used to. We do a lot more green-screen stuff, and a lot more that's specifically off the day's news, where Jon is talking to us in the "field." There wasn't a lot of that—zero under Craig—and it slowly built to desk pieces, where we do editorials. Then throwing out to the correspondent on fake location became a larger and larger proportion of our work, and now we just don't go out. I can't remember the last time I crossed a time zone in a plane for work.
MR: Part of the reason there are fewer, I think, is that Jon wants everything to have more of a relevant news hook. The field pieces that do get produced usually have a tie-in to something that's happening in the news. In the past, we'd cast a wide net, looking for…
SC: "And now, here's this freak du jour!"
MR: "Here's this guy in Idaho living below ground with 95 cats."
RC: I was a fan of the show before I was on it, and I always remember stories about cow anuses. There were like four or five.
SC: We all… We all earned our stripes. [Laughter.]
RC: Didn't Steve Carell offer $100 to the person who could get a Sasquatch story pitched?
SC: That was me. About four months ago, I put $100 down for the producers and said, "When we're on the plane, going to do a Bigfoot story, you can have that $100."
MR: "If you could just tie that in to the Supreme Court…" [Laughter.]
SC: Yeah, the show is a little different now. Ideally, a headline on a subject leads straight into a field piece on that same subject. It's best for the show: It flows seamlessly that way, and it helps with our conceit that we're a legitimate news program.
MR: And it's a different rhythm than just setup/punchline.
SC: It's also a nice break from "What is this crazy theory you have, correspondent?" in front of the green screen.
EH: It's not as mean-spirited, by default. It's more like…
SC: Oh, yeah. The olden days? We are pussycats, man. In the olden days, you wanted to take your soul off, put it on a wire hanger, and leave it in the closet before you got on the plane to do one of these pieces. We had deep, soul-searching discussions on flights out to do stories, going, "We don't want to club any baby seals. I don't want to hold this person down and kick him in the teeth comedically." And sometimes it would happen, because you had to come back with something funny. You try not to. These days, it's such a cakewalk for [interview subjects].
EH: When I was a fan of the show watching it, there was a lot of mean-spirited stuff, and how fuckin' easy is that? It's so easy to show up and chew somebody a new asshole. Whereas now, Rob and I show up, and we gotta think up an angle. We gotta get inside. We gotta work it harder.
SC: Right, you gotta work really hard to perform that script the writers wrote for you. [Laughter.]
O: How aware are the subjects that they're…
MR: Very aware.
EH: It varies.
MR: I've just gotten lucky, I think, that by the grace of God I have not interviewed somebody who wished me to die afterwards.
SC: It is nice that God took sides on that.
MR: God chose me to be the correspondent that subjects love.
EH: Rob got a great phone call…
RC: My most unsatisfied interview [subject] during my tenure here was a guy who was totally in on it—way too in on it. The piece was about toilet paper, and I don't think it was a very good piece in the end. He was angry because we didn't put up his web address, which we'd promised him, apparently. He called up swearing: "I fucking hate you. I will never speak to you again."
SC: You blew your follow-up. [Laughter.] I never heard that message. Well, I've been sued. Myself, the researcher, the producer, the editor, the show, and the network were all named in a suit. And it got thrown out, because the guy sued us on the basis that we claimed we were from CNN, which we don't do. We just don't. He got it into his head that we were from CNN. We said we were The Daily Show, a cable news show that does alternative news stories. And he figured, "Oh, CNN." And, boy, he had a pretty damn good case if he had just done any… We were a little nervous.
O: The statute of limitation has expired on that, right?
SC: Uh… Come and get me, Burt. [Laughter.] I'll tell you what: Since I'm indemnified by Comedy Central, I will help you sue them if you give me a cut of what you get. [Laughter.] But hush-hush, mister.
O: Well, these people sign releases…
SC: Yeah: "I release and indemnify Comedy Central in perpetuity throughout the universe for the use of my name, my likeness in all media, at all times, for any reason, caricatures, blah blah sign here." And if you sign that, you deserve… Why would you do that?
MR: I actually retract what I said before: I had one scary situation out in the middle of nowhere in Puerto Rico, entirely in Spanish, with the mayor of a small town. It was very hard for me to understand what he was saying, but at one point I could tell he had become very angry, because he used the word "pendejo," which means asshole, and "Vietnam." The combination of those two words made me really, really worried.
SC: "I am a veteran of Vietnam, asshole."
MR: We didn't get a release there.
O: Over the years, I've heard occasional rumors about Jon Stewart leaving.
SC: I haven't heard that in a while. Certainly, the stuff with Letterman possibly replacing Ted Koppel raised the issue, but I haven't heard anything since then.
O: So none of you are angling for his job?
SC: Oh, that's a different story.
RC: We all are.
EH: Yeah, are you kidding me?
SC: He has someone taste his food. [Laughter.]