Few people in entertainment are following the Trump presidency as closely as the team over at The Daily Show With Trevor Noah. Almost every day, the people working on the show are forced to stare down the president’s hurtful, left field nonsense and try to make something funny out of it–a task that, frankly, is pretty difficult. Writers have to come up with Noah’s newsy deliveries, and correspondents have to figure out their own unique ways into the stories, a task that’s all the more challenging now that we’re all basically stuck at home 24/7.
When we last talked to The Daily Show’s correspondents back in 2017, the team was still figuring out how to face down Trump’s presidency. In the chat below, correspondents Roy Wood Jr., Desi Lydic, Ronny Chieng, and Jordan Klepper tell us where they’re at, mentally, three years later, as well as where they think the U.S. electorate is landing. The four aren’t making unwaveringly optimistic forecasts, but given the outcome of the last presidential election, can anyone blame them?
The A.V. Club: We’re on the eve of the election. How are you guys feeling? Are we all just Charlie Brown with the football again? Are we going to be surprised and disappointed?
Jordan Klepper: You know, I’m feeling the decline of democracy first. And so there’s a chance there that it comes back?
What I end up feeling is it’s time to hedge our bets. Four years ago, everybody was pretty cocky and pretty confident. The one thing I didn’t have was context. I knew how many folks in this country I met, and that most of them were voting for Trump, but it turns out there were even more beyond that. And so I think we were pretty surprised on Election Day.
Who knows what’s going to happen this Election Day. I do think there are going to be some shenanigans afoot. So that is what I’m prepping for. If I put money down right now, I wouldn’t put it out a winner, but I’d put it on the Mueller Report: Part Two. We’re going to get somebody coming out ahead of the game telling everybody what happened in the election before we actually know. And I think that’s going to make for a real fun time in American culture.
The A.V. Club: I don’t think Americans are prepared for how long it’s going to take for the election results to come in.
Roy Wood Jr.: Let’s just hope it’s not a close election. This is terrible to say, but I hope that whoever wins wins big so that there’s less of a dispute from November through Martin Luther King weekend on who was the real winner and the extra ballots and all of the extra chaos and turmoil that’s going to happen on the other side of that.
I do think that, if Biden is the winner, we’re going to be in a world of shit for another two or three more months because Trump has already shown that he’s not going to go quietly. It’s not going to be a smooth transition of power. I’m as stressed about that as I am the actual outcome of the election itself.
JK: And that’s the upside.
Desi Lydic: That’s the best-case scenario.
JK: We might not know the winner for months, but I can call the loser right now.
Ronny Chieng: I think I’m a pretty cynical guy with everything, but even I get the sense that the energy or vibe of America is that we got five percent smarter than we were at the same time four years ago. We get that Twitter is evil. Well, maybe just like one or two percent better than before. We’re still very much a victim of it. But I think there’s a general sense of “Oh, fighting with with foreign government agent bots who are trying to sell discord and misinformation to undermine democracy is not a productive use of our time.”
I think more people have mobilized this election. I can feel the mobilization personally because of all the communities we reach out to. This might be a part of whatever they’re doing. They’re trying to organize voters and get the word out and and and get to groups that didn’t vote last time. So I feel like there’s a little cause for more optimism this time as opposed to before. And this is coming from someone who is extremely cynical about everything.
AVC: If Donald Trump wins again, would you be more or less disappointed than you were the last time? A lot of people say more because obviously we’d be in for four more years. But personally, many of us felt very optimistic and almost naive last time and now in some sense we’ve lost that optimism. It’s just like, “Yep. This is how it happens.”
DL: I would be much more disappointed, because we have seen what has happened in the last four years and it feels like we’ve reached an all time low and that this can’t go on anymore. So, yes, I would be much more disturbed if this were to carry on. But I’m cautiously optimistic because I think we all learned.
Four years ago, I was completely blindsided. I think so many of us were completely blindsided and we were cry-drinking shots of bourbon in the edit. I remember sitting with Jordan—sorry to throw you under the bus, but he can drink like a champ...
JK: I haven’t stopped since that night.
DL: He really hasn’t. And I don’t want to be crying in my apartment by myself taking shots this time. It’s not quite the same as all sitting together. So hopefully we’re popping champagne over Zoom.
JK: You make a good point Desi. I do think that it’s just not as fun to drink alone in a pandemic.
DL: It all comes down to that.
JK: Say what you will about Donald Trump, but four years ago, he was the outsider. He was the underdog. And if you were somebody who wanted to vote against the status quo, that was Donald Trump. And as odd as it seems to have a billionaire reality TV star personality as the underdog in an election, a lot of people connected with that because they didn’t like politics at all. Hillary Clinton was seen as the incumbent, and Americans like to vote out incumbents. We get tired of them because eight years isn’t fast enough for them to get shit done in the way that we want it done.
When I look at it now, Trump doesn’t have that anymore. I think you can’t write off, “Oh, he just says those things. When he gets in office, he’ll actually do something different.” We know who he is. It’s been revealed. And so my disappointment at this election will be based on the fact that you could hide behind an argument of not knowing better four years ago. Now, you know.
Roy Wood Jr.: Do all of them know, though?
JK: I think you have to make the choice to actively not know now.
RWJ: Because he caught COVID, pulled up in Florida, and it was a sell-out. People were like, “Hey, let’s go get COVID from the President!”
It’s just knowing “we don’t want to know,” and that makes me sad.
JK: I think a lot about Penn State. I think that if I was at Penn State football fan and all the Joe Paterno stuff hit, I would do everything in my right mind to not think Joe Paterno was a bad dude, because that’s my team and I already bought all the hats.
RC: I feel like I do have an opinion on it, but I also feel like it is changing every five minutes. You can ask me about what I think about the election right now, and I say “two percent smarter,” but if you ask me next week, it could change.
That’s the story of this year or this whole last four years: Things seem to be changing very rapidly with the situation or the vibe of the country. He’ll be doing really well because of something that happened, and then one second later he’ll be doing really bad. So we have to discuss our feelings in real time without having this overacting: “This is what’s happened. This is what’s going to happen.” There’s still a lot of unpredictability.
RWJ: I don’t trust none of these voters. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Damn lady at the Trump Town Hall who said she voted for Biden calling Trump handsome to his face. It’s like, “What are you voting on, his smile or all of the horrible…” Ugh… I’m sorry.
AVC: Jordan, I was watching a piece you did at a Trump rally in Harrisburg. What do you think his supporters are going to do if their guy loses? Are they going to get behind Lindsey Graham? Where does that energy go?
JK: Well, I don’t think it’s going to Lindsey Graham, as compelling a character as he is. He doesn’t have the the weight that Donald Trump had.
I empathize with people who have attached their wagons to that Trump train. Four years ago, not only was it the biggest show in town, but he spoke to somebody who was an underdog. Now, we’ve let go of the idea that this is an interview for the highest political job in the land. Now it’s just who draws the biggest crowds.
I’d like to think with the dissipation of that interest, we could actually look at this and make it boring again. We should be talking about the most boring things in the land. How are we saving people from a virus that’s getting across the land? Can somebody talk about health care? Could somebody talk about gerrymandering? Let’s talk about the Electoral College. Instead, everybody’s like, “Who had the most signs out? I don’t know. But everybody showed up here.”
I don’t care if suddenly less people are interested in politics because they aren’t interested in politics; they’re interested in parades. And I think if we can disconnect that from policy then maybe people can get shit done.
RWJ: [Laughs.] Maybe there should only be certain voters. Like maybe every year you’ve got to take a vote test.
JK: I think we tried that, Roy. America had that for a while and it wasn’t the most appropriate handling of the electorate.
RWJ: Listen, I have some great ideas. Everything’s a remake, so let’s just bring back some of that.
RC: Voter minimum qualifications.
AVC: If given the chance, would you want to interview Donald Trump, and how would you approach it?
RWJ: First answer, yes. What would the approach be? The approach would be to constantly ask questions that he maneuvers around within his answers.
Trump will repeatedly swerve around the question. The fact that [debate moderator] Savannah Guthrie had to re-ask him two or three questions from the first debate means that somebody is not sitting him down and going, “hey, focus.” There was someone in the town hall that was asking him about waiving the preexisting conditions requirement for whatever the hell Trumpcare is going to be, and he slithered his way out of that answer without ever answering the question.
My Trump interview would just be me re-asking questions that he tried to maneuver his way around.
RC: Yeah, I think he’s one of the best counterpunchers of all times, so I think it’s pretty naive for me to say, “I’m going to nail this guy,” when all these people have tried to nail him. And quite frankly, does it even matter if you nail him? Because people have. I think [Axios’] Jonathan Swan did a great interview with him. Guthrie, obviously, as well.
The typical way you would approach it would to do A Few Good Men, which means you cross-examine him. You let him basically hoist himself up on his own petard. But it doesn’t work.
That is the question that four years of the American media cycle has been unable to answer: How do you effectively interview this guy?
JK: I think that Axios interview was the best interview I’ve seen, and I think it’s because of these reasons.
I think Roy is 100 percent right. I wouldn’t want to be funny with Donald Trump. You just need to ask a followup. I would continually ask, “Can you explain that? Can you explain that?”
He’s like being in the scene with a bad improviser. Stuff that doesn’t work, he throws away and he just keeps searching for something else. You’re lost in the last weird set-ups that popped up inside his Adderall-addicted head. So you’d have to be like, “Yeah, but can we go back to that first thing? Can you explain it?” He can’t explain it. He withers under followup and flails.
I think everybody is hampered by a media cycle where Savannah Guthrie is like “I’ve got 12 minutes then I’ve got to go to the commercial break.” Imagine actually getting an answer from Donald Trump or not having to worry about a time limit, which we should have at some point. It’s like, “I actually need an answer. You didn’t answer when your last negative test was. That’s not good enough for us. You need to answer that.” It’s not, “We’re waiting on a commercial for Chevy trucks.” No, I’m waiting on an answer about if you had COVID during the last debate. Luckily for him, he just runs out the clock on every answer. You’ve just got to follow up.
RC: We all want this mea culpa moment where we nail him and then he goes, “You know what? I didn’t have an answer.” But you’re not gonna get that. So my thing is like, yeah, it would be nice to have more Jonathan Swan style interviews. But if we’re talking about results, you want to convince people who still like him that that’s happening. You want to be able to talk to people who are for some reason on the fence or maybe even support him. You want to be able to have a reasonable conversation and go, “Hey, listen, this guy doesn’t have a plan. This is beyond politics. This is about competency versus incompetency.”
DL: Maybe it’s a matter of a long game plan where the show sends me to go get a job at Fox News and I get the job. And then I pose as a Fox News reporter, go in and build up his ego and then sneak attack in. But we probably would have had to have prepared for that a long time ago. But I feel like that potentially could be a way in.
RC: But are you confident if you joined Fox News that you wouldn’t be turned?
DL: I can’t make any promises. I don’t know. It’s a very powerful machine.
RWJ: “Desi, I’m pulling you out!”
DL: You’d have to rescue me.
JK: “You’re too deep! You’re too deep! You’re laughing at [Greg] Gutfeld’s jokes!”
DL: “Goddammit, he’s not funny!”
AVC: Speaking of Fox News: We have known that self-selection of media is dangerous for some time now. It was dangerous four years ago, and it’s becoming increasingly dangerous, and in some sense The Daily Show is emblematic of that. It’s people tuning in to hear people who agree with them. How can people hear from a variety of perspectives?
RWJ: I don’t know if there’s ever going to be one magic journalist or channel that will flip someone or change someone’s perspective per se, but I think that you’re better off if you have information from multiple sources. Starting at The Daily Show, that was one of the things I did. When I had to audition, I was watching Al Jazeera America, I was watching BBC, I was like, I must know all the news. Before that, I was watching CNN. Working at The Daily Show, you start watching all these different places and a lot of them tend to have a lot of the same tendencies. That’s why at The Daily Show, we try our best to make sure that there’s impartiality to what we’re covering, especially with the field pieces, because while these issues are partisan, at the end of the day, they affect all Americans no matter who you vote for. So I think it’s very important for people to have that view.
If you take the person who only consumes one news source and you show them something that is the complete polar opposite, I don’t know if you’re going to necessarily get levity from those people because those people, I think, are already too far gone, and that’s left and right.
RC: Yeah. I think that you definitely need to look at other news sources. It’s a good thing to get out of a bubble. I myself over the last year have definitely been getting out of my bubble in a bad way. A lot of the times I don’t like what I’m seeing outside it. I think we all have stories of friends or family on social media who are in their own bubble, and then when the bubbles clash it’s always like, “Whoa, what’s going on? How did they even believe this?” So it’s definitely important.
Another thing is also that these are algorithms. It’s kind of being forced upon you, too. It’s playing into the way our brains have evolved. So tech companies as well are partially responsible for the division that’s happening. On BBC when they report a headline, it’s like, “Here’s the headline. Here’s the news.” When we do it in America, it’s like, “Oh. My. God. this day and Trump and…” Everyone just loses their mind..
I think we’re still developing the antibodies to deal with the Internet in 2020 in America. The older generation probably doesn’t possess that kind of critical thinking when it comes to articles. The younger generation, we’ve kind of grown up with it a little bit more. So we’ll be a little bit more discerning when we see a headline.
JK: I think we’re so entertainment-focused that we don’t know the difference between news and editorial. Of course watch The Daily Show and watch other news sources, but we are not a news source.
I think the efficacy of The Daily Show is often because it’s clearly a comedy show. It has a bias. We’re editorializing. Hopefully people understand that when they watch it. It’s like, “Okay, they’re attempting this from a point of view. They’re not firsthand reporters on the line. There’s a green screen behind them. That guy used to teach improv comedy to me five years ago. I understand there’s a bias there.” I think the problem comes with someone who watches Tucker Carlson—and, you know, God bless you if you do. But that’s not a news source. It’s been proven in the court of law that it’s not a news source. He brought that as a defense. But we pretend it is.
If you talk to a grandparent, a parent, or you talk to a friend back home, they’re not going to be able to articulate what’s news and what’s editorial. A lot of these networks pretend like it’s all news, but as soon as you’re watching Cuomo, you’ve got to understand that he’s presenting an editorialized position and that’s not the same as the news two hours earlier. But we blur it because we want people to just check in. I think Americans are smart enough right now to understand there are two sides. That’s because the it’s all being presented as content that you can eat up.
The BBC is so gosh-darn bone-dry that you know it’s news. Americans don’t know how to give you anything that won’t make a buck. Therefore it all gets blurry.
DL: It also feels especially problematic when a news source says, “We are the only people you can trust. Everything else is fake news. Everything else is untrustworthy.” That, to me, feels like where it becomes dangerous.
RWJ: You never get that with local news. It’s just, “We’re action news. We’re eyewitness news.” It’s never, “Fuck them over there.”
AVC: Back in 2017, some of you came into the office The A.V. Club shares with The Onion in Chicago. One thing that came up during that chat was the lack of right-wing comedy—or at least semi-passable right-wing comedy. Now, we have The Babylon Bee, a conservative knock-off of The Onion that Donald Trump just retweeted seemingly thinking it was serious.
JK: Even he’s not in on the joke! That’s what’s amazing. There’s actually right-wing satire and the president, the head of the GOP, isn’t in on it.
RC: They’re killing it. Republican comedy is clearly killing it. Everyone’s loving the shows. He’s got great turnout. The president’s live shows are very well attended, so, as far as I know, they’re killing it with Republican comedy.
JK: Literally. I mean look at the numbers! 215,000 [at the time of the interview.—Ed.], I believe.
RWJ: I think that there’s room for anything that’s going to take what’s happening and make sense of it. But it goes back to Jordan’s point that the line between news and opinion is so blurred that once you add satire to that mix, people are just trying to find stuff to reinforce their biases.
People have already talked about how it’s so crazy. “How does The Onion even continue to do it?” Like they read something and assume it’s an Onion headline and they go, “Oh, my God, no, that’s actually real information.” So I don’t know. I think that it’s very hard to make a lot of right-wing jokes, because there are so many things that are happening that are rooted in a lot of tragic pain and suffering for a lot of people. You can be tragedy adjacent in satire, but I don’t think the humor can exist within the tragedy itself.
JK: I think it’s directional, too. You don’t punch down. You punch up. And if you’re a white guy like Ben Shapiro and you make jokes about people who want to come to this country have a better life? If they’re going to make jokes about taking health care away from people? It’s not very funny.
I think Roy’s right. You can’t be that close to tragedy. You also can’t be privy to it. They can make jokes, but it’s not funny when you’re punching down. And I don’t think they get the joke.
Actually, can I tell one little anecdote? I wondered this all the time, because I did a show where I played a far right wing character. And we often asked the question, “Do people understand that we’ve heightened so far that we are satirizing this?” And I thought oftentimes we did until Carter Page, who was under investigation for being a Russian spy and informant, walked into my office and had an hour-long conversation with me because he wanted to work on our show. He wanted to pick out a desk. So the question is do Republicans get the joke? I think they want to at least be on the payroll.
On October 30, The Daily Show will run Remembering RBG: A Nation Ugly Cries With Desi Lydic at 11 p.m. Eastern on Comedy Central. The show will also once again be going live this election night. Votegasm 2020: What Could Go Wrong (Again) airs Tuesday, November 3 at 11 p.m. Eastern.