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How anger, satire work as interview tactics

TV Review: The Daily Show – Week Ending April 30

Pity the unfortunate ones who have been elected to the United States Congress, also known as “the Big House.” Try as they might, the unlucky incumbents in Congress just can’t seem to avoid getting re-elected, as Daily Show Correspondent Ed Helms reported during a segment last week. “They are stuck in their jobs. They just can’t get un-elected,” he said. He referred to being in Congress as “sort of a life sentence.”

Daily Show Host Jon Stewart introduced the satirical Dateline-style piece as a “moving story of heartache and hope.” The piece was wonderful dark satire, sending up issues about incumbents in the way the show does best – with wit and clever wordplay. It reminded me a bit of that classic piece of satire, A Modest Proposal. You can watch the segment at Comedy Central’s Internet site.

The people interviewed didn’t seem to know what hit them:
To a congressional watchdog he asked, “Why you gotta be a legislator hater?”
To Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon he said, “You poor bastard” and referred to Congress as a “hellhole.” When Blumenauer protested that characterization of the situation, Helms said, “I guess when you are trapped in this hellhole it’s hard to remember what it’s like in the outside.” When he again protested, Helms said he was just in denial. When he still disagreed, Helms suggested that proves he’s in denial.

Helms even hugged one former congressman, Charlie Stenholm, telling him he has made an amazing recovery since leaving office and becoming a lobbyist. The former congressman Helms hugs really well and then awkwardly suggests the hug has gone on long enough.

That scene captured perfectly the delicate line the show walks regularly between being too serious or even mean and biting humor that is sometimes awkward for the person interviewed. The segment was the best item on The Daily Show last week.

As usual the week had some bombs, most notably a new segment that is, ostensibly, about polls. The feature was called “Poll Smoking.” Yes, someone played a joke on the new correspondent, who is British, and acted like he was unaware of the double entendre. “You show me a poll and I’ll smoke it,” he said, meaning analyzing it. I don’t know about you but jokes about gay sex acts just seem tired and too pat for me.

There were fun, entertaining interviews with actors Tom Selleck and Robin Williams.

Last week I praised The Daily Show for being better than usual – and definitely
better than most comedy shows – with the interviews. Some of my praise stemmed from the host having actually done his homework prior to an interview by reading an author’s new book, seeing the new movie, etc. And when he was ignorant about something, he was quick to admit it.

The first time I watched his interview with Kimberly Strassel of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, I was appalled. I thought it was an awful interview and I was ready to write a piece saying that Stewart seemed unable to follow her questions and just repeated one question a few times. But after watching it twice more, I realized I missed something important and decided he played it just right. He did indeed repeat a question to her, but it was a question on the minds of many: “Is it not suspicious that oil companies’ profits are so high right now when the gas prices are also high?” I think he summed up the sentiment well when he said, “I don’t want to hate the oil companies but I am having a hard time not having a visceral emotional reaction to their presence.”

Strassel suggested other factors are at work, including changes in supply and demand. Stewart admirably cut through those answers and said, “But all this seems like bullshit. All those things don’t explain why these guys have record profits. Should not oil companies have to feel gas consumers’ pain rather than ‘dancing on our heads?’”

Her answers sounded, at times, quite patronizing. It was his next comment that made me change my position on the interview: “You are having trouble because you feel like you are talking to a retarded person. I see it in your eyes.” Rather than politely denying it she laughed and noted that he was making that comment, not her. “It has to be frustrating to talk to people who clearly don’t know what they are talking about,” Stewart said. He then uttered my favorite line of the week, which I think reflects the main appeal of talk radio and Bill O’Reilly’s show: “The important thing is my visceral emotional reaction.”

In other words, “set logic aside and deal with my anger.” She replied, “That is really valid but I think you should be mad at other people.” When she suggested he should also be mad at Congress for causing problems with an ethanol mandate he said Congress is not escaping his ire.

Stewart’s attitude – “I’m angry and not interested in hearing complicated answers” – reminded me of the famous line from the classic movie Network: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

I’m right there with you, Jon.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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