For many people, Donald Trump's presidency, which officially began Friday, is no laughing matter. But for the staff of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, finding humor in the new administration is literally their jobs.
In the late-night landscape, the feelings towards President Trump are less than warm, to say the least. In fact, some of the new commander-in-chiefs most vocal critics have been late-night personalities, including Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers, John Oliver and The Daily Show's Trevor Noah.
TVGuide.com chatted with Daily Show head writer Zhubin Parang, who said the show doesn't intend to change its approach to comedy when covering the government under Trump.
"Our job as comedians, or what we're obligated to do, is tell the truth as we see it in a funny way," Parang says. "People who expect comedy to be more than honest truth-telling with jokes expect too much of comedy. I don't see our job as being, like, a political organizing force or some sort of oppositional party, so much as a look at our political system from our point of view with jokes. And I don't think that's going to change."
Read our full Q&A with Parang to see how the Daily Show staff reacted on Election Night, whether a Trump presidency makes their jobs easier or harder, and whether they expect any Twitter feedback from the new president.
What will The Daily Show's approach to the Trump administration be? Will it be any different from how you approached coverage under President Obama?
Zhubin Parang: I think our guiding star - and I think this has been our show's guiding philosophy, regardless of the president — is that our job as we see it is just to tell the truth and be funny about it, to tell Trevor's truth in a funny way. And the truth, to whatever extent Donald Trump, we believe, is saying something that we can make fun of or criticize. ... Our guiding philosophy has always been to look first for what he says or anybody says, and think of what we feel about it, and then make jokes about what we feel about it. And I don't think that'll change with Trump. It's just that there's so much more about Donald Trump that clashes with our version of the truth, because it clashes with truth truth. But I don't think we intend to change our approach.
With some of the things Trump has said and done, is it harder to find humor in relation to him?
Parang: Yes. Very much so. I think the problem with Donald Trump is that he's a living cartoon, and it's very difficult to make fun of a cartoon. He's a cartoon in the sense that he's both very absurd and also funny himself. It's very difficult to see how blatantly he lies or contradicts himself or proposes insane ideas without just laughing automatically. It's so crazy and funny. It's kind of like trying to make fun of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. It's already kind of funny, it's so crazy and absurd, that you really can't tell when it's being serious. The line between seriousness and comedy is so blurred that it's hard to find the seriousness that you can hook comedy into. I think the challenge late-night comedy is going to have is to find a way to make fun of Donald Trump in a way that's not already obvious or that Donald Trump himself has not made fun of. It's exactly like making fun of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. You can't be like, "Oh, that's crazy. Did you see what he just did with the way he was turning Elmer Fudd's gun around on Elmer Fudd and then digging a hole?" It's like, "Yeah, of course it's funny." That's Donald Trump.
But is there also a feeling that the stakes in what you're criticizing through humor are higher? We're not talking about George W. Bush choking on a pretzel here.
Parang: You mean, is it difficult to be funny? I mean, yes. ... [But] I think that there's comedy in anything. I always think about the Bush administration... we went to war under George W. Bush. We restricted civil liberties under George W. Bush. So America has been through this situation before, where we've been terrified, in danger, on adventures through the Middle East. And people always wanted to laugh at that, and at the absurdity of our political situation. I think if anything, this terror and confusion and uncertainty makes jokes even more necessary, and I think confronting this uncertainty and fear with mockery and satire is a great way to handle it. It is difficult to make jokes when you're scared and nervous. As a comedy writer, that's how I react to terror and confusion. It's the only thing I can react to terror and confusion with. I think if anything, these kinds of situations create better comedy and art than very dull, stable, boring, well-run governments. It's bad for America, but ...
What was the mood in the writers' room the day after the election? I have to imagine the jokes you would have written about a Hillary Clinton presidency would have been very different than the ones you'll write for a Trump presidency.
Parang: Definitely. And I'll tell you, one of the biggest things that we were so excited for at the end of the election was that we could finally stop talking about Donald Trump. Because he's not only difficult to find fresh and funny angles on, he's also just a news vacuum. He just dominates everything. So, facing the prospect of four years of him dominating our lives was definitely a depressing scenario, even just from a comedy perspective, not even necessarily from the feelings the staff members had about their own political preferences. But there wasn't much discussion. I think we all understand that what we want to do is make jokes about the world as we see it, and that's what we're going to keep doing. Donald Trump's cartoonish-ness just it makes it a little harder to be funny when he's already such a weird, funny person himself.
I think it's fair to say that most of the people who watch The Daily Show are fairly left-leaning. Does the staff approach writing from the standpoint of preaching to the choir, or are you trying to sway people on the other side of the political aisle?
Parang: Honestly, we don't think about that. When we're writing, our only thinking is, what does Trevor think is funny about this? What's Trevor's thought on this? I think if we approach anything as trying to reach across the aisle or trying to tell our audience what we think they want to hear, that's always going to end in failure. Because your comedy has to be honest, and if there's any consideration other than "What's funny about this?", I think you're going to end up not making good comedy.
That being said, I do think Trevor's natural instinct is unique in that he comes from a place of reconciliation and ideas all across the spectrum. His own lived experience has been growing up in South Africa, which was this place of enormous racial tension and hatred that finally was broken by [Nelson] Mandela bringing sides together, and this recognition across the country that they have to come together and recognize that they can't live together unless they at least tolerate each other and engage with each other. And Trevor, that's hard-wired into his mind. So I think just because of that, we do tend to engage with other points of view. Even if Trevor doesn't agree with [them], we tend to bring them up, we engage with them more, and we appreciate them than I think other late-night shows do. And I think that is itself rooted in his own truth. So, ultimately, no, we don't think about, "How will this play? Should we think about other audiences? Should we cater to what we think others want to hear?" We just think, "Is this funny? Do we believe this, what we're saying? And do we think it's a funny thing to say?" And we say it. I think that's the only way you can really do comedy.
Is it frustrating to you that some people in the country will dismiss your content, regardless of what it is, out of hand as a product of "media bias"?
Parang: As a private citizen, it's enormously frustrating. Just as an American, it terrifies me. I don't know how to even talk to people if we don't share the same facts. How do we even engage in a conversation? I think as a comedy show, I don't think we engage with it too much, except as another topic for us to make jokes about. ... It's another topic for us to make fun of, from a comedy perspective. That's how we approach it. How do we make fun of this fact that Americans are just sort of confirming their own biases however they can, however desperately they are able to, through websites that you would think, just reading them... it's like "TruthBiz dot CO dot Russia dot com," that you would be like, "I think the fact-checkers may not be completely certified." But that's just another thing to think, like, how do we joke about that?
Trump has tweeted and/or said negative things about several members of the media, including Saturday Night Live, Buzzfeed, Vanity Fair, etc.Are you worried about any retribution from the new president about what you say on the show?
Parang: Yeah. I guess I hope the labor camps are going to be in a warm climate. I don't think he'd give us that much courtesy.
Overall, how is The Daily Show feeling about the impending Trump presidency?
Parang: It is genuinely difficult sometimes to separate your real feelings about this as an American, as a person who personally did not vote for Donald Trump, did not believe America would ever elect Donald Trump, and who definitely wants to talk about it, versus a comedian who's obligated to find what's funny in it. Luckily, by our nature as comedy writers, the only way we can react to terrible things is to make fun of them. So it's a blessing and a curse, I guess, to be a comedy writer in the era of Donald Trump.
The Daily Show airs weeknights at 11/10c on Comedy Central.