When you have second thoughts about The Daily Show

I’ve been doing a political comedy class at the PIT with Jena Friedman, a super talented comedian who has written for programmes like The Daily Show and Letterman. She’s very funny and sharp and the class is interesting stuff. What has got me thinking is the two clips she showed us from when she was at the Daily Show.

They were the episodes about the decision to allow women to serve in the military which is here and the one about changes in voting rights laws in North Carolina which is here.

They’re both worth watching as they’re great TV. In the first Samantha Bee makes fun of Kinglsey Brown, an author who bluntly says that women should not be allowed to serve in the military because they distract men. Bee expertly makes a fool of him and gets him to say that they are ruining the bromance between soldiers. It’s TV gold.

In the second piece Don Yelton, a Republican precinct chair in Buncombe County in North Carolina, admits to Daily Show reporter Aasif Mandvi, who is black, that the voting registration and ID laws are designed to discriminate against Democrats and any ‘lazy blacks’ who can’t be bothered to register in advance. After this footage airs Yelton quit his job and the Daily Show section was later used in the court case to overturn that very same law.

I’ve been scratching my head as to why these sections troubled me and I think I’ve finally got it. In the class Jena Friedman talked about how both Brown and Yelton knew what they were getting themselves into. The Daily Show has been running for years and both signed waivers so they knew what it was about, so Jena said.

I get that but it rings a bit hollow, to be honest.

Think about it, the Daily Show could have interviewed anyone from a vast range of beliefs for either section but they chose the people with nutty views they knew would make good TV. With Brown, he’s clearly very, shall we say, old fashioned in his views about women. With Yelton, he is pretty darn old fashioned too.

That’s fine, it makes great TV and all that, and the way they did it was very artful, but at the same time there’s a degree of cynicism there that makes me uncomfortable on second viewing. Friedman said in the class that when they were researching Yelton they found he had said that kind of thing before and that they went there and basically got him to say it again. As a journalist I’ve done my fair share of jobs along similar lines, where you know what the editor commissioning you wants and you get that. Which is fine, it’s just that there’s an inherent cynicism in that kind of journalism.

Now what complicates things with the Daily Show is that Brown does in fact represent what the Army is thinking, which is more of an argument he is fair game. And Yelton does represent the thinking behind the voter ID laws in North Carolina, and the Daily Show helped to overturn those laws in his own state.

This makes it more complicated but, looking back at these clips again, I can’t deny that I’m also uncomfortable.