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The Daily Show - Web WordPress Sites
with a Side of
14 Expression Winter 2009
The Daily Show,
The Onion and
other news
parodies entertain,
and, yes, inform
Hilarity
By Rhea Becker
S
everal years ago, the Beijing
Evening News republished
translated portions of a
controversial story from the
United States, “Congress
Threatens to Leave D.C. Unless
New Capitol Is Built,” which
reported on threats from
members of Congress to leave
Washington for Memphis,
Tenn., or Charlotte, N.C., unless
the government built them
a new Capitol building – with
a retractable dome.
“Like any good
newsman, I believe
that if you’re not
scared, I’m not doing
my job.”
Stephen Colbert
Photo by Joel Jefferies
The problem was, the
story was completely fabricated
by the mega-popular online
parody news site The Onion and
inadvertently lifted by the Beijing
Evening News. This particular
Onion item was meant to poke
fun at U.S. sports franchises’
threats to leave their home cities
unless new stadiums were
built. The Beijing paper later
retracted the item.
Parodies of news are
everywhere these days. With
online sites like The Onion (which
has been cheekily dubbed
“The most trusted name in fake
news”), iconic cable-television
shows like Comedy Central’s
Daily Show and Colbert Report,
and films like Borat, which
features a pseudo-journalist from
Kazakhstan, the world is
saturated with funny – and often,
phony – news.
A number of Emerson
alumni are poised squarely in
the forefront of the fakenews entertainment revolution,
including Doug Herzog ’81,
former president of Comedy
Central and current president of
MTV Networks, and editor
of The Onion, Joe Randazzo ’02.
Behind the scenes, Emerson
alumni who are comedy writers
have been responsible for many of
the laughs on these Comedy
Central hits. Eric Drysdale ’93
wrote for The Daily Show for
nearly six years. He has also
written for The Colbert Report, and
contributed to Colbert’s bestselling book I am America (And
So Can You!). Opus Moreschi ’00
is part of the writing team behind
the highly rated Colbert Report.
“In South Carolina,
Senator John
Edwards won
handily, fulfilling his
promise to win
every state he was
born in.”
Stephen Colbert
ABOVE: Actor Stephen Colbert on
the set of The Colbert Report
15 Expression Winter 2009
How news became entertainment
The long-running comedy sketch show
Saturday Night Live (SNL) is often cited
as one of the earliest producers of news
satire for a broad audience. SNL, on its
very first broadcast, in 1975, introduced
its now-classic “Weekend Update,” a
fake news segment featuring an anchor
desk and a news anchor, then played by
comic Chevy Chase. In fact, “one of the
“I believe all God’s
creatures have
a soul... except bears,
bears are Godless
killing machines!”
Stephen Colbert
original inspirations for The Daily Show
is Weekend Update,” says Herzog, who
is credited with launching the Emmy
and Peabody Award-winning Daily
Show as well as its spinoff, The Colbert
Report.
When Herzog became president
of Comedy Central in the mid-1990s,
“the network was not very well known.
It wasn’t in a lot of homes. It was a little
under the radar,” he recalled. Then a
Comedy Central show called Politically
Incorrect with Bill Maher hit big. “The
week I started work at Comedy Central,
I got a call from Bill Maher’s manager
saying that ‘Bill has a year left on his
deal and after that, we’re leaving. We’ve
already signed the contract with ABC,
and we’re gonna leave at the end of the
year.’ So that was my welcome to
The Write Stuff
The Comedy
Writing Process
Emersonians form the backbone of the
writing staffs of some of the most
popular satirical news productions in
America. Here, we take a peek behind the
scenes at the work that goes into writing
parody TV shows, books and online
newspapers.
Opus Moreschi ’00 is a member of the
12-person writing staff of the
Emmy-nominated Colbert Report.
Moreschi says that over time, the writers
“figure out Stephen’s character’s response
to world events, and it helps
unlock all of the jokes.” Moreschi’s work
week is intense. “It helps
that I don’t have a life,” he says. Monday
morning begins with a stack
of newspapers. “I like to get in a little
early and grab a cup of coffee
and a newspaper,” he says. “I want to hit
the ground running.” He also
checks the Internet for potential fodder
for that night’s show. Each
morning a meeting is held in which
“everyone throws ideas around for 30 to
60 minutes.” A producer eventually
“separates the wheat from the chaff.”
16 Expression Winter 2009
Comedy Central,” said Herzog with a
wry smile. He had one year to figure
out how to replace Maher. “I thought it
was very important to replace him
because we needed to give people a
reason to come back every day.” Herzog
came up with a “very broad idea” for
The Daily Show and hired two writers to
create it.
The Daily Show debuted in 1996
with Craig Kilborn behind the anchor
desk. The Daily Show was (and is) shot
on a set that looks very much like an
actual evening news broadcast set, with
post-modern design and sizzling
graphics. After several years, Kilborn
announced he was leaving. Herzog
recalls, “We scrambled for a little bit
trying to figure out what we should do
and how we would replace him. We all
knew Jon [Stewart] very well, but we
were convinced that he wouldn’t do it.
He had just been on the Larry Sanders
The best jokes are assigned to pairs of
writers, who spend the afternoon
“trying to come up with as many jokes as
we can about, say, Bernie
Madoff.” The jokes are honed and sent
off to Colbert and the producing
staff. By about 7 p.m. the show is being
taped before a live audience.
Although Moreschi says the show
requires “the most intense work I’ve
ever done,” it’s his dream job come true.
Paul Starke ’95, one of the writers behind
the No. 1 New York Times best seller An
Inconvenient Book (by radio and
television talkmeister Glenn Beck),
became part of the writing crew after
Show and had a buzz going. Anyway,
we got a little heads-up that he might
be interested, so we took him out to
lunch and we talked about it.” Stewart
signed on, and he debuted at the Daily
Show anchor desk in 1999, a seat he
still occupies today.
Daily Show viewership has risen
each year that Stewart has been hosting.
Today, the program boasts an average
audience of about 2 million viewers.
“The show completely evolved under
Jon into what it is today, which is
as notables like actors Dennis Hopper,
magnificent, comedically,” says Herzog. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Arianna
The show’s format includes a monoHuffington. The Daily Show has proved
logue, an extended ‘news’ report
so popular – winning 11 Emmy Awards,
(including video from ‘correspondents’) 2 Peabody Awards and a host of other
and guests. The roster of guests often
prestigious nominations and prizes
includes heavy-hitting newsmakers like – that in 2005, comedian Stephen
President Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Colbert, who played a news corresponJimmy Carter and John McCain, as well dent on The Daily Show, was given his
own fake news show, The Colbert Report.
By all accounts, The Colbert Report was
an instant hit and its profile continues
to grow.
befriending Beck during their days
working at CNN together. “We struck up
a good working rapport, and when he
announced he was going to do this book
and asked if I wanted to be a part of it, I
jumped at the chance,” says Starke.
Starke describes the writing workflow:
“Once we figured out the direction of the
book and assigned various chapters and
topics, I wrote a few of those chapters –
choosing movies, parenting, blind dating.
This all came from Glenn’s point of view.
We would meet with him and he would
say, ‘This is what I want to say in this
chapter,’ and point us in a direction. And
we would hone that and write it and
maybe add in some jokes. He was very
involved in the whole thing.”
Starke enjoyed the group effort. “It was a
lot of fun working with Glenn and a great
team. It was very collaborative. Whether
you agree with Glenn or not, he’s a
fantastic guy, and all the people who
work with him are really, really cool. It
showed in the final product, because it
turned out to be very successful.”
The contents of The Onion, on the other
hand, are developed through a
winnowing process that begins on
Monday with each staff writer and
freelancer submitting 15 to 25 headlines
for proposed stories. “That comes to 400
to 600 headlines,” says Randazzo. The
staff attends an initial meeting on
Monday morning, “where it takes two
people in the room to say yes to a joke
before it makes it onto the next list.
Tuesday we all sit down and [make up the
actual issue], which stories we’re going
to want to write. That’s half the day. The
second half of the day is brainstorming
these stories. Then we assign them to
writers. They turn in a first draft, which
we all rip apart. They turn in a second
draft, which is usually slightly better. At
the same time our talented graphics
department is doing all the Photoshop
jobs. At the point in the week when the
writers are writing their first drafts, the
editors are editing the second drafts from
the week prior to go into the next week’s
newspaper. It’s a two-week process and
continually overlapping.” Randazzo
admits it’s all “pretty informal.”
FAR LEFT: Paul Starke ’95 was one of the
writers behind radio/TV pundit Glenn Beck’s
runaway bestseller An Inconvenient Book.
LEFT: Editor-in-chief Joe Randazzo ’02 relaxes
in his Onion offices. BELOW: Opus Moreschi
’00 says he is working his dream job – staff
writer for The Colbert Report.
17 Expression Winter 2009
Silly Poll
How Do Students
Get Their News?
In a thoroughly half-baked and unscientific
poll, Expression asked a handful of randomly
chosen Emerson students how they get their
news. Here are their unempirical and
completely inconclusive responses:
Adam Walton ’11, acting
The majority of the time I get my news online
at the New York Times site or CNN.
Stephanie Greenland ’12, broadcast
journalism
I get email alerts from New York Times.com
and read the paper online. I also watch CNN
and Fox News.
Cristal Montanez ’11, communication studies
I have Yahoo as my home page and I get news
there and sometimes from the New York Times
site. They provide more elaborate information.
Kelly Smith ’11, writing, literature and
publishing
I read the Boston Globe every single day and I
check Boston.com a lot. I do a lot on Google
News, because it’s easier to narrow down
quickly what I’m looking for, for example,
stories related to college life. I watch CNN, but
not as much as I should. Sometimes I live in a
box and don’t get much news because I’m
wrapped up in classes.
Ian McPhail ’10, interactive media
Every day I use an RSS reader (an aggregator
of selected links) to read political, news and
technology blogs, including Salon, Politico, the
L.A. Times, Pew Research Center, Media
Matters, Real Clear Politics and Michelle
Malkin. I listen to National Public Radio and to
podcasts. I watch CNN and Fox. I read the
Wall Street Journal (print edition) for a class
I’m taking. The Drudge Report is my homepage.
Jared Kowalczyk ’11, film
I get my news on the Internet. I tend to start at
Yahoo.com. I love my sports, so I go to ESPN.
com, too. Then I use Google searches. I
always pick up the [Berkeley] Beacon on
Thursdays, and if there’s someone handing out
a Boston Metro I grab that.
18 Expression Winter 2009
Joseph Rechtman ’11, film
I’m pretty uninformed. Most of the news I get
is through friends and family and through
The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. I
also check out the news on the IMDB.com
[Internet Movie Database] home page.
Tara Mastroeni ’12, writing for TV and film
I usually go to CNN.com at least once a day.
Ross Hansen ’12, writing for TV and film
I get my news from the BBC News website.
Kristina Ten ’11, writing, literature and
publishing
I try to watch the news in the morning at 7
a.m. – Fox News and CNN. I also get news
from the Internet, starting at Yahoo.com. I
read the [Berkeley] Beacon and sometimes
pick up the Boston Metro and the Boston
Herald.
Jussie Martin ’12, print journalism
I don’t watch a lot of TV. I go online daily to
read the New York Times and Boston.com.
When I’m home, I read my hometown daily,
The Derry (N.H.) News.
Fernando Febres ’12, marketing
I go online to CNN and Yahoo. I look for
business news, odd news or entertainment
news.
Tim Leinhart, second-year graduate student,
journalism
I get the New York Times every day. I also go
online to the BBC. That’s my homepage. It
has much better world news. I don’t have a
TV.
Rachel Liptz ’12, theater education
I get news from the front page of Yahoo. It’s
my homepage. I don’t have a TV. I used to
watch The Daily Show and The Colbert
Report. I’m from Israel, so I go online to read
the daily Haaretz. If I didn’t have Yahoo as my
homepage, I probably wouldn’t look for news.
Why so popular?
Many viewers who watch The Daily
Show each night claim they are
“addicted” to it. The Onion attracts more
than 5 million online visitors per
month. Even CNN has tossed its hat
into the ring, launching in fall 2008 a
show called D.L. Hughley Breaks the
News, a weekly comedy program based
on the news and hosted by Hughley.
Randazzo of The Onion believes
his generation has grown up with “an
eye for irony and sarcasm, a bit more
skepticism and perhaps even cynicism,
about politics, the media and the news.”
Further, he says “there’s a sense among
some that as the news media have been
gobbled up by big, multinational
corporations, where you have four or
five different companies that basically
own most of the mainstream information that goes out, it tends toward mediocrity. So, many of these news organizations have been swept away with the
idea of ‘infotainment’, or making news
flashy and attractive” – which makes it
ripe for satire, says Randazzo.
Paul Starke ’95, co-author of
“One more thing, and you
don’t have to answer it if
you don’t want to. Is it true
that every time I buy a
bottle of ketchup, your wife
gets a nickel?”
Jon Stewart, interviewing U.S.
Sen. John Kerry
television and radio pundit Glenn
Beck’s runaway bestseller, An Inconvenient Book, adds, “There are no walls
left between public figures and the
audience. It seems as if everyone has
access to everything. Since the walls are
going down, people feel they have a
right to question, comment and
participate in the process.”
An Inconvenient Book debuted at
No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller
list. Beck’s book is formatted to parody
a schoolbook. Starke, who is currently
the Emmy Award-winning senior
producer of The Tyra Banks Show, says
that Beck “ knew he wanted to create a
parody of a textbook and to get his
opinion out on a variety of topics.” The
book addresses subjects as serious as
child abuse, radical Islam and global
climate change and as silly as dating,
weekend movie rentals and tipping.
Movie audiences were treated to
another brand of fake news with the
debut of British comedian Sacha Baron
Cohen’s 2006 break-out mockumentary, Borat: Cultural Learnings of
America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation
of Kazakhstan. The film created a
sensation – and some enemies. Borat, a
supposed globetrotting reporter from
the country of Kazakhstan, draws
laughs when he says or does offensive
things under the guise of being from a
foreign country. He naively utters all
manner of insult, including sexist,
homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks.
What makes it so funny?
The Onion, which predates both
The Daily Show and The Colbert Report,
derives its comedy from “its refusal to
acknowledge that it’s funny – doing
everything in a dry, sober tone and
taking ourselves very, very seriously,”
says editor Randazzo. The Onion News
Network (ONN) has translated the Onion
sensibility into a video format with its
“Beyond the Facts” segments. “The ONN
takes its cues from Fox News or CNN
and exaggerate things even more with
the flashy graphics and explosions and
lasers,” says Randazzo. “I think having
those really high production values
makes it feel even more real than the
real thing. Many, many people have been
fooled by watching those ONN clips on
YouTube, especially because they are not
seeing them in context on the Onion
site.” In fact, many of the actors on the
ONN reports are non-actors who have
worked in journalism. “They feel
authentic and they don’t play up the
joke,” says Randazzo. “That’s what really
sells it.”
Photo by Martin Crook
Photo by Frank Ockenfels
COMIC RELIEF. Emerson alumnus and current
president of MTV Networks Doug Herzog ’81 is
responsible for creating Comedy Central’s
wildly popular Daily Show with Jon Stewart
(left) and its spinoff, The Colbert Report, with
Stephen Colbert (below).
19 Expression Winter 2009
Diced or Sliced,
As for the news parody competition, it’s a friendly rivalry. “We all really
like and respect The Daily Show and
Colbert Report,” says Randazzo. “I think
that they’re both really funny, really
smart shows. And we can all occupy
the same space, because we do
something slightly different. They’re
really good at the 24-hour news cycle,
and we take a step back and try to write
stories thinking, will it be funny in five
or ten years? We really try to write stuff
that will stand the test of time.”
But is it news?
Several studies indicate that a portion
of younger people actually get their
news from fake news shows like The
Daily Show rather than from genuine
“What kind of madman
refuses to produce evidence
that he doesn’t have what
he said he didn’t? Saddam
had to be taken out
or who knows what else he
might not have done?”
Stephen Colbert
sources. “I think there’s some truth to
that,” says Comedy Central’s Herzog.
“I’m very old school. I read three
newspapers a day. I grew up that way. I
have teenage boys, and I know they’re
never going to pick up a newspaper. It’s
not going to happen. They’re going to
get their news in a different way.” On
the other hand, Herzog says, “With The
Daily Show, you kind of have to know
the news to play along.” Emerson’s
Journalism Department Chair Janet
Kolodzy agrees: “As a Daily Show fan
myself, you have to be relatively
engaged with news to follow it. Otherwise, you’re not really going to understand half of the jokes.”
But it’s not as if the fake news
outlets are trying to pull one over on
anyone, says Herzog. “Jon Stewart will
tell you, ‘I’m not a journalist, I’m not a
newsman. I’m a comedian. And my
first job is to make people laugh. Now
20 Expression Winter 2009
if they’re being informed while I make
them laugh, then that’s great.’” Herzog
adds that Comedy Central’s fake-news
shows “are not out there trying to
compete with CNN or Fox News or
Katie Couric; we’re trying to make
people laugh and we do it within the
currency of news.”
Similarly, Randazzo says The
Onion never pretends to be a news
source: “When people go to a satirical
news site, first and foremost, it’s a way
to escape, to get entertained. But I
think that satire has always been able to
– especially now in an era when there
are so many different news sources to
parse through – get right to the meat of
the thing.”
Still, that doesn’t mean that news
parodies are not part of a well-informed
viewer’s media regimen. A 2007 Pew
Research Center study, which reviewed
the content of The Daily Show for an
entire year, revealed that regular
viewers of The Daily Show – whose
median age is 35 – tend to be more
knowledgeable about news than
audiences of other news sources.
Approximately 54% of The Daily Show
viewers scored in the high knowledge
range, followed by Jim Lehrer’s
program at 53% and Bill O’Reilly’s
program at 51%, significantly higher
than the 34% of network morning
show viewers.
Emerson’s Kolodzy admits that
“newspapers are a tough sell” for
students these days. But many students
do get news – when they are online:
“There’s a changing pattern for all
consumers. For students online,
getting their news can be catch as catch
can and, like everybody else, sometimes they just don’t catch anything.”
Overall, Kolodzy says the faculty urges
“our journalism students to get their
news from journalistic sources.”
The Beijing Evening News is far
from the only legitimate news outlet
that has mistakenly reported fake news
as real. And with the growing popularity of news parodies, perhaps the
mantra that audiences must repeat to
themselves these days is, “It’s only a
joke, it’s only a joke.” E
From his salad days at Emerson,
Joe Randazzo ’02 has risen
to the top of The Onion empire
Imagine a workplace where laughter is
not only tolerated but encouraged,
an office where guffaws echo in every
corridor, and where your job each day is
to induce hysterics in your fellow
staffers. The Onion is such a workplace.
This mega-popular satirical online
‘newspaper’, which cheekily describes
itself as “America’s Finest News
Source,” amuses a readership of 5,115,368
visitors per month, and Emerson
alumnus Joe Randazzo ’02 is at the helm
of the operation.
A broadcast journalism major while at
Emerson, Randazzo today oversees a New
York City-based staff of about 20, which
includes editors, writers and graphic artists.
(He is not responsible for the Onion’s
video component, the Onion News
Network [ONN], which was launched in
2007 and has a staff of about 25.)
The Onion, for the uninitiated, takes news
(both real and fabricated) and turns it on
its ear. Satirical stories recently featured in
It’s Always Funny
the publication include: “American
Airlines Now Charging Fees To NonPassengers” (“Watching television last
night cost me $250,” said Baltimore
resident Michael Peterson, one of many
Americans now forced to pay high
airline costs for folding their laundry and
going to the ophthalmologist. “It’s
ridiculous, but what can you do? I guess
that’s just the price of not flying these
days”) and “Man With Apple Hovering In
Front Of Face Sues René Magritte’s Estate”
(Michael Renfro, a 68-year-old retired
CPA with an apple hovering in front of
his face, announced Monday that he
has filed a $15 million lawsuit against the
estate of deceased Belgian artist René
Magritte for unlawfully using his likeness
in the 1964 painting The Son Of Man).
The Onion was founded as a print
publication in 1988 by two University of
Wisconsin-Madison students. In 1996
The Onion website was launched. Besides
the virtual newspaper, The Onion empire
includes the Onion News Network, the
print edition (circulation 630,000) and an
online radio division.
A journey to comedy
Comedy had always intrigued Randazzo, but he found himself “far too
shy to ever try out for the comedy teams” at Emerson. “They intimidated
me somewhat,” he recalls. He did, however, perform standup around
Boston, primarily at the Comedy Studio and the Lizard Lounge in
Cambridge. “I did other small rooms now and again, including a Chinese
restaurant in which I once did a whole bit about George W. Bush
being pushed through his mother’s birth canal as the audience slurped
on noodles. It didn’t go over well.”
In his senior year, Randazzo created a monologue show called The Official
Version, which was very well received. In addition, many of his broadcast
journalism news packages were comedic in nature. His work was noticed
and he became the first recipient of Emerson’s Joe Murphy Comedy Award.
Randazzo’s win was based on a package of audio comedy material he
submitted, including sketches and a number of fake commercials.
After graduation, he embarked on a peripatetic career journey. “I didn’t
know how to go about pursuing a career in comedy. I never really had it in
me to get out there and promote myself and try to meet people. That kind
of stuff always made me feel uncomfortable.”
So Randazzo took a job writing news at Boston public radio station
WBUR-FM. “Although I liked it a lot, I was working the 3:30 a.m. to
noon shift. It was destroying me physically and spiritually.” He eventually
decided to move to New York. “I thought with my NPR résumé they
would just be lining up to give me jobs in public radio in New York, but
I found it very difficult to break in.” So Randazzo wound up taking a
day job: “Working for $6.75 an hour at cafés, slinging coffee and pastries.”
When the eatery offered to make Randazzo assistant manager, he fled.
“I knew I had to get the hell out.”
He contacted a friend who was an editor for season two of NBC’s The
Apprentice, and Randazzo took a post-production job. He worked
on season three as well as The Apprentice: Martha Stewart,
Stewart “just dubbing
tapes and logging and stuff like that.” He started to do some assistant
producing, “but I realized I didn’t have the passion for the final product,
to pour 100 hours a week into it. It felt like I was heading in this direction
for no good reason. It took me several years to build up the confidence
to decide to drop everything and start doing what I really liked, which
was comedy.” He enrolled at the Magnet Theater, where he did
improvisational comedy. There, he met a former editor of The Onion as
well as a current editor. When the editor left to embark on a spiritual
journey through India, suddenly a job opened up. One of Randazzo’s new
Onion friends recommended him for the post. “I almost didn’t even test for
it, because I thought there’s no way I would ever get it. But I got the job,
and over the last two years, through circumstance and luck, I’ve managed
to work my way up to editor in March 2006.” The rest is hysterical.
Luckily for The Onion, the satire laws in the U.S. leave them “pretty well
protected. The White House sent us a cease and desist letter a couple of
years ago because we were using the White House seal.” But that’s
all in the line of duty for a staff of dedicated journalists, er, comedy writers.
21 Expression Winter 2009