A few months ago, my 18-year-old had not only the incredible luck to nab tickets to the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but also the thoughtful foresight to get tickets for my husband and me, too. It wasn’t Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. The child didn’t have to be nice. It was as if he might actually like to hang out with us, doing something cool. I was touched. I may have even daydreamed a moment of us together in line, being approached by the Humans of New York guy.
“So you like Jon Stewart?”
“He’s okay. I just like hanging out with my parents.”
Snapshot of goofy family. Viral sharing ensues.
As a Daily Show addict, I was also just really, wildly pleased.
I should have approached the actual day, months after my son’s invitation, better prepared. It was a stunning New York City day–a rare, crystal summer day at the end of July. My son had brought along a friend, who did not seem mortified to be hanging out with us (further reason to feel expansive about teenagers). But as we waited in line, in the little corral reserved for tickets numbered 81–90, instead of just hanging out on the sidewalk and taking it all in, I was frantically googling news topics on my smart phone for inspiration.
It turns out that Jon Stewart’s audience is pretty darned intelligent and well-informed, and it’s generally known (by all Daily Show addicts but me) that Jon invites questions prior to the taping of the show. Many audience members come prepared, having studied the news from all angles and formulated nuanced, funny questions.
Geeky as I am, what with managing a section of a bookstore and reading piles of books, I am not a news geek. What was I going to ask about?
I ignored all the predigested, sensationalist stuff–Salon, Buzzfeed, Gawker, Slate. I found too-fluffy stuff, like a news flash about the film adaptation of The Goldfinch. I found stuff that was too difficult to absorb in five minutes of smartphone-surfing, like the Turkish government regulating women’s laughter. Most of the news was, predictably, about Israel. I was not asking poor Jon Stewart about Israel. I also could not think of a way to nuance a question about The Goldfinch (Jon! A movie adaptation about that over-inflated book–what do you think?) or the modesty of Turkish women (The Turkish government sucks, Jon–don’t you agree?) Actually, if I could even fake a nuanced understanding of the news, I would not need John Stewart, would I?
I thought about asking a question that might invite Jon to riff on questionable lifestyles. “Jon, I’m an unpublished novelist and I run an independent bookstore. Would you like to mock me?”
The line of very smart people was eventually herded through double metal detectors into the Daily Show studio, which looked almost just like The Daily Show. Jon’s desk, the spinning lit-up globe, the tickertape and blue-lit backdrops, seemed so small and bright; the audience, so vast and shadowy and brainy. I decided I was too shy to ask a question, and besides, I should have studied.
A warmup comedian had us practice yelling at the correct volume for awhile. And then Jon came out, and he looked just like the Jon Stewart on TV, except that he was talking to us for real. He was like a benevolent and beloved college professor, completely relaxed and connecting with everyone. When he began taking questions, someone asked about Israel almost right off the bat.
“You know who to ask about Israel?” Jon said. “New York City cab drivers. They don’t necessarily know more than anyone else, but–want to have a guaranteed entertaining cab ride? Get in a cab, tell the driver your destination, then ask him, ‘How ‘bout those Jews?’ I guarantee you an entertaining cab ride.”
Well, what did you expect, people? Really.
When the taping began, we transformed from a regular audience to a live TV audience. Things got surreal. Jon retreated to the bright, teeny Daily Show set in front of the cameras, and we were in this shadowy cave behind the cameras. Instead of talking to us, he now talked to them–the cameras. The interactive intimacy was gone. When I watched the overhead simulcast, Jon appeared to look right at me, just as he appears to do on TV, but of course he was not looking at me, he was looking at that camera over there. We laughed and clapped whenever we wanted to, but we all knew the parts where we were supposed to be really loud, and when we were supposed to just plain shut up. Maybe this is what it’s like to be the chorus in Greek theater. The real audience was in a different set of seats–several hours into the future, watching the taping. We were more like secondary performers.
It turned out that maybe I should have looked up some predigested sensationalist internet news. Or not.
The featured clip was “Internet Killed the Newspaper Star,” by Jordan Klepper, comparing the growing phenomenon of internet news with traditional journalism. We saw the same version that the TV audience would later see, except that we got to hear all the curse words. Klepper did the usual Daily Show interview with Gawker founder Neetzan Zimmerman. The Daily Show usually profiles two sides to a news story–the good guy side and the who-is-this-turkey side. Yep, Gawker was the turkey. (The good guys were an earnest group of journalism students at the University of Michigan.)
“If a person is not sharing a news story, it is at its core not news,” Zimmerman said. “Nowadays, it’s not important that a story is real. The only thing that really matters is that people click on it.”
While a journalist might take about fifteen minutes to craft a “clickable” headline, Zimmerman gobbled on, she should spend five minutes writing the article. The sexier the headline, the better. Headlines featuring puppies or “shocking” behavior are reliable, too. To present “hard” or actual news that does not involve overt sex or puppies, draw readers in with sexy or shocking (or, I suppose, canine) aspects of the topic, then follow up with the story. I discovered that there is a type of clickbait feature called a “sideboob.” I did not need to know about the sideboob.
I was disgusted, nauseated. I made obscene gestures at the screens. I would have thrown things if I could. Hey turkey, what about those warm-hearted, unsensational, viral portraits from Humans of New York?
Secretly, of course, I planned to spend at least fifteen minutes considering headlines for this article. I would love The Nose to get more clicks, so that we could rub our excellent standards in Neetzan Zimmerman’s smug little face and steal all of Gawker’s web traffic and money.
“The Daily Show: Family Outing Turned Surreal”? “What Jon Stewart Said When All The Questions Were About Israel”? “Don’t Click On The Sideboob”?
I just don’t see any way around using the puppies.
Jon’s guest was the luminous, tall and poised Maggie Gyllenhaal. Here’s a sad byproduct of TV magic: despite my enjoyment of the live interview, when I later watched the taped version, all I could see were Maggie’s weirdly big, white earrings, which dangled well below her chin and resembled perfectly formed blobs of Elmer’s glue. Anyway, Maggie was promoting a mini-series in which she stars as the British CEO of a company based in the Middle East. At stake are the company’s relations with, you guessed it, Palestine and Israel.
Jon, you could not win that day. But your audience enjoyed every moment.