Political punditry served up with a laugh: it’s all in a day’s work for comedian Ed Helms ’96 (second from left).
photo courtesy Comedy Central
A rowdy crowd is drinking its way through pints of beer at the Steel Horse Saloon—a favorite local pub in Phoenix, Arizona—when a TV reporter saunters up and joins the party. He’s there to demonstrate support for Arizona Senate Bill 1210, which would remove a ban on firearms in establishments licensed to serve alcohol. Several drinks later, the reporter is caught on camera talking with saloon owner Ernie Ross, a tough-looking biker who opposes the bill.
“Liquor and firearms don’t mix,” Ross says.
The reporter, now inebriated, taunts Ross, calling him a “p***y” for opposing the bill. “Firearms resolve conflicts,” he adds cheekily. “It’s a no-brainer.”
The conversation doesn’t last long. A minute later, reporter and cameraman are seen fleeing the scene, chased by guys on motorbikes. “If only I’d had my gun,” the reporter laments, effectively concluding the televised segment.
Such unnerving moments are par for the course for Ed Helms ’96, a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the socio-political news satire that sucks the phrase “fair and balanced” out of journalism. Airing weeknights on Comedy Central, this parody of network news has zoomed up in the ratings over the last 12 months, beating 60 Minutes, Meet the Press, and Nightline to win the Television Critics’ Association Award for Outstanding Achievement in News and Information. It’s a curious nod, given that The Daily Show proclaims itself a source of “fake” news. Nevertheless, a National Annenberg Election Survey reveals that Daily Show viewers between the ages of 18 and 34 have a far better political knowledge than those who get their news from other broadcast sources.
The show’s specific aim is to target the absurdity and hypocrisy of ongoing events. “In the beginning, we were much sillier and less attached to a national conversation,” says Executive Producer Stewart Bailey. “These days, we try to be as relevant as we can.”
On air, Jon Stewart is a pseudo studio journalist who calls on his various field correspondents for mock analysis of current events. Helms responds with a deadpan exterior, badgering his interviewees with comments ranging from the politically incorrect to the absurd.
“So you’re not mentally incapacitated?” he asked a woman voter in November who forgot to check off the box on her registration form indicating that she was not mentally impaired. The oversight prevented her from voting.
“No,” responds the woman.
“Are you mentally challenged?” Helms presses on. “Do you take the tiny bus to stupid town?”
The Daily Show’s studio audience is usually laughing heartily while watching the interviews, and viewers are quick to assume that Helms is having just as much fun. Nothing, however, is further from the truth. “I’m not the kind of person who enjoys attention or conflict,” he says. “Some people get off on it. But for me to go in somewhere and instigate extreme awkwardness just to make someone feel uncomfortable goes against everything I am.”
So why do it? Helms says he gets through his interviews by keeping his eye on the bigger picture surrounding the issues. In the Arizona bill segment, for instance, he was able to flesh out the debate as well as the absurdity of the players involved and the implications of enforcing the bill. When the audience laughs, his mission is successful.
The Daily Show took a particularly caustic approach in covering the presidential election last fall, with Helms pinpointing the behind-the-scenes workings of the various political forces. One segment, for instance, took a periscopic look at the Prohibition Party, which recognizes “the Almighty God as the source of all just government.” Helms interviewed the party’s presidential candidate, Earl Dodge.
“I’m against alcohol,” Dodge says.
On cue, Helms whips out a hipflask and begins drinking. “Would you like some?” he asks his offended interviewee, then continues to drink.
In another pre-election episode, Helms joins a panoply of reporters hovering around the presidential debate arena while Bush and Kerry spar on stage. As reporters jot furiously in their notepads, a gnat-like Helms buzzes around, wondering what “intelligent” questions they’ve thought up. Afterward he speaks to the campaign managers of both parties, each of whom claims to have won the debate. An infuriated and frustrated Helms runs back and forth between the Bush and Kerry camps asking for “the truth.” The reporters don’t seem to know who has won, and the managers are giving him spin. After bobbing back and forth, Helms appears on the verge of a breakdown. “I’m going crazy,” he yells out to anyone who will listen. “No-body’s being honest with you!” He then collapses on a basketball court amidst a crowd of reporters. “Just leave me here to die,” he mumbles as people pass him by.
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