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Inside the surprisingly old-fashioned way ‘Daily Show’ alumni stay connected

A five-panel image of "The Daily Show" correspondents in blue and gray business attire
“The Daily Show” correspondents Roy Wood Jr., from left, Desi Lydic, Ronny Chieng, Dulcé Sloan and Michael Kosta.
(Art Streiber)

Comedy Central’s late-night series “The Daily Show” has long been at the forefront of American news satire. And among the show’s signature elements is its bench of correspondents, who routinely appear as experts on specific topics to engage directly with the host, as well as in segments produced from their reporting out in the field.

To celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary, The Times spoke with current “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” correspondents Roy Wood Jr., Desi Lydic, Ronny Chieng, Michael Kosta and Dulcé Sloan via video conference about their most memorable moments on the series, their relationships with past correspondents, the show’s evolution and its comedy legacy. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What has been your most memorable “Daily Show” moment?

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VIDEO | 07:38
‘The Daily Show’ correspondents on their most memorable moments

Five current “Daily Show” correspondents tell The Times about their most memorable moments on the late-night comedy series.

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What are some of your earliest memories about “The Daily Show,” from before you joined the show?

Desi Lydic: Indecision 2000. Watching that coverage, and Steve Carell trying desperately to get on to the [Sen. John] McCain bus [during the Republican primary campaign], and he can’t get on for the life of him. So the whole joke is he’s spending the whole piece on the backup bus. And finally, finally, he sweet-talks Cindy McCain into letting him onto the bus. He gets on. He lands the interview with McCain. And he spends 90% of the interview throwing these softball questions: “If you were a tree, what would you be?” “What’s your favorite color?” And it’s this whole bit and McCain thinks that this guy’s a total buffoon. And finally, the very last question, he throws this really thoughtful, hard-hitting, very serious, kind of confrontational question at him, and McCain is so thrown off. It’s this really awkward moment that they let live for several minutes. And then finally Carell comes back and he’s like, “I’m just kidding. I don’t even know what that means.” And it was such a perfect representation of what the show is and everything that I love about it, which is that the show is always 10 steps ahead. We’re always saying something, but jokes, comedy — hard laughs — are No. 1. It’s silly at its heart. I love that moment.

Michael Kosta: When I was 16, which was about three years ago, I used to lay on my living room floor and watch Craig Kilborn’s “The Daily Show.” And I used to watch and laugh. First of all, the other kids in my family, my oldest siblings, we didn’t have cable. But with me, we had a little bit of money, you know what I’m saying, so now we can have Comedy Central. I remember when I got hired, and the first day I went into the studio, I just couldn’t believe how my life had worked out and how this thing that I used to idolize, laugh at, was now my place of work. And it was emotional. And it was really very rewarding and fulfilling, and I still feel that way. That’s not as good an answer as Desi’s, but mine was more emotional and spiritual, so I’ll still give my answer as a little bit better than Desi’s.

Ronny Chieng: I was in university in Australia when I first came in touch with “The Daily Show.” And that was around 2005. I was first year at University of Melbourne. And that was when video on the internet was kind of becoming a real big thing. So we were watching clips of Jon Stewart and I remember [thinking], “Man, no one’s doing it like this.” People are doing jokes. And people are doing jokes about politics. But no one’s doing jokes on politics like this. And I didn’t really get at the time, but now, in retrospect, I understand that the guy was inventing modern American satire. That whole idea of having a video over your shoulder and then making jokes about it and bringing on correspondents — he invented that whole thing. And I guess we all knew we were watching something special on TV, but we didn’t have the perspective to really understand it. It’s kind of like watching Michael Jordan play at the time. And you’re like, “Oh, yeah, this is great. But this is normal, right?” And it’s not normal. It’s very special. That was kind of my first contact with “The Daily Show,” all the way in Australia. And they were talking about American news, right? It wasn’t even relevant to us, but it was a fun perspective. And never in my wildest dreams did I think I could be on the show. It was always such a far-away thing. So when I got the call up, it was like a dream come true.

Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg created the beloved news satire, which premiered 25 years ago. Why haven’t they gotten credit for it?

Roy Wood Jr.: The main thing is that, to Ronny’s point, you watch it growing up. You see how effortless they are at doing that job. Then — and every actor, comedian, says that they don’t do this — you audition for something, you don’t get the role, you watch to see who got it. You start watching the show after you audition, and you go, “Oh my God, I’m terrible. I’m horrible. I’ll never be that good.” And that’s when it really dawned on me just what level of greatness everybody on that show was operating at. So to even have the opportunity to audition again when Trevor came on board, I was like, “OK, this time I think I’ll get it right. It’s been 10 years. I think I can get it right this time.”

Dulcé Sloan: I unexpectedly got into comedy, so I was watching it from the acting side of it. And the thing that was significant to me was when Jessica Williams was on the show, because I don’t remember seeing a lot of Black women in late-night, period. So to see her on the show, and to be doing this type of elevated comedy — satirical work and character work — it showed me an intersection of acting and comedy that I don’t think we always get to see. And then you put in the political aspect of it. And then to see a Black woman in that space, that was inspirational to see.

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Are there past correspondents you were particularly inspired by, or have done things that you still remember?

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VIDEO | 05:34
‘The Daily Show’ correspondents on the predecessors they look up to

Five current “Daily Show” correspondents reflect on the alumni they most admire — and reveal how generations of “Daily Show” talent stay connected.

How do you think your era of “The Daily Show” — the Trevor Noah years — is different from Jon Stewart and Craig Kilborn’s tenures?

Chieng: I think, most obviously, the Jon Stewart era didn’t engage with the internet at all. Trevor Noah’s “Daily Show,” we are on the internet all the time. So I think that would be the biggest thing for me, having to address the internet. I think Jon Stewart came in at that last era where you could still ignore it. [Since] Trevor came in, you can’t ignore it. It’s unacceptable to ignore it.

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Wood Jr.: I think our show has evolved the most because the field is also the most competitive. When you look at every other show that exists now versus even 2015, before Jon signed off, it’s been probably seven or eight more shows since then that have all sprang up that do some version or some iteration of the universe that Jon Stewart created. So it forces the show to go into different spaces. And I think that’s what’s been so dope about Trevor being at the helm. I think also partly, and I’m biased, because I’m also a comedian, but comedians tend to take more risks. Jon Stewart was also — he still is — a standup comedian. So here’s a way that we’re going to try the show that we haven’t before. Even with the shutdown when COVID hit. Two weeks went by, and Trevor was like, “Alright, we’re gonna do the show. We’re gonna be the first show back.” And we’re like, “Huh?” He’s like, “Yeah. Do you remember the show we used to do? … We’ll send you a webcam and do the show.” So I think that there’s always been this desire, as people consume information differently, to find new ways to reach them, and not to stay the same.

Jon Stewart’s successor struggled to put his stamp on “The Daily Show.” Then he found his stride — and began shaping the show’s next quarter century.

How has the Daily Show changed comedy? Both your own and broadly, in American culture?

Kosta: With [former President Donald] Trump, everybody could do comedy. Everybody was doing comedy. Everybody could read his tweet, and it was comedy. But “The Daily Show” has been around for 25 years. We make comedy when there is someone like Trump and there isn’t someone like Trump. So I’m curious what this age, right now — it’ll be fun to kind of push out the people that think they know how to do comedy. “The Daily Show” [has done] this every day for 25 years, thank you, good night, goodbye. [Leaves video conference.]

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Wood Jr.: I think that this show was, and is still, the gold standard for what is news satire. And also to still be at the tip of the sword of how that platform evolves, and how those things change. I would say that, for my own personal comedy, working on “The Daily Show” definitely put me in a place, I’m now a little bit more obsessed with research than I used to be as a comedian. You know, there can be an A and a B side to an issue. And sometimes the joke is on the perspective from the C side that no one has talked about yet. So it’s fun to apply how we approach a story to my standup, because the thing we have to think about now when we have a topic is, “Well, what are the other 12 shows gonna say about this?” So that we make sure that we’re not hitting something from an angle that they may hit it at. It forces you to be even more unique and to constantly refine the writing process.

Chieng: I think the Jon Stewart era of “The Daily Show” was, there wasn’t as much content, they were addressing politics head on, and they were pointing out hypocrisy. And then if you extrapolate that to 2020, it’s like, there’s a lot of content. Everyone is talking about politics — everyone’s making jokes about it. Everyone’s pointing out hypocrisy. Everyone’s kind of outraged, right? So it’s kind of like the world took what “The Daily Show” was doing and took it to the American extreme, and I feel like maybe “The Daily Show” now is almost pulling back from that, almost in response to that shift. Coming back from the outrage, [from] everyone has a hot take, [from] it’s all or nothing. Me, personally, when I first started working here, they really hammer[ed] home the idea of, “What are you trying to say?”: “This joke is really funny. But what are you trying to say?” Now, when I do comedy, I’m always like, “OK, well, this is funny, but what am I trying to say with this thing?”

Kosta: It’s just pro. Every day, it’s like going to work to come up with comedic takes. Hey, Michael, maybe you should do that with your stand-up also? Maybe it shouldn’t be a two-day-a-week thing. Maybe if you want to make it, as Ronny says, the MBA of comedy, you [have] to treat it like that. And then, look who I’m rubbing shoulders with. These are other comedic stars I get to interact [with] and try to learn from them. I called Hasan [Minhaj] when I got the job and he referred to “The Daily Show” as a comedy Ph.D. program and that’s exactly what this feels like.

Chieng: “The Daily Show,” it’s like the Harvard Business School of comedy. It doesn’t even matter whether you get famous or not on it, because of the skill set you learn from being on it. Because you’re collaborating with people who are at the top of their game. The editors are the world-class editors — these guys have been here literally for 20 years editing comedy. The writers are top of their game. The producers are top of their game. The “Daily Show” Twitter guys, [they’re at] the top of the Twitter game. So when you join the show, it’s like you’ve got to lift your game to match that because you don’t want to be the weakest link. You end up collaborating and networking with all these people. The connections at “The Daily Show” — both in terms of personal growth, and then, you know, when you leave the show, in the business stuff that happens after that — is the network that you draw from because they’re all talented people. We’ve been in the trenches before. We trust each other. So naturally, you’re going to work with these people.

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Lydic: It really is like a film school because no other job, as an actor or a comedian, would you ever get to sit with the director and talk shots or cowrite the script that you’re about to go out and do. And at “The Daily Show,” we’re brought into every part of the process. We can be as involved as we want to be. So we get to sit down with our fellow field producers or the writers and put our voice into everything that we do. If we want to go sit in the edit and see how the puzzle pieces are put together, we get to do that.

Sloan: For me, it is showing me — regardless of what so many articles have said — I do not want to have my own late-night show. Watching Trevor’s process, he is herding cats. Some days he’s herding cats and then some days he’s a sheep dog and everybody’s following him. The feeling in the beginning of the day is like, “9 a.m. meeting: cats.” And then throughout the day, now it’s soldiers marching in line. One day, everything’s written, we’re about to go into rehearsal, and then there’s an announcement on the news that Trump is speaking on the White House lawn at four. And I saw one of the writers just throw paper in the air. Now we have to talk about what he talked about. When I first got there I was like, “Help!” But it’s something you learn on your feet. Being there sometimes is like you’re in the running of the bulls. But then every once in a while Roy would kind of reach out, pull me up on the fence and be like, “OK … go,” and then I’m just back in the race.

That’s the thing that’s helped me the most with my standup. It’s shown me that the times that you feel are chaotic are actually more organized than you think they are. And a lot of times these ideas that seem so abstract, or might not be connecting, can easily be put together in a linear format and [be] digestible and understandable to people. It’s also shown me that a lot of people talk about politics for the sake of talking about politics and they don’t have anything to say about them. If I’m gonna speak on politics, it has to be informed. Like Ronny was saying, it’s “What are you saying about it?”


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