This Was the Writing Staff That Is

by Michael Buening

28 September 2005

Apparently, what The Daily Show writers really want to do is direct. This much is on display in the IFC Center's weeklong series of shorts by Jon Stewart's gagmen and women.

Apparently, what The Daily Show writers really want to do is direct. This much is on display in the IFC Center’s weeklong series of shorts by Jon Stewart’s gagmen and women. They offer a peek at the individual personalities who comprise one of the most envied writing staffs on television. And, while each seems made by a smartass with a free weekend and a camcorder, the results are as insular, for better and worse, as one might expect. There’s no “I” in team or Emmy (although there’s two “me"s and a “my”).

The short that’ll be of most interest to The Daily Show‘s fans is the first presented. Actually a pilot for a local TV news satire, Deadline: Now was made by Daily Show executive producer Ben Karlin and his previous staff, when he was editor at The Onion, in 1997. It’s a pretty straightforward mockery of a local news broadcast with Onion-style headlines (“Hundreds of College Basketball Stars Flee to Canada to Avoid the NBA Draft”). While the stories unfold in the inverted pyramid structure of an Onion story—main points followed by on-the-scene interviews—the on-air reporters, from blowhard anchor Bill Cutler (Eric Pierpoint) to slick flack jacket wearing Brick Kiln (James Patrick Stewart), remain caricatures. Daily Show correspondents like Stephen Colbert and Beth Littleford use existing personalities like Geraldo Rivera and Diane Sawyer to develop their own characters, Deadline: Now boils these personalities down to a base point and keeps them there. (Although senile ex-anchor Harris Watchford (Bill Morley), is funny, delivering rambling Andy Rooney-style editorials at the end of each episode.)

Deadline: Now also differs from The Daily Show in that it concentrates on how the news (often ineptly) delivers information to us, not on interviewing real life nut-jobs or making the usual late night celebrity jokes. Karlin recently told the Washington Post that, “Jon and I happen to share a very similar vision of where we wanted to take the show,” and an early germ of that vision can be seen when Cutler intones, “News. Stories. We combine the two to create news stories” (24 August 2005).

Deadline: Now is followed by my favorite short, Zombie-American, starring Daily correspondent Ed Helms in a slice-of-life documentary about a likeable undead corpse who just wants to be treated like a normal human being. Glen tries to get a date, strolls down the street, and plays basketball, moving with the casual stiff-limbed shuffle of an average Joe with rotting joints. The short is helped greatly by Helm’s performance (there’s a reason the writers, who star in most of the other shorts, usually stay behind the camera) and writer/director Nick Poppy sets an efficient pace that doesn’t dawdle on improvisations.

The scribes seem to be more comfortable with nonfiction-based comedy, with the mockumetary a recurring form here. Partner in Blues is a Ken Burns-style reminiscence of the gay relationship between an old Delta blues performer and his guitar Todd, starring Strangers with Candy‘s Principal Blackman, Gregory Hollimon. Writer/director Scott Jacobson breathes some life into this somewhat tired style via an array of entertaining characters and techniques, including standard interviews, reenactments, and “present day” footage.

More derivative are Sanford Van Johnson: A Life Near the Theatre, about a wannabe doyen of the New York City stage, and Untold Tales of the West, about an impotent cowboy. Shot with what looks like an old Hi-8 camera in her bedroom, Sarah Walker’s Surviving Geddes brings a lo-fi approach to her amusing portrait and harrowing confession by two women who worked with the cutesy/creepy photographer Anne Geddes as newborns.

When these shorts are at their worst, the kind of silly for silly’s sake humor that screams “comedy geek” makes them bewildering and tedious. Chris Regan plays Sanford Van Johnson with the kind of grating accent beloved by over-caffeinated Monty Python fans. High concept yet aimless, Pie Chi, about a fight between a vegan and non-vegan baker, plays like the devil-may-care programming of post-“Weekend Update” Saturday Night Live sketches. Like SNL, these shorts also have a tendency to run five minutes past their welcome.

For the most part, these shorts don’t contain any of the barbed humor and deadly punch-lines of The Daily Show. Without a basis in reality, they’re kind of ridiculous, so the series seems like the theatrical release of DVD bonus material. This is why television shows have executive producers and on-air personalities and editors and a large group of writers to tell someone that something isn’t funny. That said, the films don’t aspire to great heights, and they’ll probably be as much of a lark for the audience as they were for their makers.

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//Mixed media