New York • For “The Daily Show” correspondents, the national conventions are a veritable playground, teeming as much with targets for satire as they are with banner-waving delegates.
As it has in recent election years, the Comedy Central show is decamping for both the Republican and Democratic national conventions to broadcast a week of shows at each that will — in as close to real-time as “The Daily Show” gets — parody the nation’s most extravagant political pageants.
“I cannot overstate just how many balloons are at these things,” says a wide-eyed John Oliver, the British comedian who’s been a “Daily Show” correspondent since 2006 and “covered” the 2008 conventions.
Whereas “The Daily Show” typically operates from its New York studio, sifting through TV footage for the gaffs, contradictions and inaccuracies of politicians and the media, the show is in the eye of the storm at the conventions.
“It’s not easy when you’re in the middle of it and there’s nothing but goodwill swarming all around you and there’s a moving sensation in the air, when you have to be the person going, ‘This is slightly ridiculous,’” says Oliver. “People do tend to look at you and go, ‘Really? You have to ruin this?’ Not ruin it, provide another perspective on it.”
“The Daily Show,” which will shift its regular schedule a day to broadcast four shows from Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday through Friday, has been covering conventions on-site since 2000. The coverage is usually remarkable for the sense of correspondents running amok, like Stephen Colbert dancing and lip-syncing through the throngs on the floor of the 2004 DNC.
Oliver was so moved by Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in 2008 that he crawled on his knees to drink in “the most delicious hope I’ve ever tasted.” In a moment of exuberance, he attempted to kiss a woman. (She demurred.)
At the 2008 RNC, Samantha Bee filed a memorable report where she desperately tried to get attendees to use the word “choice,” which many went to verbal acrobatics to avoid, lest Bristol Palin’s pregnancy be linked to pro-abortion rights.
“It’s always really interesting to me to make note of the things that people will and won’t say at the convention,” says Bee. “Everyone’s receiving the same sort of messaging from day one. When a message reverberates through a whole stadium filled with people, it’s amazing to witness.”
Though the conventions represent the essential step of a party officially nominating a candidate for the presidency, they function mainly as carefully orchestrated frenzies to inspire voters. Political discourse can be in short supply.
“It’s amazing how for campaigns that have so little substance, just how spectacularly they are able to present that nothing,” says Oliver. “I think they’re ludicrous but I think that’s probably objectively true. I think if any American splashed water on their face or was unconscious for 40 years and came back, they’d go: ‘What are we doing? And how much does this cost? How many balloons are up there?’”
“The Daily Show” has dubbed its coverage “RNC 2012: The Road to Jeb Bush 2016.” Executive producer Rory Albanese says the name isn’t meant to suggest Mitt Romney will lose in November but that the Republican Party appears more excited about the possible future candidates that it will feature in Tampa, like Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“The joke of our convention coverage is the feeling the Republicans have: ‘We’re not really exciting about this guy, but you know who we are excited about? This other guy, who you’ll see in four years,’” says Albanese. “As far as who is going to win the election, you’d have to be CNN to call it this early.”
The difficulty of the task, Albanese says, isn’t being funny. After all, the show has a stable of funny people including host Jon Stewart and the other correspondents: Aasif Mandvi, Jason Jones, Al Madrigal and Jessica Williams. The hard part is processing the information rapidly, so that the comedy is predicated on actual themes and currents.
For the DNC, which will take place Sept. 4-6 in Charlotte, N.C., Albanese believes a topic will be the lack of message, summing up the campaign as “Hey, those guys are crazier, right?”
Bee describes the improvising nature of the work as “fishing all day,” while keeping broad themes in mind. Though one might suspect the correspondents have a harder time interviewing people at the RNC than the DNC, she says the opposite is true. They’re more recognizable to liberals.
“It’s a little like a ‘Star Trek’ convention for us,” says Bee of the DNC. “It’s actually easier to talk to people at the RNC even if they know us because they actually don’t care about us. They have a little bit more swagger to be perfectly honest.”
Oliver has one reason to prefer the RNC: It’s where he met his wife. Four years ago, he, along with a cameraman and producer, were fleeing security when a group of army veterans helped them hide. Last year, Oliver married one of those veterans, Kate Norley.
“I did not go into these conventions thinking I was going to meet my wife,” says Oliver. “I didn’t even go in thinking I was going to have a pleasant time, and I got a wife out of it.”