Political satire isn’t new, it’s been with us throughout history, even Shakespeare’s works were packed with political commentary. Lately, though, political news itself seems more like entertainment television. So how do you make fun of something that already seems like a joke?
Zhubin Parang says it’s a blessing and a curse to be a Trump-era comedian. Zhubin is a writer/producer for the Daily Show with Trevor Noah
Conversation highlights have been edited for readability and clarity.
Why is it a blessing and a curse to be a Trump-era comedian?
It is a blessing because there is no want for material in this day and age. It used to be, before Trump, that the news cycle was daily and that if we had a story in the morning that we wanted to talk about, the odds are very high that would still be the story that we would be talking about at 11 o’clock that night.
In the Trump era, a new cycle is almost hourly and any script that we write at 9:00 AM will almost certainly be thrown out by 2:00 PM and we’ll again be dramatically revised by 5:00 PM and then by the time it airs at 11, it might not even be relevant to what has been going on. The approach to comedy is much more frantic now.
There’s a lot more terrified, quick meetings in hallways and a lot of scrambling, which is also how I imagine the Trump White House works, but it’s definitely how we work.
What’s been the most challenging news or political story to joke about during your eight years on the show?
Usually school shootings, disasters that are man made and not natural … When disasters are human It is very difficult to even address them, much less find comedic angles on them. That has existed before Trump, it certainly will exist after Trump.
… It’s almost a blessing to talk about whatever Donald Trump has tripped on that day and whatever rant he’s made versus those tragedies, which will out-live him for sure.
In 2017 you said to Salon, “We’ve had to think of Trump as being a fire hydrant that’s busted open on the street initially. That was a huge thing that everybody on the street was freaking out and like, oh my God, at this fire hydrant is blasting water everywhere. But it feels the fire hydrant has been going off for two, three years now.” Well, it’s two years later, so do you feel the same way?
Absolutely. Yeah. The good thing about President Trump is that he is very much a fallback at the very least. If there nothing else going on, you can always turn to the fire hydrant and say, “Oh look, that’s still going on.” But because [Trump’s hijinks are] now so much a part of the background of politics, we are able to look at something else and look for other stories to cover. So [Trump’s actions have] provided us a very good safety option for discussing the news if there’s nothing else to talk about.
On the other hand, Trump is still very capable of dominating a headline and ruining something we want to talk about by asserting something on Twitter or making a new announcements, this has become a lot less common now.
I think everyone in the country, including him, are beginning to get a little exhausted by the pace and the topics he brings to the table. We’ve heard “Build a Wall!” now so much we’ve heard “the witch hunt” so much that it’s becoming repetitive enough that people are willing to look away from him, and the sense that the world is ending is not quite as prevalent in people’s minds. It’s still there, but it’s just not quite as prevalent.
Do you see a connection between what you do and journalism?
No. Because I think that’s insulting journalists. We are not journalistic enterprise, We don’t have reporters, we don’t have editorial standards, we don’t have sources or … codes of conduct. And I think what journalists do is a vital service that is so much more important than what we, for example, do, which (and this is my career I’m talking about) and you can basically take me or leave me and there’s no real point to my existence. But what we do is comment on the news of the day, like anybody else would sitting around a table or watching TV and I don’t want people to replace or think of us as being as being real a substitute for real journalism, which is as vital as ever now.
What are the shifts, comedic boundaries that are there the same as your personal comedic boundaries?
I would say the show’s comedic boundaries are different from mine in that Trevor can say the N-word a lot more than I can certainly. Aside from that I find myself usually very much in agreement with Trevor, and the show’s comedic boundaries are basically Trevor’s comedic boundaries.
The show is Trevor’s show and we talk about what he wants to talk about and we approach issues with his perspective and his insight. I am very lucky that I think Trevor usually has very good insights and I agree with him both politically and also comedically. So I’m very lucky, a lot of times professional writers will find themselves writing for someone whose voice they don’t necessarily agree with, but it’s just part of the job. I got lucky that way.
What is it like in the Daily Show writer’s room?
It’s really fun in that we have a lot of varied perspectives and different approaches to comedy. So any time we have a meeting, there’s always so many different jokes flying around from so many different perspectives and senses of humor that it’s just a joy to just sit in a meeting and just laugh all day long.
It’s great to have a team like that because it also forces you to up your game. You have to bring your funniest jokes, you have to be present and quick-witted at all hours of the day and it’s definitely exhausting and challenging, but it’s also very stimulating. You feel like every day you are among the best funniest people in the country and it really makes you feel like you’ve been part of something that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
Do you ever go into work and just not feel funny?
Yeah, sometimes. But that’s not my job is it? My job is to be funny so the paycheck’s certainly a motivation to shrug off whatever it is I’m feeling that day. I mean ultimately the good thing about also having a being with a team of phenomenal writers is that people are able to have a little bit of a down days and let other ones to pick up the slack. Just like any job, like you have good days and bad days, you are in rhythm sometimes where you’re just on all firing on all cylinders and you are just killing it, and other days you can’t think of anything funny to save your life ….
And being in a group of people who accept that you are funny and talented and you’re gonna have a bad day or a bad joke and they don’t mind … is a real joy.
What would you say to others, let’s say public policy students, who are looking to follow in your footsteps?
Public policy students? Well, I would say if you want to be a comedy writer, it’s much more important to be funny than it is to have a detailed knowledge of public policy. … What I would advise you to do is to find venues where you can test out, your comedy ideas, whether that’s stand up venues or taking an improv class or doing a sketch workshop, finding places where you can get your jokes in front of a live audience is what I would highly recommend me. That’s the only way you can learn whether you’re funny and get better at being funny is by seeing what jokes of yours work and don’t.
Zhubin Parang’s trip to Duke was sponsored by POLIS, the center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service, as well as the Dewitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Graduate Student Association of Iranians at Duke.
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