March 14, 2008

Daily Show Correspondent Visits Cornell

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The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has been a near and dear part of my life for many years now, a source of solace that placates my righteous indignation with its tongue-in-cheek jabs at the powers that be. Whether highlighting government incompetence or mocking the inanity of the news media, Comedy Central’s darling little program accomplishes more effectively with its trademark irony, what ranting commentators and activists of the left attempt to do with their columns and protests — that is, point out the hypocrisy in which our society is steeped.
Lucky for me then, Dan Bakkedahl, a veteran Daily Show correspondent, stopped by the Statler Auditorium for a brief talk Wednesday evening at the invitation of the Cornell Democrats and a host of other organizations. In a little over an hour, the good-humored Bakkedahl, with the help of clips from the show, looked back on his recently-completed tenure at the program, treating the audience to an inside look at how the correspondents put together their segments. Although he’s a hilarious guy (obviously), Dan didn’t so much entertain as instruct, going bit by bit through the process of creating a mock news story.
Do you know, for example, what a “reversal” is in TV jargon? Apparently, due to Comedy Central’s tight pockets, each interview essentially has to be filmed twice, once from the perspective of the correspondent, and once from that of his subject. Bakkedahl made it seem like hard work, but it’s hard to have much sympathy for a guy whose job entails repeating lines like “Let’s get back to the robot lesbians.” I felt significantly worse for Dan’s victims, the often goodhearted people who are subjected to the show’s “ironic viewpoint.” This basically means, according to Bakkedahl, that the predominant characters in each story — hero, victim, and aggressor — are the opposite of whom we would expect.
And so we have, in Dan’s most deconstructed segment, a sinister Minnesotan average-Joe who opposes plans to build an unnecessary wall around the local women’s prison. The unlikely hero in the story is Bo Deitl, a man Bakkedahl described as “insane.” A former New York City detective, Bo spews nonsense about dildo rampages and “annual” sex (he means anal) in an attempt to emphasize the importance of security. In his talk, Bakkedahl went through in detail the laborious interview he conducted with Bo, during which Dan had to pantomime reactions and, hardest of all, try not to laugh. At times sounding like a lawyer interrogating a witness, Bakkedahl spoke about “taking people off their game” and “poking” them into outlandish statements. The key point was this: “they may be faster and smarter than me, but they’re not faster and smarter than our editing equipment.” Oh, Dan, you clever man.
In addition to discussing the interview process, Bakkedahl emphasized the hard work that goes into The Daily Show. Jon Stewart, the host — “short and neurotic” — can be seen rushing through the halls as early as 9 a.m., gathering material and memorizing scripts. Researchers hit the phones searching for suitable interviewees. Writers revise and edit the material up until show time. And the correspondents, in demand and beleaguered, are always on call.
The most striking thing about Bakkedahl, though, is his easy manner. He made no attempt during his talk to come off as smarter than the rest of us — which, given some of the people he talks to in his line of work (see Bo Deitl, above), he certainly has a right to. And he even sounded like a little kid when recalling his fondest moments on the job, like meeting the White Stripes or Allan Alda.
It wasn’t all frivolity, though; Bakkedahl pointed out that Stewart and the correspondents had a special moral mission of eviscerating especially repugnant and bigoted figures. A homophobic cowboy, for example, was prodded on his views of male beauty; he chose Clark Gable and Tom Selleck as his personal favorites. “The Daily Show” may not be the most reliable or the most insightful source for social commentary, but, as Bakkedahl demonstrated through his deconstruction of the show’s segments, comedy can serve a useful purpose in uncovering the hidden blemishes and idiosyncrasies of America.