Portrait of Daily Show host John Stewart

IN THE SUMMER OF 2003, Bill Moyers interviewed Jon Stewart. The real journalist told the fake journalist…

“When I report the news on this broadcast, people say I’m making it up. When you make it up, they say you’re telling the truth.”

Stewart smiled and replied, “I think we don’t make things up. We just distill it to, hopefully, its most humorous nugget.” He also said…

I think of myself as a comedian who has the pleasure of writing jokes about things that I actually care about. And that’s really it…What we do is we come in in the morning, and we go, “Did you see that thing last night? Aahh!” And then we spend the next eight or nine hours trying to take this and make it into something funny.

I recently met some folks who are part of that “we” – Daily Show writers Hallie Haglund and Zhubin Parang. Last week, I directed a college media convention called NYC12, which brought 1,350 students and their professors to Midtown Manhattan. I booked Haglund and Parang as the opening keynoters. And I caught some flak for it.

A few professors (and even some students) thought this was a trivial topic for such an august gathering. What can The Daily Show teach daily reporters?

As it turns out, a lot.

The way Haglund and Parang write the fake news isn’t so different than the way college journalists write the real news – and in some cases, it’s much better. Here’s how.

Write and rewrite

A day at The Daily Show begins much like a daily newspaper’s: with a meeting. While the producers review video footage of yesterday’s news starting at 7 a.m., the writers don’t meet till 9. There are a dozen on the writing staff – more if you include John Oliver and Wyatt Cenac, who Haglund says are much more involved than the other on-air “correspondents.”

(A couple weeks before the keynote, I asked Haglund, “What’s a weird work-related question you’re asked at parties?” She replied, “Is John Oliver really British?” The answer is yes. He grew up in Liverpool.)

The meeting lasts an hour. Assignments are given, angles are discussed, and the writers veer off to write their scripts – in an hour.

These first drafts go to the producers, head writer, and Jon Stewart. The rewrites can go back and forth until nearly 3 p.m., when rehearsals start. Stewart makes even more changes so the jokes flow in his own voice. Taping starts at 6 p.m.

The next day, it begins anew.

Parang joked that his first script for The Daily Show was so heavily edited, all that survived of his own words were, “Welcome to The Daily Show, my name is Jon Stewart.”

A few days before their keynote, I called Haglund and Parang to review what we’d discuss onstage. I told them I’ve advised a college newspaper for 13 years, and I’ve seen student reporters reduced to tears or induced to yelling just because an editor dares ask for a rewrite. “I don’t know about journalism, but in comedy, you gotta have a thick skin,” Parang said.

I’d like to think I do know about journalism, and I’d hate to think that fake news writers are made of hardier stock than real news writers.

Read and reread

Comedy writing is serious work. To poke fun at something, you first have to understand it.

So Parang reads the news literally morning and night. His RSS feeds take him through The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and a dozen political blogs.

Meanwhile, Haglund reads financial news because, “I volunteer for those assignments instead of going for the presidential primary stuff.” Why does she choose the toughest assignments – and finding humor in credit default swaps is tough – when she could write about joy boners?

“I like to challenge myself,” she says.

(Onstage, Haglund revealed that she didn’t work on the infamous joy boner segment. So she was shocked to see John Oliver walking around the set with an enormous erection. Until someone told her Oliver had a dildo in his pants, “I was embarrassed for him.”)

How many college journalists challenge themselves to cover Student Government instead of concerts? How many even read the day’s news?

After Parang listed what’s in his RSS feeds, I asked audience of 700-plus, “How many professors are here?” A couple dozen hands went up. “How many of you give current events quizzes to force your students to read the news?” Only a few hands went down.

A few days earlier, I told Parang all about these current events quizzes, and he was stunned that students needed this coercion. “Isn’t that what they want to do for a living?” he asked me. “Supposedly,” I replied. “What’s really gonna blow your mind is that some of them fail the quizzes.”

What blew my mind: Some comedy writers are better read than many college journalists.

Pay your dues

Haglund and Parang worked hard to get where they are – harder than most college journalists expect to work to get wherever they want to go.

At the paper I advise, several students are graduating next month. Some refuse to apply for jobs they deem beneath them. Right out of school, they’re aiming for ProPublica or even Hallmark greeting cards. (Don’t ask, it doesn’t make sense to me, either – but the woman aiming at Hallmark did later get a job there.)

Haglund and Parang had no such delusions. Before getting hired by The Daily Show, Parang was a corporate lawyer who slowly grew to hate his job – which he told me involved, “Making sure Prudential didn’t have to pay insurance claims to Katrina victims.”

(His delivery is so Daily Show-like, I still have no idea if he’s kidding.)

By day, he’d practice law. At night, he’d do stand-up and improv comedy until he “started not sucking.” But his firm eventually told him to set aside his childish ways if he planned to move up, perhaps to partner one day.

Parang took a hard look at those partners: Men with multiple divorces who worked all hours and led lonely lives. So he ditched a high-paying career for a low-paying one: comedy, which is well known for its marital stability, regular schedule, and popular parties.

Haglund’s path was quite different. Six months after graduating, she was working at The Daily Show  – as a receptionist. She had interned there in college. Now she was answering phones. But she volunteered for everything and worked her way up to field researcher, writer’s assistant, and finally, staff writer – the youngest and one of only two women on the staff at the time.

In conclusion

Onstage, I asked Haglund and Parang about studies that show college students get their news from the Daily Show. A Pew Research Center study in 2010 claimed, “About as many young people regularly watch the Daily Show (13%) and the Colbert Report (13%) as watch the national network evening news (14%) and the morning news shows (12%).”

In response, Haglund made a face like she just sipped some slightly spoiled milk, while Panang declared flatly, “That’s a terrible idea.”

Or as Parang told me a few weeks before the keynote…

The thing is, the show doesn’t consider itself “journalism,” and I certainly don’t consider myself a journalist in any way. I’m just a comedy writer whose topics happen to be topical news and media stories. I don’t want to give the impression that we consider what we’re doing as journalism. We just make jokes.

So learning about the news from watching The Daily Show? That’s bad. But learning how to write the news from listening to its staff? That’s good. Not even joking.