Last week, we had the announcement of the end of Jon Stewart’s run on The Daily Show. I had been saving this column for the next TDS disaster, but rather than hold it, I decided to set it free. Enjoy.
A few months ago, my fellow Bloomberg View columnist Megan McCardle anticipated just such a [insert disaster here]. She admonished “Don’t Ever Appear on ‘The Daily Show” warning readers that they will “look like an idiot on the show.”
I think this advice confused cause and effect.
Why? It is not that:
“You should not go on The Daily Show because you will be made to look like an idiot.”
The proper If/Then clause is reversed. Rather:
“IF you are in fact an idiot, THEN you should not go on The Daily Show.
This is a very significant difference, one that has repercussions for anyone considering making an appearance on this (or any other) show. My advice may be more nuanced, but it is the more useful for reasons I detail below.
Let me preface this with a few details: 1) I am not, all appearances to the contrary, actually an idiot (my wife begs to differ); and 2) I actually have been on The Daily Show.
Hence, I present these thoughts not as theoretical abstract, but based on real world experience being a guest on the show. For me, it was a fantastic experience, one that I would not recommend skipping for anything.
Unless you are an idiot. More on that below.
If you are invited to appear on TDS, or
Colbert The Nightly Show, or Real Time or any show that mixes comedy with policy, some common sense edicts apply. You should understand how television gets made (its similar to the way sausage gets manufactured). You should be aware of the danger of backfiring when pushing against any show’s culture or ethos. If your own ideology clashes with that of the writer/producer/host, expect pushback. And the importance of having some humility when going on shows such as this cannot be overstated.
Thus, my job today is to provide you with a short set of guidelines for appearing on television. For those of you fortunate enough to be asked to appear on The Daily Show, consider this your pre-appearance media coaching.
First, some background on my experience: I had written a column for Bloomberg View about how McDonalds and Wal-Mart had become welfare queens. They had been gaming the safety-net of Medicaid, food stamps and aid to dependent children in order to shift their corporate labor costs onto the taxpayer. McDonalds even set up a “McHelp line” to walk their minimum wage employees through the process of getting as much government aid as possible. An email came in from one of the producers, and that started a discussion which ran for several weeks. A month later, we filmed my part in my office; the segment was broadcast several months later.
All told, it was a terrific experience – including the spit take from Samantha Bee. But it was not without controversy, and from my experiences, I would suggest a different set of rules from that of my fellow Bloomberg View columnist. Use these questions as your guideline to appearing on The Daily Show:
1) Why do you want to go on TV in the first place?
No one seems to ask this fundamental question, but really – why would you, as a rational person, want to go on TV in the first place? It is bizarre that in the modern age of celebrity, it has somehow become a badge of honor. Where I totally agree with Megan is that if you do not have a compelling reason to go on TV – a foreign world with its own rules and mores, fraught with potential danger – then don’t do it.
Don’t go on just to be on.
If you run a business where broad exposure to the public is a good thing (check!) or engage in a regular debate of ideas (check!), then perhaps some face time on TV might hold some lure for you. Just understand exactly what you are getting into.
2) Don’t go on the Daily Show if you are an idiot.
This is an obvious admonition, but if you watch the show, you know it is continually ignored. Many of you are idiots – not TBP or Bloomberg View readers, of course, but you, the idiot who was forwarded this column from his trader brother-in-law. You may be an idiot, and if that’s the case, you should not go on television at all!
Indeed, the rest of us would appreciate it if you never went out in public, for the world is chock full of way too many idiots.
Here is a fascinating aspect to Rule #2: It will be widely ignored by idiots because part of being an idiots includes being wholly unaware of their own lack of intelligence. This meta-cognition is technically called the Dunning Kruger effect. It means that people who are not especially competent at a given task have no idea of their own lack of skills at that task. Self-assessment is a skill that primarily comes with expertise. It applies to everything: Driving, golf, singing, investing, even one’s own intellectual capacity.
So if you are in point of fact, an idiot, you are most likely wholly unaware of this simple truth. Hence, you should definitely follow Megan’s advice and NOT go on the Daily Show
But the odds are that you will ignore both of our advice if you are ever asked – you will appear on the show. The end result will most likely be hilarious. This is why idiots keep getting asked to appear on shows like TDS: For mockery and our entertainment pleasure. As much as I advise you otherwise, please, don’t ever stop.
3) Avoid sharing intellectually indefensible ideas and ideologies
Too many people remain married to ideas that have been thoroughly disproven. Rather than accept established facts and adjusting their perspectives, they choose instead to discard reality to preserve their own discredited belief system.
This is known as Cognitive Dissonance. And it is an incredibly easy thing to make fun of on television.
Whether believing that tax cuts pay for themselves (Howdy, Kansas!) or not being willing to admit evolution is a thing (Scott Walker, come on down), or fighting marriage equality, or taking absurd positions on global warming, or just about any other BenSteinery you care to engage in, you will be eviscerated on The Daily Show. Their writers are sharp, Jon Stewart is lightning quick, and besides – viewers appreciate that you deserve it.
4) Don’t say anything terribly stupid
This should be obvious, but over the course of a long shoot, stuff can slip out. The person on the other side of the minimum wage debate from me in my segment was Peter Schiff. I know Peter, and I can tell you he is not an idiot; in fact, he is a smart guy. But then he said something terribly foolish on air: “What’s the politically correct word for mentally retarded?”
I am not the most politically correct guy in the world, but as soon as I saw that, I knew he was toast. I just imagined the segment producer’s eyes, popping out of the her head cartoon-like with dollar signs on them, as a big Ahh-HOOOGAH sound blared in the background. That line was game over.
Shiff’s faux pas cost me most of my screen time. But it also meant that I was not going to be the guy who got eviscerated. It is a good rule of thumb: Do not say anything especially foolish.
5) Have something worthwhile to say
This should be obvious, but gets overlooked. In the segment on minimum wage, I thought it was worthwhile pointing out several important things: The minimum wage had not gone up for many years; adjusted for inflation, it should have been closer to $11 per hour, many economic studies had shown that raising the minimum wage does not hurt the local economy, and did not reduce employment, etc. The McDonalds welfare help line was offensive, as was gaming their compensation package to max out their government dole. Also of note: Walmart employees, as a group, are often the biggest Medicaid and food stamps recipients within each state where they have many stores.
All of that just seems wrong. These are all worthwhile subjects for discussion. Risking a little personal humiliation to debate the important issues of the day on a widely seen national television show was worth it to me.
6) Don’t relax
The day the show was set to air, I wrote the following: “Over the course of two hours, its pretty easy to say something stupid — especially when one of the funniest people on earth is two feet away making faces and saying very funny things. I hope I didn’t embarrass myself. We’ll find out at 11:06pm or so.”
Indeed, this is the advantage of doing live television over anything recorded and edited. (Megan is dead right about this one, too). I have done other shows like Nightline, where they have a script, and it is the producer’s job to get you to say something that follows their narrative (not yours). After you are asked the same question in a slightly different way for the 6th time, it is easy to slip up and say something you don’t believe. My response is always: “Asked and answered, next question” after multiple attempts to get me to say something against my own beliefs on Nightline.
7) Save Yourself with an F-Bomb
I have a little secret I’ve learned on the rare occasions I do any prerecorded shows: If I really don’t like the way something I am saying is coming out, I drop several F-Bombs into the rest of the sentence, thus rendering it useless for most news shows.
NOTE: This will not help you on the Daily Show.
8) Have a sense of humor about yourself.
I agreed to be part of a spit take that Samantha Bee did. It was great fun, and if you watch the segment, you can actually see me leaning forward to grab a paper towel for her from my desk drawer. I barely got wet, but she soaked herself.
Regardless, you have to have a sense of humor – and some humility – about yourself. Getting spit on by one of the funniest women in the world seemed like a fair exchange.
Those are my suggestions. Don’t be an idiot, don’t say anything terribly foolish, don’t have indefensible ideological ideas, keep your wits about you, and be humble.
If you can follow those rules, then, yes, you should go on The Daily Show.