Late night shows have been doing man-on-the-street interviews since the days of Steve Allen, but The Daily Show took the genre to a new level in the aughts. In the standard man-on-the-street interview, the subject knows on some level that they’re being pranked: The reason Jimmy Kimmel sends a camera crew to poll people on Hollywood Boulevard about the last book they read is not because he’s looking for recommendations; he’s rooting for stupidity. In The Daily Show’s remote segments from their early days, the subject thinks he or she is sitting down for a respectful interview. The platonic example is Steve Carell’s segment about the Florida mayor who banned Satan:
Looking back at this now, what’s striking is how much theater is involved: Carell is playing a news correspondent, however dimwitted, and his performance creates a space in which the mayor feels comfortable explaining what she’s doing and why. The show exploited a baseline assumption, presumably gone forever, that a member of the media would ask questions in good faith, then try to understand those answers. But it also presumed that the mayor would answer those questions in good faith: It’s funny when the mayor says her proclamation doesn’t violate the separation of church and state without offering a further explanation, because we expect a government official to attempt to make some connection, however tenuous, between his or her words and observable reality. The Trump era is a little different: You can dress your correspondent up as a giant cartoon wall covered with razor wire and go “Bu-bu-boo-boo-boo!” after every sentence in a cracking falsetto, and people will still happily explain their demented racist conspiracy theories on camera:
The classic Daily Show segment format still exists—see, e.g., Desi Lydic’s interview with a Trump supporter whose golf course may be ruined by the border wall—and there is probably a thesis or two to write about which subjects get which treatment as a function of class. There were probably just as many people 18 years ago with delusions just as paranoid as those of the Trump supporter in this segment who believes that Latinos might be ISIS members disguised as part of a long-term plot by the Venezuelan government. But for whatever reason, the people behind The Daily Show in the aughts acted as if drawing those opinions out was a delicate operation that required a certain amount of deception. Similarly, the people behind the Republican party in the aughts acted like pandering to white supremacists was a delicate operation that required a certain amount of deception. It turns out: Nope. Bu-bu-boo-boo-boo!