Right now, I think the hardest story to write jokes about is mad cow disease. Because The Daily Show has become more committed to big news stories in the last couple of years, we give it a go every now and then. But writing jokes about mad cow disease is a long and fruitless march. The last time we tried it, the USDA had just gone to a couple of farms in Vermont and taken sheep suspected to have either BSE or the fatal nerve disease scrapie. The sheep were on their way to federal laboratories where their brain tissue was to be injected into the heads of mice. This mad cow story had dead sheep, dead mice, protesting farmers, and no-nonsense USDA agents taking precautions to avoid an outbreak of disease. Hilarious. We didn’t have high hopes for this headline, but despite its gravitas, I actually think we might have come up with some good jokes if there’d only been an asshole. A villain. What mad cow disease stories need is a single cut-and-dried jerk.
So, when I heard that Bush backed out of the Kyoto Treaty, I figured here was another depressing environmental news story news with big business implications … only this time, it seemed to have a jerk. Kyoto is mad cow with a villain. It should work.
I’ve been wanting to try and write jokes about the Kyoto Treaty to test this theory. Today I did. Like every Monday through Thursday morning, I got to work at 9:30. My writing partner Kent had already brought a pile of newspapers into our office. Each morning, one of us looks through the papers and scours the Internet for stories we could write about; it’s my turn. In the meantime, the head writer’s doing the same thing, only with footage from the Associated Press, and the suggestions of a researcher (the unstoppable Adam Chaudikoff). Once he’s checked out what’s available, the writers head down to his office and pitch story ideas. Sometimes it’s clear what we’ll be writing. Often there’s some debate. Today the head writer chose the day’s headline stories before we met. They were the U.S. spy plane in China, the Milosevic arrest, and the rejection of the Kyoto Treaty. We spent a few minutes brainstorming ways we could expand the spy plane story to include a couple of our “correspondents.” We all wanted the stories and the angles decided on quickly, because it was creeping up on 11 a.m.
Each writing team takes its own pass at the stories, coming up with a “kicker” (e.g., when Bancroft and Arnesen made it across Antarctica, Kent came up with the kicker “First Women Ski Across Antarctica. Move Over, White Male Patriarchy, This Is Our Desolate Ice Continent”), an informational lead, and jokes off the story, off the footage, and off the sound bites we’ve been supplied by the Associated Press. The software we use automatically calculates how long it would take to read the text, so instead of saying, “I wrote five pages,” writers will say, “I wrote three minutes.” Three minutes is a good chunk of work, and the morning writing session is characterized by caffeine, closed doors, and frantic requests for information from Adam. Usually, we have from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. to write. Today, we had from 10:50 to 12:30.
At the end of the writing session, everyone gathers for the joke read. The head writer is there, and the executive producer is often there. Right now, Jon Stewart is off filming a movie; but when he’s hosting the show, he comes to the joke reads. Today, Steve Carrell filled in for Jon, so he was there. We generally have to wait a few minutes for everyone’s material to be organized into a packet, and the writers use the extra time to mock each other. Today, there were several jokes made at the expense of Paul who, it must be said, is Italian. Once the packets arrive, we go story by story, each team reading their material out loud. There is something extraordinarily delicate about reading at the joke read. If the front desk pages someone, if the head writer’s dog shakes her license tags, if you forget to take a breath at the comma, your joke may suffer irreparable damage.
At today’s joke read, we read Spy Plane. Then we read Milosevic. Then we read Kyoto, and it bombed. There weren’t enough usable jokes to make it a headline. The head writer put it on the back burner; maybe we’ll try again tomorrow. My villain theory is a bust. Maybe what made that mad cow disease story not work was just the dead sheep after all. I’ll have to sleep on this.