Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘The Daily Show

She’s More than That

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Card Tricks

Stephen Colbert, the new host of the Late Show, recently interviewed Malalla Yousafzai.

I’ve seen her in other interviews, most notably with Jon Stewart.  I remembered the story about how her brothers needed to mind her because she was a world famous activist and how they aggravated her because they ignored her.  I remebered the story of her being shot by the Taliban when she was 15 and how she had been advocating for girl’s and women’s rights since she was 11.  And although Ms. Yousafzai is supremely impressive in her work, I had a sinking feeling that Mr. Colbert’s interview would be a loose retreading of Mr. Stewart’s conversation.

As an interviewer, it can be a struggle to not ask the questions everybody asks.  When interviewing authors, for instance, promoters often send a list of questions.  I think that’s pitiful and ridiculous.  If an interviewer is interviewing an author but is too lazy to do the research to create some decent questions, they shouldn’t be wasting the guest’s time.

At the very least, it shows a lack of imagination.

But then, out of the blue, Stephen Colbert asked Ms. Yousafzai if she knew any card tricks and pulled out two decks of cards.  Apparently, she likes magic and knows how to do card tricks.  The Late Show did its due diligence and discovered that jewel in advance.  And he didn’t have to do much coaxing.  She picked up the cards, he made her laugh and she responded by doing a card trick that completely changed the  interaction between her and me, the viewer.

Suddenly, I didn’t see her as the world famous, UN addressing, Nobel Prize winning, Malalla Fund inspiring icon.  Suddenly, I saw her as a 17 young woman year old who could relax enough to have some fun and put one over on Stephen Colbert.

I have to thank Stephen Colbert for that.  He reminded me that the job of a good interviewer is to reveal a part of a guest that a listener or a viewer might not expect to see; a part of the guest the audience might not even know is there.  We can get so used to seeing people a certain way; a hero, a villain, a victim, a geek, an entrepreneur, we can forget they have layers. They have senses of humor and fears and joys and mischevious sides.

There are at least 141 references to that card trick online.  With so much at stake surrounding every little thing she does, how often does someone like Malalla Yousafzai get a chance to goof on somebody else?   So when a good interviewer lets them be a little less of what they’re known for and a little more of who they are, its great for all of us.

Written by Interviewer

October 20, 2015 at 14:52


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As Jon Stewart prepares to leave The Daily Show, actor Mark Ruffalo tonight performed a three minute roast of Stewart’s notoriously poor attention to the movies and books of his guests.  From Patrick Stewart to Maggie Gyllenhaal, the segment showed how Stewart not only showed he rarely if ever read the books or watched the movies of his guests, but how he often didn’t even know the roles they played or the major characters they created.  I blogged about this in what I thought was a excellent flaying of him by for this kind of neglect by Jennifer Lawrence.

Interviewers should spend a lot of time preparing to talk to the people who agree to talk to them because they don’t want to look or sound like idiots.  But only one thing seems to be more important in the eyes of the audience than preparation, and that is personality.

A lot of interviewers think and have been trained to believe that seriousness equals credibility.  We think any emotions we show makes people not take us seriously.  We think, like in the fields of politics, science and the law, a dispassionate demeanor is much more believable than a passionate one.

But Jon Stewart found the balls to the wall balance between New Jersey punk and New York attorney.  Since 1999, he’s gotten away with saying shit that is literally peppered with the word “shit” and the audience loves him for it.  So if he doesn’t know all of the scenes in a movie or all of the plotlines in a book, so the hell what?  He has charmed his way through so many blank spots with so many “A listers” that they’ve probably come to not expect anything different.  It’s who he is.

But he also made up for those flubs when Donald Rumsfeld, Bill O’Reilly, Pervez Musharraf and Tony Blair among other sacrifices came onto his show.  Stewart showed he understood the complex policy issues well enough to eviserate many of them for their unpopular or untenable positions.

It was fun to watch clip after clip of him mush mouthing his way through his artistic cluelessness.  At the end, in a turnabout, Ruffalo pretended to not know anything about Stewart’s 2014 cinematic effort, “Rosewater” and spoke about it in platitudes.  It was cutting, fitting and funny.

But Jon Stewart can be like the old Peter Falk character, “Columbo”; you think he’s bumbling until he suddenly rips your throat out.  All of us behind the mic should be so bumbling.

Boy, am I going to miss him.

He’s Gone, Oh Why, I’d Pay the Devil to Replace Him …

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She's Gone

It’s cheesy, I know.  But song lyrics often tell the story.

I somehow knew, when Stephen Colbert ended the Colbert Report that Jon Stewart would not be long for the Comedy Central world.  And last night, he confirmed my worst fears.

I had only started watching this dynamic duo within the last two years.  Up until then, I had known of them both as part of American culture for years but never saw them, mostly because I didn’t have cable.

But like a good soup, you don’t need to eat the whole pot to know it’s all delicious and every time Colbert and Stewart came on, I was there.  They sprinkled their profanity as a sign of their indignity with the deftness of a French chef deploying saffron.  The provided the pistols with which more than one clueless politician blew their foot off.  They skewered ignorant pundits by engaging them on two levels of conversation; the one those pundits thought they were having and the one God and everyone else was hearing.

I heard an excellent interview Mr. Stewart did with Terry Gross of Fresh Air back in November 2014.  He was very proud of his work on his film, Rosewater, the story of an Canadian journalist that was imprisoned by the Iranians.  Mr. Stewart devoted much time and attention to telling that story.  And his response to questions Ms. Gross asked were probably the first hints he might not be at the Daily Show much longer.

“[T]he minute I say I’m not going to do it anymore, I will miss it like crazy,” as reported on the website TPM Livewire. “And I will consider that to be a terrible mistake that I have just made, and I will want to grab it back.”

“Maybe you’re a little, you know, restless,” Gross said. “On the other hand, you’re so darn good at doing ‘The Daily Show.'”

“I don’t know that there will ever be anything that I will ever be as well suited for as this show,” Stewart said, “That being said, I think there are moments when you realize that that’s not enough anymore, or that maybe it’s time for some discomfort.”

Stewart said later in the interview …

“You know, there are — you can’t just stay in the same place because it feels like you’ve built a nice house there. And that’s really the thing that I struggle with,” he said. “And it is unclear to me.”

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have made America more honest by giving voice to the frustration the American people sometimes feel with the system within which we live.  With all of the problems “journalists” sometimes have had since, well since forever, they may have been onto something all those years ago when they decided to tell serious stories in a funny way.  Sure, they were comedians, but as comedians know, comedy is often the fastest way to mainline truth.  I spent all of last year interviewing candidates for Oregon political office, and I can say that if there is any part of American culture that both is full of comedy and needs comedy, it’s politics.

Thanks very much to you both.  And to John Oliver and Larry Wilmore, Comedy Central’s newest babies, time to grow up fast kids.

A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Written by Interviewer

February 12, 2015 at 03:42

Failure to Thrive

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Jon Stewart interviewed media magnate Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post.  Ms. Huffington was promoting her new book, and any loyal watcher of the Jon Stewart show immediately felt the chemical mismatch between the two.  For one, his conversation w/Ms. Huffington was full of unusually numerous, uncharacteristically long non reactions. Several times, she would say something that seemed very far afield from something she had just said, and Mr. Stewart was having a hard time keeping up.

At one point, in an effort to help Mr. Stewart understand the context of the book, she recommended he read the last three points in four sections that would take him a total of seven minutes.  His incredulous reaction to that and other comments from Ms. Huffington caused reactions in her such as smoothing her hair against the back of her neck (a stress reliever) as well as breaking her chain of thought at least twice.  She also leaned back in her chair (to put space between her and him) and he reciprocated.

Since the point of the book is was to talk about what Ms. Huffington called the third metric of success, Mr. Stewart asked her what were the first two metrics.  She came back with “Money and Power”.  As an audience member, I wondered if a person could achieve the third metric only they had achieved the first two, or if someone had no hope of achieving the first two unless they had mastered the third.  I guess I’d have to read the book first.

The hosts traded some well placed barbs which seemed friendly at first, but when Ms. Huffington said that 20% of people use their cell phones during sex, Mr. Stewart disagreed and asked Ms. Huffington to cite her sources.  She said, paraphrasing, that she doesn’t need to talk to Jon Stewart about her sources because she talks to real experts.  At that point, friendliness seemed to be wearing thin.  And in the closing silhouette shot, when you normally see Mr. Stewart talking intimately with his guest, he was alone at the anchor desk.

I don’t know how many times Ms. Huffington has been on the Jon Stewart show.  But this didn’t seem to be among their chummiest meetings.

Written by Interviewer

March 26, 2014 at 10:34

Why is my foot Bleeding?

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So, tonight I’m watching Jon Stewart interview Amy Adams.  She has a new movie called “American Hustle” with an ensemble cast, including Jennifer Lawrence.  And Ms. Adams commented on how she watched Ms. Lawrence go off on Jon Stewart so effectively about three weeks ago.  Mr. Stewart, by contrast, said essentially that nobody should be that good at everything, such as kicking his ass on his own show –

But then, Mr. Stewart revealed why he deserved to have his ass kicked.  See, he told Amy Adams that his producers give him movies to watch and he seemed to imply he never does.  But, with American Hustle, he made an exception.  He said he was up very late watching the whole movie.  So, what he was saying was he in fact, did not watch any of Ms. Lawrence’s “Catching Fire” because he apparently didn’t think it was very good or compelling.  So, of course, he didn’t know any thing about it, which is what Ms. Lawrence sucker punched him about.

He did it to himself.  The next time he has Ms. Lawrence on his show (if he ever does again), he should, a) Bone up on her most recent film, or b) Not be on record in any preceding interview that he watched a movie of a some other guest to the end.

Written by Interviewer

December 12, 2013 at 11:06

Is There a Sign on My Back?

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jennifer lawrence2

It’s not often that somebody can make Jon Stewart speechless. He and his “Daily Show” have a reputation of enrapturing guests and audiences with Sam Kennison like screams, Alvin the Chipmunk like squeals, Vincent Price like whispers and Buckwheat like wide-eyed stares. He uses them in series and parallel, like rotating shield frequencies of the Enterprise-D fending off the Borg. He is, for all practical purposes, invincible …

… except on November 21, 2013. That was when he had Jennifer Lawrence as a guest. Jennifer Lawrence of “The Hunger Games” and “Catching Fire” fame. And she apparently brought some of her own A-game as a fem gladiator to Comedy Central that day.

She warned him. At the outset, she said she was tired and was glad that her interview with him was the last one before 10 days of peace and quiet. And he put his own foot in his f*cking mouth by calling her media tour a “crapfest” which was apparently all she needed to start taking his interviewing style apart like a medical examiner at an autopsy. She called him out vis-a-vie his staff, remarking that she was warned that, “He’s not really going to know a lot about a movie or about you.” In fact, she seemed astounded that they seemed particularly proud of that.

She asked about a pre-interview and could not believe that nobody prepared bullet points for him about her film. The pre-interview is what gives the interviewer the questions to ask in the main interview. David Letterman had a pre-interview with Lindsey Lohan but that didn’t stop him from essentially ignoring it –

And, Ms. Lawrence noted that several of his staff offered her tequila and other hard liquour that they apparently had stashed under their desks, which along with everything else, led her to ask, “What kind of-what’s going on here?”

This wisp of a woman at barely 23, slammed Mr. Stewart in front of God and everybody. After a few years of watching, I have never seen him unintentionally speechless. But it was an interview that clearly didn’t get him what his face-in-face, yell to establish rapport, rapid fire witticisms usually produce, which is the rapt attention of the interviewee and roaring call and response with the audience.

When it was over, he did his usual lean in, as if to let the wide-shot say to the guest and the audience, “We’re cool, right?” But Ms. Lawrence so efficiently kicked his ass, I could imagine he was whispering and squeaking in bug-eyed freeze face, “Forgive me, please. Please?”

Every interviewer has his or her own style. And for 99% of people they talk with, it probably works just fine. But there is always somebody for whom a conversation with them is like fingernails on a blackboard. There is always somebody who sees the master as a dolt.

Nobody is better than Jon Stewart. We want him to chop down those twisted f*cking trees that seem to be everywhere. We want him to eviscerate the snorters, the ego problems, the sociopaths. But every now and then, after so many wins, even Superman has to get punked. And after, OK, … we love him again.

Written by Interviewer

November 25, 2013 at 11:52