And That’s the Way It Isn’t

 
“Comedy is tragedy plus time,” said either Carol Burnett or Woody Allen, depending who you ask. But whoever said it obviously never worked in the graphics department at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. At 5:45 p.m., the audience is seated, and, 15 minutes before taping, the writers have ordered two images: Hillary Clinton’s signature pantsuit plastered with logos in the style of a NASCAR driver’s racing suit, and an animation of Clinton morphing—right before our eyes—into President Bush. These ideas didn’t even exist when dress rehearsal wrapped less than an hour ago, but the show’s graphics, like everything else, are subject to revision right up until showtime.

For the animation, art director July Lopez wrangles headshots of Clinton and Bush into an application called Morph Age; a few feet away, the department’s creative director,
Joe Dettmore, stabs at his Paintbox tablet, pasting Miller Lite and Chevy logos onto Clinton’s pantsuit. The seemingly unflappable Dettmore, who arrived at The Daily Show three years ago after stints at NBC Nightly News and MSNBC, appreciates his peculiar role. “It’s a unique situation,” he says. “We’re usually pushing it right to the wire.”

The Daily Show is its own political force, inspiring countless think pieces on the vanishing line between real and fake news, and the graphics team—which consists of four designers and a producer housed in a dimly lit bunker across from the control room—is charged with creating the show’s flashy parodies of conventional news imagery. “The show has definitely evolved graphically,” says graphics producer Dave Blog. (Yes, he’s heard the jokes.)

In 2007, the show introduced a re-designed set and a new opener that might have easily subbed for Nightline’s, lending it an appropriate (if bogus) gravitas. In this context, Dettmore’s visual riff on Clinton’s pantsuit is more than a Photoshopped one-liner: It’s a political cartoon, albeit one that relies on the audience’s grasp of the ever-evolving memes of high-speed visual communication.

The perfect font, for example, might add a graphic layer to a pun on a familiar show title, like “Gaffe-In,” or on an advertising campaign, like “Got MLK?” (“People are suckers for fonts,” Stewart quipped, when “Avatar Heroes” appeared over his shoulder in the logotype made famous by Guitar Hero.) An animated segment opener such as “Guantanamo Baywatch” sends up the portentous tone of conventional news programs. Mock-ups can spoof branding, like a cell phone that displays Saddam Hussein’s “Fave 5” terrorist contacts; or they can be hilariously irreverent, like Steve McCurry’s famous green-eyed Afghan refugee outfitted with a beer helmet. “There has always been news parody in one form or another, but on a visual level, we took it somewhere else,” Blog says.

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The explosion of cable news has given The Daily Show, and its contemporaries at The Colbert Report and the Onion News Network, a richer graphics well from which to draw. The classic news desk parody, Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, for example, isn’t particularly visual. Its over-the-shoulder images serve as token illustrations onto which the anchors project jokes. Then again, it launched in 1975, when the “evening news” was Walter Cronkite, not SportsCenter. The Daily Show launched in 1996, the same year that brought us MSNBC and the Fox News Channel and their super-charged graphics.

Today, the The Daily Show’s software arsenal is the same as any network’s: Vizrt for 3-D modeling and for adding graphics like the “bottom thirds” that display information and branding elements at the bottom of most newscasts; After Effects for animations and compositing; and Paintbox, a lunky Photoshop precursor—also used on the satirical entertainment show The Soup—that can create mock-ups and other 2-D stills.

The show’s house style, though, requires a certain wackiness. A mock-up of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid fondling House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demands something other than photorealism. Lopez, who got his start at MTV and has since worked for all three networks, says, “There have been times when they’ve sent stuff back, saying, ‘This
is too real. We want it to be more goofy.’ ” Being goofier than cable news can be tough, however. One of the last items that designer Vic Fina created at CNN in late 2006—shortly after Saddam Hussein’s execution—was a swinging noose for the headline “Hanging Hussein.” His first assignment at The Daily Show? Parodying the same graphic, noose and all, for a segment called “Autocratic Asphyxiation.”

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A similar aesthetic reigns at The Colbert Report, which operates with an independent staff and three designers in The Daily Show’s former studio a few blocks away. The show’s manic, patriotic opener, however, was a very different proposition than The Daily Show’s, says Bill Bergeron, who—as a partner in the now-defunct studio Verb! with creative director Greg Duncan—produced both sequences. Before creating Colbert’s opener, the designers scrutinized and dissected graphics from Scarborough Country and The O’Reilly Factor. “We noodled over the meaning behind all of that stuff, and often it doesn’t have any meaning,” Bergeron says. “It’s just sort of ridiculous.” Colbert’s opener is certainly ridiculous, with flags, empty buzzwords, and, of course, the fierce, swooping eagle. “We spent three weeks on that open, and three weeks were spent working on the eagle,” Bergeron says.

On the Onion News Network, the difference between the real and the fake is more subtle. Launched online in 2007, the network posts just a few segments a week—but each is a studied replica of an actual news format, whether morning shows (Today Now!) or public affairs programming (O-Span). “We wanted the look of the Onion News Network to be such that if you’re watching it on the internet with the sound off, you’d think that it’s a real news broadcast,” says post-production supervisor Judy Adler. “We don’t want it to look jokey. We feel like the humor comes out of it feeling real.”

Although this vision is broader than the personality-driven take of the Comedy Central shows, the Onion News Network is, in one sense, less “real” than The Daily Show and Colbert: It has no actual set. Its humorless, interchangeable anchors are shot against a green screen, and the studio is composited behind them. “We revise and revise and revise to get a realistic look for the background,” explains designer Chris Ervine. “We don’t want our compositing to ever give itself away.” And it doesn’t, apparently. Like The Onion’s print stories, which are constantly picked up by hapless news organizations, Onion News Network clips—like the story about a philanthropist who supposedly dropped off 200 kidneys at an area hospital—can draw the ire of clueless viewers. “That’s a real measure of success for us,” says Adler. “To know that it’s fooled people, even though it’s so silly.”

This fall, the network will unveil a new “election center” set—all of it quite virtual—based on the ones at the networks. “CNN’s election coverage is beautiful,” Ervine says, with a hint of envy. The Daily Show, meanwhile, marches toward Election Day with its ongoing “Indecision 2008” coverage, a rubric that is by now as familiar as any in use by mainstream outlets.

As much as the line between real and fake can blur, news satire is different from actual news in one major respect: It has to be funny. “In regular news, you pretty much know what you’re covering that day and you don’t have to worry about putting the comedy in,” Blog says. “It’s putting the comedy element in that I think takes the most time.”

Speaking of which: It’s ten minutes past 6 p.m., and Jon Stewart is on the set, warming up the crowd. “NASCAR Hillary” is finished, but Lopez is still working on the morph. He turns it over at 6:12; the show starts five minutes later. Hillary’s sponsored pantsuit gets a big laugh, and her transformation into Bush, especially after the President’s eyes flicker wildly and Stewart lets out a shriek, gets the biggest laugh of the night. As Blog says, “When it can just pop up and the audience roars, then you know you’ve done that graphic right.”

 

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