Editors’ note: Ryan Middleton has been a production assistant on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for a year and three months. Originally from Indiana (a small town named Garrett that’s about 20 minutes north of Fort Wayne), Middleton graduated from Ball State’s Telecommunications School in 2004 and moved to New York after completing an internship for The Late Show with David Letterman. We requested Middleton take us behind the scenes as a PA in The Daily Show office.
The office and studio are located on 11th Avenue in midtown Manhattan. We are reminded every day by the deep horns of cruise ships embarking on voyages that we’re only a block from the Hudson River. We’re also a quick walk down the street from Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club (I would suggest the veal, but they’ve stopped serving food — I’m sure that’s for the best). On this same street, you’ll find a corral for a number of hansom cab horses. Their presence is palpable as I cross the street, dodging smashed road apples with that unmistakable smell. Moving away from Indiana Amish country, I never thought my metropolitan commute would prove so similar in that respect. Next to the corral is a garage for hot dog vendors’ carts — I pray the two businesses are completely unaffiliated.
The neighborhood of Clinton, just west of Hell’s Kitchen, finds random neighbors. Many of the city’s car dealerships are here, surrounding our little studio. It’s actually a bigger studio than our previous one, which is now where The Colbert Report tapes, and is only two blocks away.
It’s a crisp, spring morning in New York. A few people file in as I sit down to my cluttered desk. The interns are already here; they’ve stocked our kitchen with cereals, bagels and other breakfast foods. We usually have around 12 to 15 interns each semester, and six of them right now are in the back logging field piece tapes.
Aasif Mandvi’s inaugural field report will either air this week or next week. The story is about the University of Illinois’ decision to remove its mascot, Chief Illiniwek, citing the character is a symbol of racism. I transcribed a tape for it myself yesterday and it looks like it could be very funny. Many tapes go into making a four-minute piece on the show. It’s been fun watching the jokes that make the cutting room floor. If you’re wondering whether or not the interviews in field pieces are edited, they are. If you’re wondering whether or not interviews are edited to make people look foolish, they’re not. A lot of these lucky few, enjoying their 15 minutes, take care of that on their own.
More people roll in. I was pleasantly surprised during my interview for the position that The Daily Show is a dog-friendly office, and at any given time three or more canines freely roam the premises. My fellow PA unleashes his dog, Kweli (named after rapper Talib Kweli), and he immediately laps some morning water. The Chow-Collie-German Shepherd-Golden Retriever mix has become the staff’s own mascot. His partner in crime, Parker, a 2-year-old black mutt, likes to antagonize Kweli and play fight as much as she can before her master calls. The PAs work in a large cubicle-like area, where we each face a corner with our backs to one another. Kweli and Parker find an audience in the pit, as we only need to swivel our chairs and witness the clash of curs.
The morning meeting is called. Everyone slowly convenes to the conference room where the executive producer conducts from the head of a long table. Top headlines of the day include Paul Wolfowitz claiming to be the victim of a smear campaign and the D.C. Madame — the biggest sex scandal to hit Washington in years. John Hodgman is also in the building for a commentary regarding the World Bank that’s in conjunction with the Wolfowitz story. We are informed the guest for tonight, Tobey Maguire, may arrive late, but hopefully in time for the third act. Spiderman 3 actually premiered the night before in my neighborhood. I live in Queens, and apparently Spidey’s alter ego, Peter Parker, hails from there. One of the writers asks if Tobey will be here in time for everyone to make out with him prior to the show taping. This opens a brief discussion in my pocket of people on Mr. Maguire’s attractiveness or lack thereof. I withhold comment.
I mostly bring in video clips I think are humorous, and today is no exception. It’s a video I transferred to DVD from the Internet. I grew up watching a lot of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but I never saw the episode “Riding with Death” until a few months ago. There’s a great scene where the cheesy ’80s hero pushes a button on his wristwatch, rendering him invisible. He is then able to take on two thugs terrorizing an old man in broad daylight. After the henchmen run off in fear, the protagonist rematerializes to help up the victim and asks him, “So, who were those turkeys?” to which the MST3K guys returned, “Are they Butterballs?” So ends the meeting.
The writers during this time are already at work. Multiple writers are assigned to the major headline, and all jokes are then compiled for Jon to read through and choose for a first draft script. Smaller headlines are usually assigned to a team of two.
It is around this time that I’m basically free until someone needs something. I usually work on side projects, browse various video Web sites, read or try to pick up my desk a little. About a quarter to noon, the assistant director tells me a story about a cameraman he worked with on the old NBC Late Night with David Letterman. Paul was a young production assistant himself then, and the large, soon-to-retire cameraman recounted the time he had a scuffle while operating a jib (camera on a crane) with Frank Sinatra. Old Blue Eyes didn’t appreciate the camera sweeping in near his face, but the then-young Irishman had his orders from the director. Eventually, some heated words were exchanged. At lunch, one of Sinatra’s goons (literally a gangster) tapped the cameraman’s shoulder: “Mr. Sinatra would like to see you in his dressing room.”
“I’m on lunch,” the cameraman said. Moments later, another goon approached.
“I think you want to see Mr. Sinatra.” The cameraman took the hint this time and made his way to the room with the star on the door.
“Irish! Get in here, have a seat,” Frank told him in mid-stroke of shaving his face. “These meats are from my favorite restaurant in Hoboken. Have some.” It was an impressive spread of Italian meats and cheeses.
“No, thanks — I just had lunch.”
“Irish, shut up and have some Italian meats.” That was it. The cameraman sat there, in Frank Sinatra’s dressing room, eating a second lunch while the Chairman shaved. Perhaps it was an apology for the altercation, or perhaps Frank wanted to scare the crap out of him a little more before showering him in cold cuts.
Right before 1, I run the first version of the Wolfowitz headline. When I return to my desk, I am told that Rob Riggle and John Oliver need a new DVD player. Having installed it no more than a month ago, the need for a new one is suspect. I have, I guess, come to be known as the PA who knows computers and electronics. I make my way back to their office. I turn on the player and pop in a copy of My Big Fat Greek Wedding that I stole from a researcher’s desk. I make sure the TV is on input. Voilà: we have FBI Warning. Riggle is astounded, and happily tells John they can watch porn now. If I ever hear odd sounds or heavy breathing behind their door, I’m told to “just keep walking, buddy.”
Lunchtime. We have catered lunch Monday through Thursday (taping days). I hold the line up while dousing my salad in oil and vinegar, and am justly criticized by Jason Jones and Sam Bee. Real men don’t use oil and vinegar. Hell, real men don’t eat salad.
By mid-afternoon, all headlines have gone through revisions, although some will have yet another going over before rehearsal. The producers who find the great clips that support the jokes are working extra hard at this time. From now until rehearsal, minor changes in the script will require Rory Albanese and his team to dig through years of catalogued footage and find the appropriate sound bite. I’ve gotten word that a pickle store has sent us a free sampling, and I quickly head for the kitchen where I see the impressive spread of brined veggies and fungi. John Hodgman’s appetite is piqued as well and he makes a bowl of full-soured pickles. I try some mushrooms, celery and kosher dills.
The researchers have introduced Nerf guns into the office, firing adhesive-tipped foam bullets at fellow staffers, the ceiling, walls, computer monitors, you name it. Their most recent item is a bright yellow plastic double barrel shotgun. Jason Jones is drawn to the juvenile firearm, and I help set up an impromptu shooting range with an old coffee cup, the copy of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and a paperback edition of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Three rounds go by and not one hit, except for the novel, which even in paperback will stop a Nerf bullet in its tracks. In the fourth round, Nia Vardalos’ film debut finally takes one in the gut, falling from its post.
The fun’s interrupted as the final script is ready for distribution and people prepare for rehearsal. This is probably the busiest 10 minutes of my day. The Xerox C90: She’s your friend, but if so inclined, she can make you her bitch faster than you can say, “Jam in Area 2.” Today, she is in a merciful mood. Everyone involved in the show’s production receives a copy.
About 30 minutes pass before rehearsal time. Jon sits down at the desk and bangs out the Newsbreak promo for tonight’s show. He is very involved in the rehearsal. If a graphical joke doesn’t read or isn’t apparent for the viewer, he’s quick to suggest another way to do it. Also, the director and Jon are still getting used to the recently remodeled set.
End of rehearsal. Now the rewrites begin. Jon and his team retire to a small room where they work out the kinks. John Hodgman makes his way back to work on his chat at the desk. The audience files into the studio. As changes are made quickly, the script supervisor modifies the final scripts on the computer. When everything is said and done, she informs me over Instant Messenger that I can print. I print the final scripts on blue paper, including the guest questions that go on those little blue 4-by-6 cards, and head downstairs to the studio.
The other production assistants are backstage as well. One is on headsets and helps out with the crew while another sits in the control room and writes down all the swear words alongside their time code, so that we can verify for bleeping out. The fourth PA, Benson, has one of the most important duties of all: tossing a pigskin with Jon right before going out to greet the audience. I don’t know if Jon’s always done this, and I’ve only had the pleasure once myself. It’s fun, though, and gives us an excuse to have a football backstage so we can perfect our spirals.
The show starts out great, the audience is in a really good mood. When it comes to Hodgman’s piece, though, a camera take is missed and taping is stopped. This kind of thing rarely happens. I think in the year and three months I’ve been here, I can count on one hand the times they’ve had to stop tape.
During the show I’m backstage with the scripts in hand. Kweli lies on the floor next to his master. That dog has been petted by more celebrities than any other dog I know. He actually got a shout out last week when Sen. John McCain awkwardly joked about seeing a beautiful dog backstage and want-ing to kick “Chloe.”
During each commercial break, I run the scripts out to Jon for the upcoming act and take the old ones that he’s scribbled on to give out to a couple random audience members as souvenirs.
Third act is the guest act. On days when the person is an author, the backstage is mostly barren except for those who have to be there. When someone else is on, say a lead actor in a summer blockbuster, the backstage population tends to boom for the six-minute act. A lot of them, and I’m including myself here, simply like to see how tall the stars are as they stroll past us. Mr. Maguire: not so tall. I always expected him to be around my height, but if you watched the show, you saw he’s only slightly taller than Jon.
After the third act, we close it with the toss to Colbert, and that’s basically it. When the show is over, it’s time to go home. Jon and a few others have a “post-mortem” meeting to discuss what worked (I imagine the coach having a team watch Friday night game tapes the following morning). The rest of us head out into the evening. It’s cooled down some as the sun has set, and Kweli is chasing after a soccer ball in the park across the street. Small clusters of audience members hang around on 11th Avenue, trying to hail cabs. I, on the other hand, start my nightly walk to the subway, which I’ll take to my new home in Queens.
Interning for ‘Late Night’
Growing up, my favorite show was Late Night with David Letterman — since I was 7 or so. The last child in a family with three kids, I was the first to learn how to set the timer on our VCR so I could tape the show and watch it the next day after school. I’ve been hooked on comedy ever since and, sadly, pretty much every decision in my life has been based on or influenced by that.
When I learned Letterman was from Indiana, I read his biography and found out where he went to college. I enrolled in the telecommunications program at Ball State, worked on a student-run late night show called BSU Late Night and eventually heard about the Letterman Scholarship. I entered a screenplay that was a basic comedy formula: An angry middle school teacher and an arrogant PE instructor go head-to-head for the love of a new, young teacher who was once a student of the protagonist … you can just imagine the hilarity that ensues. It was good enough to get second place and I had it on my resume when I mailed an internship application out to New York. I got a call for an interview, and was one of 11 selected for the spring of 2004.
Having only been to New York once before, I was in complete awe of the city. My internship lasted the final semester of my college career and I lived it up. Thinking back now, I was crazy. I lived at the Y on 47th Street, so any chance I got I was out of my cubbyhole of a room. Our second week into the internship, we were all asked to present the Top 10 List, which both excited and horrified me. The theme was “Top 10 Things I Have Learned Interning for The Late Show.” I was No. 8 and the only intern to completely flub a line. I was given a second chance and nailed it; they edited out the screw-up (they did make me a copy with it kept in for posterity). The line: “Hours of work go into writing Dave’s so-called fan mail,” to which Dave responded, “Yeah — hours of work go into writing your so-called paycheck.” Before going to break, he shook our hands and thanked us. It was great to finally meet an idol of mine — and an added bonus having it on tape.