“So What’s The Daily Show?”

Do Daily Show interviewees know they're being mocked?

ST. PAUL — After watching one of those classic “man on the street” segments on The Daily Show, I always come away with the same obvious-but-still-burning question: Are the people being interviewed for these things in on the joke? When they’re talking to a DS correspondent, do they know they’re about to be mocked on national television?

In other words: In my amusement at their generally foolish Daily Show appearances, am I laughing with these people…or at them?

Well. The Xcel Center being, as it is, packed to the brim with be-buttoned, be-sequined, sometimes befuddling and often bemusing specimens of humanity—in other words, low-hanging fruit for the Daily Show pranksters who have been trawling the arena’s public areas for the past few days—what better place to have my questions answered, once and for all? I’d conduct, I thought, a little investigation. I’d talk to some of the people who’d just been interviewed by Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Jason Jones, et al, and get the answer to the at-or-with question from the source.

Since “Do you know you’re being mocked?” is not, perhaps, the best way to start a conversation, I ask the Daily Show interviewees I encounter a slightly-more-subtle question: “Do you know The Daily Show?”

Turns out, some know. Katie Beck, a young blonde who bears a passing resemblance to Sarah Palin—and whom Samantha Bee has just finished faux-flirting with because of that resemblance—seems surprised I’d have to ask the question in the first place. “Totally, I watch it all the time!” she tells me. “I love it!”

Does she have any idea what the final segment will look like?

“Well, it’ll probably be pretty ridiculous,” she says. “But, hey, it was fun!”

Simple enough. I jot down her reply; she walks off, BlackBerry at her ear, to call friends and tell them that she’s going to be on The Daily Show(!).

Matthew Mau, an alternate delegate from Chatham, Illinois, knows, too. Sporting a heavy drawl and, today, a button on his lapel proclaiming Sarah Palin the “HOTTEST VP FROM THE COOLEST STATE,” he and another Illinois alt-delegate, Michael Sneed, tell me how great the Daily Show coverage of the DNC was last week. “Oh, when they had Obama all done up like The Lion King,” Sneed says, “that was just fantastic!”

Are they worried the RNC will be similarly ridiculed?

“Hey, it’s all in good fun,” Mau tells me.

This seems to be a sentiment shared by the Daily Show producers, the comedy-enablers who’ve been searching Xcel’s hallways for particularly mockable promising victims interviewees. Though they don’t have a strategy, per se, for finding guests, “wearing a lot of flair doesn’t hurt,” one told me.

One of these flair-wearers is Stacey Fenton, bright blonde haired and wearing a short jean skirt and a white jean vest festooned with “Support Our Troops” buttons. “Oh, man, I need a smoke,” she tells me, racing away from the huddled DS crew after her interview with Samantha Bee wraps. As we head, in a near-run, to the patio outside the Xcel Center atrium, a young DS producer, clipboard in hand, hurries after us. He asks her to sign a release form authorizing the use of her footage for the show.

“What, so you can make fun of me and make everything I say sound like the opposite of what I mean?” she asks him. He sidesteps the question, thanking her for the signature, politely offering her tickets to the night’s DS filming, and walking away.

“So…you know The Daily Show?” I ask her, as she returns to her cigarette.

Turns out she doesn’t. She doesn’t really watch TV at all. “I mostly read books,” she says. “Mysteries.”

She thought she’d just been interviewed for a straight news program.

So did others I talked to. Jackie White, whose husband is an alternate delegate from New Mexico, caught the eye of Jason Jones while John Oliver was interviewing another RNC attendee. “Try her,” Jones whispered to a producer, gesturing toward the red-Stetson-wearing, button-and-lapel-pin-bedecked, fire-engine-red-manicured, Florence Henderson-resembling White. When the producer invited her on, she agreed. After the interview: “Do you know The Daily Show?” I ask her.

The Daily Show?” she replies. “What’s that?”

Her friend Regina Barela, also from New Mexico, a self-proclaimed “soccer mom” with three kids and a deep reservoir of energy—she used to be a cheerleader, she tells me—is similarly in the dark about The Daily Show’s particular brand of news. “I have too many dang kids to have time for TV!” she says, laughing. “So what’s The Daily Show?”

“It’s a cable news show. They do…comedy stuff,” Andy Cable, a gregarious, middle-aged Iowa delegate who’s befriended Regina over the course of the evening, tells her, gingerly.

“Oh, if it’s on cable, I definitely don’t know it,” she replies. “I only get basic cable…and I’m from a small town, so it’s the real basic-basic kind.”

“You could Tivo it,” he offers.

“What’s Tivo?” she asks.

She’s not joking. “With soccer practice and laundry to do and dinner to cook, it’s chaos. I barely have time to sleep, let alone watch anything on cable!” She pauses for a moment. “Will my kids know about this Daily Show thing?” she asks.

Andy and I nod. “Probably,” we say.

“How old are they?” I ask.

“The oldest is twenty, then two teenagers,” she replies.

“Then they’ll know,” Andy says.

“Good,” she says. She pauses again, then grins. “Ooh, I hope I embarrass them!”

Andy and I glance at each other. “Oh, that’s a pretty safe bet,” we say in unison.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.