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Through more than two decades at The Daily Show, showrunner and executive producer Jen Flanz thought she had seen it all. Then 2020 hit. “I’ve been there through a lot of things on the show,” says Flanz, ticking off a series of unprecedented moments including the Sept. 11 attacks and a New York blackout. But the way she sees it, nothing compares to 2020, which ushered in a raging pandemic, a racial reckoning and a high-stakes election. “This past year was definitely the craziest and most challenging that I’ve been through on the show,” she says. Ahead of their tentative return to the studio in September, and with another Emmy nomination for outstanding variety talk series, Flanz opens up about the handoff from Jon Stewart to Trevor Noah, transitioning to a remote show and the joy of not having to talk about a former president anymore.
You’ve been at The Daily Show for 23 years with three different hosts, starting with Craig Kilborn. What has that been like?
I try not to think about how long it’s been because it makes me feel old, even though I swear The Daily Show is the fountain of youth. It’s been a really cool road to see the show transition through those three different eras. And I wouldn’t even classify them as just three. Like, we used to parody news and Dateline. Then, at some point in Jon’s tenure, we switched over to parodying the 24-hour cable news shows because that was the thing at the time. Now, in this era, everybody’s getting their news from everywhere and there are so many opinions. It feels like we’re more in that world now. Just the frenetic energy of news now … alerts are popping up on your phone and then you’re watching CNN and then maybe, maybe you’re still reading a newspaper on the subway? Hopefully.
Since it feels like we’re drinking from a firehose all the time now, how do you decide what to cover and what not to cover?
We look everywhere that our viewers are consuming news and look for ways to tap into those formats to parody. If it doesn’t make sense to be parodying a news opinion show but it makes more sense to be parodying a TikTok video — because people get their news there now, too — then that’s what we would do.
You were key in making the transition from Jon to Trevor. How’d you do it?
I cannot take full credit. I think it was Jon who said when he was leaving, “Let’s not find another me; let’s do something very different.” We had already had Trevor on the show as a contributor, and I’d helped with finding him for that. He was very much the same work ethic and empathy and management styles, but very different in appearance and point of view and background. So it was exciting to be able to tell all these new stories in a new way with a new voice. And obviously it’s really interesting where the world’s gone, especially in the last year, because the things we’ve been talking about for the past almost six years of Trevor doing The Daily Show are things that became really, really important in the national conversation. Everybody is tuning in to listen to what Trevor has to say about it.
How thrilled are you to not have to talk about Donald Trump on the show every day?
Oh my God, it has been lovely. It has given us a chance to just focus on other things. I mean, we hadn’t done a Wall Street headline in so long. We got GameStop right after Trump. It was nice to do stories that weren’t just based on him. We got to go back to talking about the filibuster and microaggressions in the workplace. Things that are honestly more important to our audience than just, like, “Trump said this thing,” or, “He tweeted that.” Every day was just a barrage.
You’ve been through your fair share of election years on the show. Does that excite you or do you think, “Oh God, not again?”
It’s almost like right when the cycle ends you’re like, “Oh my God, I don’t want another election for so long.” You’re just exhausted. And then by the time the midterms roll around, you’re excited to start covering the races again. But the thing that was crazy about this year is that we’ve been at every presidential convention since 2000 and we had plans to go to both this year and couldn’t, obviously, because of COVID. It was so weird to not be there to cover them in person on the floor. Instead, our entire staff was watching the nightly programming and being on Slack the whole time prepping the show for the following day.
Like most hosts, Trevor had to film from home this year. How did you tackle going remote?
It’s so funny, it feels like a distant memory right now. We had a good head start on going remote because we put out so much content online at all hours of the day and over the weekends. We’d gotten in a groove of putting together content and approving it and getting it out to our audience on social [quickly], so we were ready. We just had to figure out how to get it out on linear. I mean, if you told me when I started in 1998 that we would be able to make shows from home, with all of us being in our own corners of the world, I would not have believed you.
You did one live show on election night. How did it feel to go back to the studio for that?
It was weird. It was just so different, and everyone who was there was in masks and tested. It just was a weird election night, and it was a weird way to make a show together. Making a comedy show and not seeing each other’s faces and being in a big studio without an audience, it was a really surreal experience.
Trevor has landed some impressive guests during his tenure. Who’s still left on the wish list?
Forever, it was Oprah. Then we got Oprah, and it was Obama. Then we got Obama, and then it was Michelle [Obama]. There’s always the next get. Besides the big celebrities or sports stars, there’s all the other up-and-coming voices we like to get on the show who just haven’t been discovered yet. And those people we’ll introduce to our audience are just as exciting.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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