After serving as a correspondent on The Daily Show, comedians have generally followed one of two paths. On one end of the spectrum is the Stephen Colbert path. After the current Late Show host left The Daily Show to launch The Colbert Report, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Jordan Klepper, and others followed his lead.
Then there is the Steve Carell path, exemplified by Jason Jones (The Detour), Wyatt Cenac (People of Earth), and Jessica Williams (The Incredible Jessica James), who all left topicality behind to pursue narrative comedy.
Now, Ed Helms, who followed Carell in a more literal sense by joining the cast of The Office before moving on to high-profile roles in films like The Hangover, is about to veer back into Colbert’s lane. At least for one night.
On Wednesday, Dec. 13, Comedy Central will air The Fake News with Ted Nelms, a one-hour special hosted by Helms that takes on the tropes and trends that he believes are actively ruining the media business. The show is aggressively silly, but also has some sharp things to say about just how awful so much of cable news coverage has become 13 years after Jon Stewart told CNN’s Crossfire hosts that they were “ruining America.”
Compared to today’s cable news shout-fests, those debates between Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala seem almost quaint.
Helms called The Daily Beast to discuss his return that what used to be called “fake news” and how Stewart’s influence has helped guide his career. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
This is exciting. You’re kind of getting back into Daily Show mode with this special, huh?
Well, yes and no. I’m putting on a suit and pretending to be a news guy, but it’s actually a very different format. It’s similar in that it is a funny version of the news. There are so many great shows out there that are making fun of the news in a very direct way, and I think The Daily Show is one of those. Samantha Bee and John Oliver and Bill Maher and “Weekend Update” and Seth Meyers, they’re all doing awesome work. And I’m very good friends with some of those people and I love it. But what we sort of felt like was missing was the just full-on deadpan version, where someone fully commits to the conceit of preposterous news. The Onion is doing it in print and they are doing amazing work. But on TV, it just seems like this hole, and a really fun opportunity to jump in and do something fresh.
It’s now been more than a decade since you left The Daily Show. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the media over that time?
When I was on The Daily Show, my boss at the time, Jon Stewart, went on CNN, the show was called Crossfire, and he said to them, “You’re hurting America.” Because they were just doing this cage-match journalism. Just these guys yelling at each other. And Tucker Carlson was on the show at the time, he’s now on Fox News. What was so interesting is that right after that—and I don’t know if it was because of Jon, but it was certainly part of a moment of retrospection for CNN—they canceled Crossfire. And I think that was a smart move. And a responsible move. Now, when you turn on CNN, it doesn’t even matter what show it is or what time of day it is. It’s a version of Crossfire.
Yeah, it’s all Crossfire.
It’s all Crossfire, 24/7. And every network has taken up that approach and I think that’s a very sad development. But it’s fun to make fun of.
So your special’s called Fake News, a term that has taken on a very different meaning since you were on The Daily Show, when people used to call that show “fake news.” What does that term mean to you now?
Well I don’t think it means anything really different to me. It seems to have changed in the popular interpretation of it. And certainly how our president uses it, which is in a way that I don’t even understand and I think is very weird and potentially quite dangerous. But we wanted to do this satirical news show and because “fake news” is kind of in the zeitgeist and it felt like a very literal description of what we are going to do, it just felt like the perfect title. In a way, we’re eager to reclaim the meaning of “fake news” and to make sure people understand, when we say “fake news,” we mean absolutely fake, totally made up, bullshit news. When other people say “fake news,” it’s this kind of nebulous thing of like, it’s just news we don’t like or it’s news we disagree with and it has no reflection on the veracity of the news at all. This was sort of a fun way for us to use a popular term and also reassert its meaning in a way.
Do you think Trump is intentionally trying to muddy the waters of what is real and what is fake, especially in light of how Russia pushed actual fake stories during the campaign?
With Donald Trump, for me, it’s very hard to know if he is that cynical and Machiavellian or if he is uninformed and just lacking enough curiosity to get to the bottom of what’s true and what isn’t. I really can’t say. He’s starting to challenge the reality of his Access Hollywood tape and that’s starting to raise questions about what he actually believes. Does he believe things that aren’t factual? And if that’s true, then how do you deal with that? Because at that point, it’s not malicious, it’s something he genuinely believes. So it’s unnerving, but I just find a lot of his take on news to be beneath him and baffling. I don’t pretend to understand the motives and strategy, if there is any.
What has your media diet been like over this first year of Trump’s presidency?
I try to consume a lot of different sources. I watch a lot of CNN and fake news. I mean, sorry, Fox News. [Laughs] I read Huffington Post and Breitbart. I read a lot of news feeds like Google. I really try to consume as much as possible and I think what you start to see very quickly is that it is very hard to find neutral news. That’s kind of tragic, but I think we’re all so prone to confirmation bias that we just think our sources are immune to bias and they’re not. Everyone has an angle. And even if that angle is just to get more viewers and more clicks or present a more sensational version of what’s happening, that’s still an angle. I try to reserve judgement and stay humble about my own assumptions. Because I don’t think anyone has a monopoly on the truth or is getting it right all the time.
The segment where you are waiting to reveal the identity of an attempted terrorist highlights how polarized every news story has become, from mass shootings to sexual misconduct cases. Why was that something you wanted to parody here?
Any time a terrible tragedy happens, or an atrocity like a shooting or a bombing or something, we’re really eager to find out the identity of the perpetrator to see if it matches our worldview and confirms our belief system or not. And I think a lot of people don’t even realize that they’re doing that. We all do it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good person or a terrible person, we all sort of are rooting for something in those moments. And that’s kind of a gross part of human nature, but it’s a very real part of human nature, and something we should all be honest about and hopefully be able to laugh at ourselves. And it’s also something that news organizations really foster and benefit from. A lot of news organizations will dramatize the reveal. And then they’ll use whatever the information is, whatever the identity of a perpetrator might be, to reinforce narratives that that news organization wants to put out there. Where it starts to get problematic is when the identity of a perpetrator doesn’t match a certain news organization’s narrative, then it becomes a spin situation. And the coverage becomes more slanted one way or the other. And that’s really too bad. And every consumer of news kind of plays along. And we tend to gravitate towards the news sources that tell us the narratives that we want to believe are true.
Do you find yourself subject to those feelings, thinking especially about sexual misconduct allegations against someone you admire? Does it change the way you think about what they’ve done?
It doesn’t change the way I think about what they’ve done. I feel pretty gross whenever I learn about any incidents like that. But it certainly changes the level of my cultural disappointment. I’ve seen enough now to understand that bad behavior—and by the way, this goes back to way before the surging tide of sexual harassment news—it just goes way back. No political disposition, no moral disposition has a monopoly on good behavior. I kind of wish we could all understand that better. And not just immediately try to politicize these stories. And even if they’re not being politicized in the sense of oh, we might lose a seat in the Senate, or this might affect an election outcome, we’re still politicizing it in terms of just reinforcing culture war narratives. And that’s just not helpful. And it’s not honest. And it’s an easy way to delude ourselves and reinforce our existing belief systems. We all do it, we do it subconsciously, we do it without even realizing it. And I wish media organizations were leading the charge instead of leading the retreat in terms of forcing some intellectual honesty in terms of how we politicize these things unnecessarily.
What did you learn from Jon Stewart that you’ve applied to this special or any other aspects of your career?
I mean, Jon was just an incredible role model in so many ways. The most basic way was just following his example of working really, really hard. And not settling for things half-baked, really trying to get the best version of something done. Jon was really incredible at striving for the best version of any joke. And that takes a lot of discipline, a lot of humility. And crumpling up your work and throwing it away and starting over. He’s just always striving for the best thing and I’ve taken that inspiration with me in everything I do since working for him.