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Inside The Daily Show with Trevor Noah’s Democratic-debate social media war room

How the real-time meme factory makes the funny sausage out of hand waving and other bits of debate-night ephemera.

Inside The Daily Show with Trevor Noah’s Democratic-debate social media war room
(Left to right) Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Trevor Noah, John Hickenlooper, Elizabeth Warren. [Photos: Sean Gallagher/Comedy Central (Noah); Flickr user Gage Skidmore (Sanders) (Klobuchar) (Hickenlooper); Flickr user Lorie Shaull (Warren)]

At 7:30 p.m., roughly a dozen comedy writers and digital producers gathered around a large rectangular wooden table inside a window-lined conference room at the center of The Daily Show‘s studio in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. The outpost featured two giant flat-screen TVs already tuned to CNN and was filled with laptops and takeout Chinese food—all key components for being funny on demand during the second installment of this campaign season’s Democratic presidential debates.

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Whereas The Daily Show generally tweets about once per hour, tonight there would be no quotas. Since this debate would be the first of two nights, however, each one highlighting 10 candidates, the team was warned to practice restraint. “Just because everyone’s making a joke about something, if we don’t have something that we think stands out or is better or takes it to the next level, then we just don’t do it,” says Ramin Hedayati, the supervising producer of the digital team.

Shortly after the debate began at 8, someone in the room noticed that Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar were wearing similar red blazers. When the duo appeared on-screen, the team used a software program called Snap Stream to capture a screenshot. Now all they needed was a caption. The ideas poured in around the table and over a shared Slack channel. In just a few minutes, they had their answer.

Next, John Hickenlooper got irritated at Bernie Sanders for making a shrugging gesture during one of his responses. Hickenlooper mockingly told Sanders to “Go ahead, throw your hands up.” The duo was on split screen, so Hedayati’s team captured that, added some electronic dance music, and created what’s now playing on Instagram and Twitter as a funny dance meme.

These kind of live jokes are inherently a gamble: “Obviously everyone loves the great Trump jokes,” says Hedayati, “but if we make a joke about a Democrat, maybe some of our audience won’t like that. [We] just kind of have to be willing to make the jokes that we think are funny, and sometimes our audience is gonna love it. Sometimes they won’t.”

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So far, such risks have been paying off for The Daily Show‘s digital team. During the first two-night Democratic debate in June, The Daily Show claims to have beat all other late-night shows in social engagement—that measure of how frequently people like, share, or interact with something. That’s across all relevant platforms: It outpaced its nearest rival, The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram by 100%, 200%, and 300%, respectively.

In part, The Daily Show is playing to where its audience lives: During the second quarter of this year, digital viewership on those platforms was up 18% year-over-year, with 700 million total streams on the aforementioned social channels and YouTube. The Daily Show claims to be the most engaging late-night show in its competitive set across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. “That’s where the conversation is playing out,” Hedayati says. “And we want to be a part of that conversation and ideally drive the conversation.”

The Daily Show has other strategic reasons for encouraging its employees to work late and push the limits of being funny on demand. Jennifer Flanz, executive producer and showrunner of The Daily Show, calls such live events “pretty crucial” for reminding people to tune in. “The digital side of the show and social media is a big driver of our viewership,” she says “It engages a totally younger audience. They see what we’re doing online those two hours during the debate and then they get really excited to tune in for the show and see how we’re going to cover it.”

It’s also a “good barometer” of what sort of bits host Trevor Noah might be able to capitalize on. After recognizing that Warren and Klobuchar were engaged in a drama of Who wore it best?, the show included them in a bit about the ways that CNN might be trying to start beef among candidates. That echoed another live-shared moment from the June debates, in which Beto O’Rourke began speaking Spanish, prompting other candidates toward underwhelming attempts at bilingualism. After one joke about O’Rourke ordering like a clueless guy in a Mexican restaurant went viral, Noah’s team worked the growing narrative into the show opener the following night. (The host said he hoped it wouldn’t be another night of broken Spanglish.)

In the conference room, the team continued to share ideas throughout the night. But they had also hedged their bets. For weeks ahead of the event, the digital, TV, and production teams had been compiling various ideas under a “gangs” tab in the screenwriting software program called Scripto. It’s a file-sharing service that lets people brainstorm on different threads that seem ripe for riffing.

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That led to a series of prewritten jokes and graphics that would play well no matter who was onstage—or conspicuously absent. Before the event even began, the team bought itself some brainstorming time with an Eric Swalwell In Memoriam thread for the candidate who dropped out. “We were saying like, ‘Let’s take a moment to remember that candidate no longer with us,’ and we just kept attaching the wrong photo,” Hedayati says.

“We have certain jokes ready to go and then we can actually focus on being present in the moment, because we have some stuff to fall back on,” he adds. “I think the hardest part is staying present with what’s actually happening in real time while also creating and refining things for video and mash-ups.” In the June debate, that included a strange vision of three also fairly indistinguishable white candidates in Jay Inslee, John Delaney, and Tim Ryan fusing together into a jar of mayonnaise, a joke that’s living on in generating traffic.

All of this is driven by Noah, who made social strategy a clear priority when he took the helm in late 2015. Since then, the show has tripled its total social followers to about 28 million across all channels, and so far this quarter ranks as No. 1 among two coveted advertising demographics: millennials and young men.

That same behind-the-scenes team will be back at work tonight channeling more riffs on the second panel of debaters. “That’s just another place for us to prove that we’re putting out funny stuff pretty steadily and that they can kind of like trust our voice and trust our sensibility, Hedayati adds. “Which then in turn leads them to the show and to Trevor.”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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