By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
So here's Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition forces in Iraq four years ago, describing the situation in a TV interview in September 2003: "We're not in a quagmire," he's saying confidently. "The progress is unbelievable."
So what about that progress, general? Because here's Sanchez, now retired, talking about Iraq in a video clip from last October: "There has been a glaring, unfortunate display of incompetent strategic leadership within our national leaders. . . . There's no question that America is living a nightmare with no end in sight."
The before-and-after videos didn't air on CNN or MSNBC or ABC. Instead, the revealing sound bites ran back to back on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." The satiric Comedy Central program regularly unearths telling footage ignored or overlooked by the real news guys.
Or, to be specific, Adam Chodikoff does.
Chodikoff, 37, doesn't perform on the show or write the gags that pepper Stewart's take on the day's news. But as the show's chief researcher and video wiz, he's the vital link in the program's comedic ecosystem. Chodikoff's job is to dig through the vast quarry of TV news footage to find the nuggets that form the program's pointed, often eye-opening "reporting." In a manner of speaking, he's an investigative humorist.
At its best, Chodikoff's work goes beyond satire and into the realm of cold truth-telling. The show has particularly made doublespeak about the Iraq war a continuing theme in a running segment called "Mess O'Potamia." After Vice President Cheney told ABC News last month that "you can't be blown off course" by negative opinion polls about the war, Chodikoff found the perfect counterpoint: Cheney, in a clip from December 2005, justifying the White House's Iraq policy by citing . . . an opinion poll.
"He has this amazing memory for sound bites about anything political or about policy," says David Javerbaum, executive producer of "The Daily Show." "What's remarkable is how many ideas he initiates because he remembered that this guy said this or that a year ago." While Stewart and the show's deadpan "correspondents" usually get the laughs, Javerbaum says Chodikoff is the program's "unsung hero."
Chodikoff turns up plenty for TV's talking heads to be embarrassed about, too. A two-part segment about Fox News Channel this month included a devastating mash-up of Fox pundits Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity making obviously contradictory statements. Chodikoff did the same number last week on "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert, catching Russert pooh-poohing Hillary Clinton's expected victory in the Pennsylvania primary on the "Today" show on Sunday, then pronouncing it "a pretty big deal" three days later on MSNBC.
Chodikoff, whose somewhat generic title is senior associate producer, says there aren't any tricks to isolating the video morsels that air on the show. Mainly, he says, it just takes recall and hustle and a few good TiVos.
Chodikoff typically arrives at his desk at "The Daily Show's" offices in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen district at 7:30 a.m. and begins scouting for leads in newspapers (he reads eight of them) or on the Associated Press wire. He'll also scan transcripts of the broadcast and cable news shows. Sometimes he reads the Congressional Record. "I comb it for the funny," Chodikoff says, and it's not clear whether he's kidding. "It's a fun challenge."
He often finds that the most intriguing factoids turn up in the 23rd paragraph of an article. A few weeks ago, he noticed a line deep in a wire story: that Bush was speaking to the same group of religious broadcasters at the same hotel on the run-up to the fifth anniversary of the war last month as he did on the run-up to the war's start. Turns out, too, that Bush advanced the same rationale for the war both times -- making the side-by-side footage of the two speeches a finely ironic piece for the show.
By mid-morning, when Stewart and the program's writers convene, Chodikoff is armed with a sheaf of articles and notes -- raw material for future headlines and segments.
As for the blogosphere and its rich stew of opinion and invective, Chodikoff will have none of it. "I'll defend the mainstream media," he says. "I trust [information] that has been edited and fact-checked." Without a factual foundation, he adds, the show's jokes "have no meaning."
Chodikoff "sees the whole picture," says Rob Kutner, one of the show's writers. He's "in the news matrix. He spots patterns, trends, the forces of history. He remembers a politician saying the opposite thing three years ago and gets us to that video."
Chodikoff, who grew up outside Philadelphia, was a political science major at Duke who graduated with a few dissimilar passions and interests: politics, sports, journalism and comedy. He learned a bit about journalism and politics as a summer intern for Campaign & Elections magazine in Washington. After a brief post-college stint at CNN, he became a low-level production assistant at ESPN, logging hockey and basketball highlights for "SportsCenter." In short order, he was back to comedy, landing a production job with Conan O'Brien's show on NBC.
While reading a newspaper one day, he spotted -- yes, in the 23rd paragraph -- a brief mention about the start-up of a new Comedy Central program that was to combine politics and comedy and would air daily, a la "SportsCenter." Chodikoff figured that was right up his alley. He was hired as a researcher before the first "Daily Show" aired in mid-1996.
Over time, Chodikoff's role on the show has evolved. He frequently pitches comedic ideas to the writers, and the writers pitch back. Kutner, Stewart and the other writers rely on Chodikoff to research their hunches and would-be story ideas. A recent example: One writer wanted to know whether any New York stores were making any special plans for the pope's visit; Chodikoff found that Build-a-Bear was selling bears wearing religious-themed T-shirts.
Much of the job, Chodikoff says, is based on intuition developed over a dozen years of working on the show. "I know what makes a good setup for the writers," he says. "I know what kind of stuff Jon can smash into the right-field seats."
Chodikoff insists there's no agenda behind any of it, that he's part of a comedy show, not a crusade. "The show is anti-Establishment," he says. "Bush happens to be the president. He's the one in power."
He adds: "I want to make the smartest, funniest show possible. I don't wake up every morning saying: 'I gotta get him. I gotta get him.' "
Javerbaum, the executive producer, suggests that a key function of "The Daily Show" is to make connections and highlight news that the news media don't. TV news, in particular, he says, "doesn't have an interest in rocking the status quo because it's entrenched with the status quo. We think all of these [networks] are really, really bad at what they do. My opinion is they suck at their jobs."
Which, if true, makes Adam Chodikoff's job a whole lot easier.