Mary Elizabeth Williams

'The Daily Show' launched 25 years ago to tackle the news: 'We didn't lampoon it, we became it'

Twenty-five years ago, the best news show on television debuted — on Comedy Central.

From its beginning, "The Daily Show" distinguished itself with its combination of brutally funny cynicism and furious hope, a balance refined when Jon Stewart became host in early 1999, and maintained today with Trevor Noah behind the desk. And from its beginning, it's been a show much about the news media as the news itself.

The endurance of "The Daily Show" remains a testament to its creators, Madeline Smithberg and Lizz Winstead, who helped set the show's meticulously crafted tone. Salon spoke to Winstead recently via phone about the show's genesis, the grueling, pre-Google days of newsgathering and the "Daily Show" reunion benefit livestreaming this week.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

It's not like there'd never been satire. It's not like there'd never been parody of the news. What made "The Daily Show" unique?

I think what made this different is that we didn't lampoon it; we became it. We really gave the audience credit. We didn't want to be cartoons. We wanted to, by being as realistic as possible, by looking like and having their same tone, by using the same bullsh*t that the media focused on, really shine a light on what it was that wrong with the media.

A lot of times, in previous iterations where there was a news desk, it was snarky commentary about the news. For us, we felt like the media itself needed to be a character. Back in 1996 when we launched, there was only CNN. We launched in mid-July. MSNBC launched a couple weeks later. [Note: MSNBC launched July 15, 1996]. Fox News launched in October. All of that happened in 1996.

When we started, we were really satirizing the whole if "If bleeds, it leads" local news stories, and also the fear-based news magazines. There were 17 news magazines on network television when we launched. They would all do,"Will your pasta kill you?" You know, everything was about terrifying the viewer and then finding obscure ways to tie it into a think piece and then put it out there in this supposition language. That was happening all over. You would look at the cover of a magazine and it would say, "Do you have AIDS?" Then there would be an article and it was just, "Of course you don't have AIDS." But they would just try to scare you. We really followed that trajectory. The show, when we launched it, was actually more like Colbert in the sense that every single person on the show was in character. We just took the audience on this newscast full of people who were utterly reprehensible on some level. You could see the essence of what you knew and what you saw every night in real news.

One of the reasons "The Daily Show" is 25 years old and has been going strong is because Brian Unger came from news, and trained every correspondent. He was the first correspondent we hired. He was a producer and he was an on-camera person. He trained everybody on how to light a shot, how to shoot to create a mood, how to deliver your lines. He really helped all of us learn how to go straight with the ridiculousness, so it sounded like you were delivering the news.

Was the show a hard sell to the public, as female creators?

To create a news show back in the day, and to do good satire, you had to satirize the existing thing. And the existing thing was full of white men. So as two women, the one thing we did know was that if we wanted to blow the lid off the news, it had to look like the news. That meant that the spaces that needed to get occupied needed to be white dudes, right? To this day — and this part is frustrating —I don't think a lot of people know that two women created that show.

I think that they also don't know that our two co-creators, executive producer, head writer, executive in charge of production, senior producer, all of field producers except for one, were all women. It was a bummer because we got over 150 writing submissions, and only two from women, when we launched.

It was a lot of fun, but it was also really challenging. Madeleine and I had to fight a lot of battles with the network because they didn't want this to be a news show. I think they wanted it to be wackier, and more pop culturey. I'm not sure that "The Daily Show" would have lasted 25 years if Madeleine and I would have acquiesced to turn it into some kind of "Entertainment Tonight" kind of comedy show.

When did you know that this was something? That this was a thing that people were paying attention to and that it was having an impact?

The second the show went on the air, I had a feeling. Then we got flooded with fan mail. Then there were so many requests that it was almost a year in advance to get tickets. That happened within like the first week. And that audience wanting to be part of it thing was really cool.

There was nothing else really quite like that out there to pin your conversations around, that was reflecting the way that we were talking about the news.

What gave us a great boost was broadcast news had just really done a disservice around real news. CNN was like "the trial of the century of the week." A lot of people were really wondering what the hell was going on in the world and not seeing it, and then watching the news. They knew the conventions.They knew the local news guy. They knew that scary story. They knew Stone Phillips. They had a working knowledge of the conventions. Within the subtleties of how we did our characters, we still made sure that the audience was with us on how we satirized the people and the genres and the type of stories that we did. So we didn't try to be too inside baseball. And you know, print journalists were so excited that we were sh*tting all over television journalism. They were writing glowing, glowing stories.

Was there a moment early on in it, where you had a story where you thought, "We're doing this story in a way that nobody else has looked at it?"

I think everything we did was sort of that. I mean, even "Weekend Update" never used footage. There was never a lot of designing over-the-shoulder graphics that looked like how they did on the news. We were the first to do that. Taking the trends of news genres, like, "When animals attack," then we did "When the elderly attack."

We really just satirized how they did the coverage, the terms, and how many times they're just throwing to somebody to say, "Over to you," when there was nothing going on there. Car chases. Storm watch. We were the first people to really take it to the next level and out into the field, and bring it back into the studio. Instead of it being skits, it was actually a fully formed show that had to operate like a newsroom, because we were making a news show, but we were satirizing it.

And remember, without Google. I think we stole a LexisNexis login. We had like 45 newspapers delivered to the office. People split up the country in regions, and they would just find stories. I think we had the AP wire. But it was digging around, and then just watching, and observing what the trends were, and then satirizing it.

The show came at a moment in the midst of the Clinton administration and post O.J., all these media circuses. Do you think that that was part of what made us ripe for the show, or was the show ripe for America?

I think it's what made the show ripe for America. The media had set the agenda for the circus. We didn't have to point out there was a circus; the circus was self-evident. The circus started after the first Gulf War. People forget that right when it was winding down, and everybody was panicking about how they were going to keep ratings going, Rodney King happened. So they were able to keep their media jones going, and then that just keeps perpetuating itself.They didn't even really learn good lessons in that. They just amplified the furious nature of the rage, instead of examining the rage. That should have been our reckoning.

Instead of what it's become, which is the model.

Then you had the baby-shaking nanny, and then the Menendez brothers, and then Anna Nicole Smith. It just became this furious churn factory. We just followed it. It was like, that's how you're going to help people? That's insanity to me. Part of what was fun was by holding a light up and becoming them, without having to hit somebody over the head to say, "Careful who you trust when you get information."

You've got a reunion event with Madeline Smithberg, Brian Unger and other "The Daily Show" originals. Tell me about the show.

The good news is, I really want to promote this special, because it's also benefiting Abortion Access Front, which is really cool. All these people are getting together to support us.

I really would love to make sure that people know that they can watch all these cool people get back together and tell the original story with stories they've never heard before. I'm really excited that this fall, we are launching a YouTube talk show — a 30-minute weekly hilarious feminist comedy talk show that's going to talk about all the issues that don't get talked about, and that is really doing deep dives into all these laws that are happening around reproductive access, and just patriarchy, and white supremacy, and with comedy and fun. That's called Feminist Buzzkills Live, and that's launching in October. That's one of the projects that we're working on with Abortion Access Front as well. I'm also going back out on the road to do a bunch of touring. People really need a catharsis and to gather. We need a 12-step program to get off Nextdoor. Just stop going online and getting weird information from your vaguely racist neighbors. Like, we need to regroup.

So, all eyes on the prize and in Washington, D.C. in the fall, on the Supreme Court, when they're going to decide the fate of abortion access as we know it in the United States. And that is pretty intense.

This is your brain on lies: Neuroscience reveals why pathological liars and get better with practice

The last five years have been a master class in gaslighting. For those of us who came into the Trump Era with some personal experience with narcissists, emotional abusers and flat out liars, it has been a jarringly familiar time.

For those who previously had the luxury of expecting honesty of others, this has been a sharp learning curve. We all now know exactly what it feels like to be on the receiving end of untruth so blatant and shameless it makes us question ourselves. We know what it's like to hear a falsehood repeated so insistently it almost becomes convincing. We get it from the highest levels of government, from cable news networks, from our radicalized relatives and neighbors. And we know the confusion, self-doubt and fear that come with long term exposure to what liars like to call "alternative facts."

It feels pretty crappy. But what does it feel like for the liars? How can they keep spinning their BS with such shocking ease and conviction?

As with all things, it's a matter of practice. We all bend the truth with some regularity — a 2003 University of California study found that participants reported lying on average twice a day. If "I'm fine" counts, the number must surely be higher. White lies are a social lubricant and a "get out complicated explanations" card. Dinner was delicious. I'm five minutes away. I wish I could help.

But toxic people, people with antisocial personality disorder, people with pseudologia fantastica (a.k.a. pathological liars) lie for other reasons, and they do it a lot. They lie to gain control in their relationships. They lie to self exonerate and to justify their behavior. And the more they do it, the better they get at it, and the bigger their lies can become.

A 2016 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that "Signal reduction in the amygdala," the part of the brain associated with emotion, "is sensitive to the history of dishonest behavior, consistent with adaptation. . . . the extent of reduced amygdala sensitivity to dishonesty on a present decision relative to the previous one predicts the magnitude of escalation of self-serving dishonesty on the next decision."

In other words, "What begins as small deviations from a moral code could escalate to large deviations with potentially harmful consequences." Hence, you can seemingly desensitize yourself to your own dishonesty.

This is especially handy for a narcissist, who, as psychiatrist Dr. Bandy X. Lee explained to Salon recently, perpetually "must overcompensate, creating for himself a self-image where he is the best at everything, never wrong, better than all the experts, and a 'stable genius.'"

It's not just the amygdala that gets a workout from lying: other parts of the brain get in on the act as well. A 2009 Harvard University study of volunteers — some of whom cheated on a simple coin toss game and some who didn't — found that while the honest players had "no increased activity in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex known to be involved in self-control… those control regions did become perfused with blood when the cheaters responded." And it happened even when the cheaters were telling the truth. Keeping your story straight takes work.

If you're capable of knowing right from wrong, lying and cheating make you feel bad. And even if you don't puke like Marta in "Knives Out," you may have a "tell" — fidgeting, averting your gaze — that communicates that. But habitual liars don't feel bad. This is why lie detector tests are such unreliable tools. The autonomic nervous system of a somewhat average person, with an average person's anxiety about being caught in wrongdoing, will respond differently when telling the truth and when not. Their breath, blood pressure and heart rate may change. They may get sweaty. If you're someone like Gary Ridgway or Ted Bundy, two of the most prolific and vicious serial killers in American history, you can pass a polygraph with ease.

The other key component of chronic lying is that it often resides in the same neighborhood as delusion. Individuals with delusional disorders have "fixed beliefs that do not change, even when presented with conflicting evidence," and oh boy, there is no shortage of a spectrum of unchanging fixed beliefs here in our country right now. This is why gaslighting is so persuasive. It's the blatant, brazen confidence that only people who really put in their ten thousand hours of bald faced lying and genuine dissociation from reality can deliver that sells it.

Can habitual liars change? Dr. Robert Feldman, who wrote "The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships," told Everyday Health in 2016 not to hold your breath, because they usually don't want to. The only path forward is escaping their grip — and keeping our own amygdalas honest.

Like Trump, I was on monoclonal antibody drugs. This is what they do to you

After Donald Trump was hospitalized last week following a positive test for COVID-19, he emerged from Walter Reed with all the "Scarface" energy of one of his sons, declaring that, after "some really great drugs" he felt better than he did twenty years ago. Those drugs include Regeneron's REGN-COV2, a monoclonal antibody cocktail that is not approved by the FDA but was administered through a process known as compassionate use. (Regeneron's CEO, Dr. Leonard S. Schleifer, is also a friend of the Trump family.) Mainstream and social media quickly lit up over Trump's revelations, especially when he declared that the treatment "wasn't just therapeutic, it made me better. I call that a cure."

But is it?

If you've ever seen television ads for drugs with names like Opdivo (nivolumab) or Keytruda (pembrolizumab), you may notice a common denominator in their nomenclature. That "mab" — usually written as "mAb" — at the end is short for "monoclonal antibodies," antibodies engineered in a lab.

Nine years ago, when I was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, I got a front row education in how they work when I became one of the first patients in the world in a groundbreaking immunotherapy clinical trial. While I did not have the same condition or treatment that Trump did, I did receive a cocktail of two mAbs and I do feel confident saying that the experience did not give me super strength nor make me feel twenty years younger. In fact, it seems to have been at the root of a thyroid dysfunction that actually aged me! But hey, I'm not a self-proclaimed "perfect physical specimen," like an obese 74 year-old man who is renowned for not eating vegetables would be.

Trump can cavalierly — and surprise, inaccurately — describe his treatments as "miracles coming down from God," but understanding and engineering the human immune system has been the complicated work of decades of research, failed experiments and heartbreak.

You have no doubt heard more about antibodies in the past few months than you have since that long ago high school science class you barely passed. The simplest way to understand them is they're proteins that help the body fight invaders and, significantly, remember them to keep them at bay. When you feel flu-like systems after getting a flu shot, that's the antibodies you've developed doing their thing in there. This is why we get vaccinations, and also why I have only had chicken pox once. When the immune system has confronted certain kinds of threats in the past, it can, like an efficient bouncer, fend them off in the future in most cases.

But antibodies can't fight everything; if they did we'd never get sick. They also aren't an ironclad guarantee of immunity — some people do get chicken pox twice, and plenty more get shingles when the dormant virus wakes up many years later. Trump may boast that "Maybe I'm immune" now to future infection, but there are confirmed cases of patients getting COVID-19 more than once, and the duration of immunity for everyone who's experienced it is still unknown but may not be longer than a year.

And antibodies aren't always the good guys; when they go rogue they can cause a world of harm. Autoimmune disorders like lupus, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis all stem from overactive immune system. Similarly, organ transplant patients are often given immunosuppressants to prevent the body from rejecting the new organ as an invader.

Getting the immune system to effectively go after the right targets in the right way has been a long-standing scientific challenge. That's where these laboratory created antibodies come in. In early oncology research, the thinking was that antibodies could be developed in animals and transferred humans. By the late eighties the process was being refined to create human antibodies in genetically modified rodents, so the risk of rejection would be lessened. As pioneering scientist Nils Lonberg once explained to me, "You don't really want to put a mouse antibody into patients. You want to put a human antibody into patients."

When they work, MaBs can work quickly and durably, because the immune system learns and remembers. But they don't work all the time or for everybody, nor are they casually dispensed. My mAb combo is considered a rousing success; the 5 year survival rate is about 52%. And these therapies can produce vicious side effects as the immune system revs up. I was fortunate in my experience; my rashes, dizziness and fatigue were tolerable, but I had an adverse event where my temperature shot up and I felt like hell for a day. Other people on cancer immunotherapy develop colitis so severe it's debilitating. I've been on panels with doctors who've presented photos of what immunotherapy can do to the human colon, and the phrase "hellmouth" comes to mind.

So far, the side effects for the Regeneron treatment appear to be well tolerated in COVID-19 patients. Late last month, the company reported that with "more than 2,000 people enrolled across the overall REGN-COV2 development program, no unexpected safety findings have been reported." Speaking with MSNBC recently about Trump's recent hospital regimen, company co-founder Dr. George Yancopoulos' said that the cocktail "mimics the normal immune system," and said, "theoretically there should not be any additional interactions with any… other medications with our very natural antibody cocktail than you would normally have with your own antibodies." But the pool of patients is still very small.

We all want a vaccine and we all want a cure. We want to send our kids to school and hug our old friends and go to the movies and, most of all, for people to stop getting sick and dying. The way forward is through smart science and practical, equitable distribution, not empty promises of "miracles." The monoclonal antibody cocktail that saved my life currently has a six figure price tag. As Vox put it two years ago, "The average cost of cancer drugs today is four times the median household income." (Because I was in a clinical trial, the pharmaceutical company paid the costs related to my treatment.) Who's going to pick up the check when and if these types of therapies are available for COVID-19? There have been 7.6 million cases in the US already and that number is currently on an uptick — who will receive treatments that are approved, and how will hospitals handle the influx? What happens to patients who don't golf with the president of the United States?

Monoclonal antibody treatments have saved countless lives over the last several years. Harnessing the human immune system to fight disease and infection is among the most promising scientific breakthroughs of any of our lifetimes. But right now, there is no cure for COVID-19. There is only recovery, hope and a lot more research to be done.

How to embrace doing nothing -- especially if you're working from home

The world has changed exponentially since Celeste Headlee released her latest book "Do Nothing: How to Break Away From Overworking, Overdoing, and Under Living" just earlier this month. Already, the notion of eating lunch in your cubicle or  answering work emails from home seem like the habits of another era. Yet her message — of creating boundaries, of stepping away from the glowing screen now and then, of admitting that multitasking makes us less productive rather than more — seems more important now than ever. Our brains are already on high alert for the foreseeable future. It feels imperative to our mental and physical health to slow down.

Headlee, the co-host of "Retro Report" on PBS and author of the bestselling "We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter," joined us recently in our Salon studio to talk about why we aren't really working any more than our parents did, and why working from home now shouldn't mean we're working 24/7. Watch the chat with Headlee here or read the transcript below:

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How our failing healthcare system gave us Gwyneth Paltrow's crackpot Goop

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Three cheers for the 'Megxit'!

Sure, you love your family, but have you ever felt like you just … need some space? Like an ocean or two? Have you ever really burned out on playing the Roman to a sibling's Kendall? Maybe then you've been feeling a degree of empathy for what that good-looking couple known as the Sussexes initiated this week — a royal mini retreat that's already been dubbed "Megxit."

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Remembering Elizabeth Wurtzel: 'Prozac Nation' changed how we talk about and treat depression

A bottle of Prozac sits on my kitchen counter. It's the property of one member of my household, and a friendly companion to my own bottle of Wellbutrin that resides beside it. Those two containers are part of the day-to-day fabric of our lives and routines here, like our toothbrushes and sticks of deodorant. We simultaneously take them for granted and wouldn't dream of letting them run out. They help keep us fit for society and our own company as well. Sometimes, I look at those bottles and think of every bit of relief and shame and trepidation I felt when our doctors first suggested those pills might ease our  suffering, and I remember the complicated woman who helped create the modern face of depression and anxiety.

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'Cats' is a mesmerizing laser pointer for your brain

Was there ever a moment when “Cats,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s theatrical smash musical, was not considered high camp? Was it ever not an offhand shorthand for tourists and karaoke? I ask because the only answer I can come up with to the question of whether the movie musical of “Cats” is any good is another question. Is “Cats” supposed to be good?

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My God, I miss smoking

There is nothing glamorous about a piece of trash on a dirty sidewalk. The red cardboard box had been discarded with such casual disregard, its owner hadn’t even cared that there was a garbage can a foot away. It lay there on the sidewalk, surrounded by dead leaves and a single candy wrapper. Nevertheless, all I could think when I saw it was, “My God, I miss smoking.”

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Director Michael Lehmann explains why Ivanka and Kellyanne are today's 'good Heathers'

Ithink it just comes down to this: Who doesn’t want to kill their friends sometimes? All I know is that on a brisk spring evening in 1989, my pal Carolyn and I went to the movies. We based our choice that night entirely on the fact that this movie starred the girl from “Beetlejuice,” and some guy who seemed be doing an inexplicable Jack Nicholson imitation. We have spent the subsequent 30 years of our lives quoting "Heathers" every chance we can get.

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