University of Michigan alumnus Ned Rice, ’83, has worked at many late-night television shows, including “Real Time with Bill Maher,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.” He found his passion for comedy while at the University, writing sketches for Ann Arbor Tonight, a satirical news show which shot material in what is now the Hands On Museum. Since switching to freelance writing, Rice has sought ways to spread satirical television, joining Brooklyn-based company Pilot Media Initiatives (PMI) briefly. Kevin Bleyer, a fellow writer for Bill Maher’s shows “Politically Incorrect” and “Real Time,” co-founded PMI with Rice with the goal of setting up programs under the format of “The Daily Show” in developing countries like Nigeria, Macedonia and Kyrgyzstan.
In Nigeria, local comic Okechukwu Onyegbule — who goes by the stage name Okey Bakassi — hosts the satirical show “The Other News,” currently in its second season. “The Other News” directs its content towards young people, adopting a conversational tone similar to Trevor Noah’s show. When asked about censorship abroad, Rice responded, “Guess what? Zero. Nobody ever said you can’t say that. I had more censorship in the States. I don’t remember ever having a joke cut.”
Despite a limited budget and small crew, “The Other News” has established itself as a popular local staple. The show’s success is impressive given the quick turnover time allowed to launch the series and the fact that none of the writers have previously worked in television before. Rice served as a consultant for the test, fake pilot and pilot episodes. His time in Nigeria helped him realize his love for teaching and strengthened his faith in satire’s ability to change things for the better. He spoke with The Daily in a phone interview about the international satire initiative.
The Michigan Daily: How effectively or realistically do you believe satire can shape politics?
Ned Rice: It’s very effective and a good way of keeping elected officials in line. I saw recently that China has just banned certain satirical TV parodies because it’s considered a violation of socialist core values. That gives an indication of how much satire threatens the powers that be. And that’s always been the case with satire. It certainly played a role in the Nixon and Reagan administrations and with lots of other leaders. To tell the truth, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” was a big factor in getting Barack Obama elected because Stewart got a lot more young people involved in the political conversation and more decided to participate and vote. So I think satire can be very helpful in promoting democracy. When I was writing for late night, there were a lot of jokes during the Clinton years. Most of the jokes helped maintain his popularity, though, and keep him in office when he was in trouble. Obviously, we made jokes about him, but they were more targeted at Republicans for being hypocrites. I think it actually helped Clinton. I’m sure he would disagree, but I think it did.
TMD: You left late-night before the 2016 election. However, in your opinion, how has Trump changed satire and comedy in America? And did Trump have any influence on the material you produced abroad?
NR: Shows used to pretend to be objective and now they don’t anymore: They’re openly partisan. Stephen Colbert, for example, he doesn’t just make Trump jokes, he openly insults the President, as do Jimmy Kimmel and pretty much all of the hosts. It used to be more sly. They used to pretend to be objective and unbiased. It’s openly hostile now to the point where some of it isn’t really satire anymore, it’s just editorializing. This partisanship is new — a new type of comedy in reaction to the current events. I’ve been covering this stuff for 25 years and it’s about the most subjective treatment of news I’ve ever seen. They used to say, not just in satire but journalism too, something like “President Trump said X, Y and Z, which a certain number of people would disagree with that conclusion.” Now they just say, “President Trump said X, Y and Z, which is a lie.” It didn’t used to be that on the nose, but the gloves are off now. I think this an interesting new development. Things weren’t this way under Reagan or Bush, and they were considered pretty extreme. With Trump, though, none of the rules apply anymore. But abroad? Very, very little. I asked the writers in Nigeria, “First of all, how much of your show do you want to be Nigerian content versus global?” And they said, “We want it all Nigerian.” I said, “So you don’t want Trump jokes or any Brexit jokes? You don’t want any Theresa May jokes?” They said, “Nope, we just want it to be Nigerian.” There may have been one reference to Trump the whole time I was there. They really wanted it to be local, so that’s what we did.
TMD: Since Nigeria has over 250 ethnic groups and several major religions, how did the writers navigate this political landscape?
NR: There were quite a few disagreements in the writer’s room about what was OK and what wasn’t. It got quite passionate. It was fascinating because they weren’t all from the same area. It’s like people coming from different states in the U.S., they don’t all think alike so there were a lot of arguments. I remember one time there was this story about these two priests who were fighting and the Pope ordered them to make peace. I made a joke about it, that was a little off-color, and the writers said, “Oh no! We can’t do that. We can’t do a joke about Catholicism.” They were shocked, which really surprised me. But they were generally pretty happy to make fun of the president of Nigeria. He was on this extended medical leave in London and nobody knew why. They were pretty tough about that, but there were certain topics they shied away from.
TMD: What challenges did you face making the test and pilot episodes?
NR: It had to happen so quickly. We did the whole thing in three weeks, which is unheard of. We started from nothing, from scratch. In the States, they would give you at a lot more time to get everything worked out for a brand new show. We just didn’t have that. Everything needed to happen today or right now. I remember one of the first few days, we were told to make promos. I asked, “When do you need them?” And they said, “This afternoon.” I said, “Well that’s not possible.” But guess what? We did it. We wrote them, shot them and edited them and they had them in their hands the next morning. That would never happen in the States, but we had no choice. And actually, I loved it. I love deadlines because it’s exciting. You feel adrenaline. But there was no time to goof around, absolutely none. You had to get it right the first time. The things we adjusted were mostly technical. When you’re doing jokes with a picture over the anchor’s shoulder, the timing has to be perfect or else the audience will not laugh. The photo has to appear at the exact right time or the joke, no matter how good it is, does not land. That took a lot of practice with the technical department. And then sometimes they’d shoot a piece that was six to eight minutes long. I said, “Look guys, if I were you, I’d cut this down to about three minutes. There can’t be any gaps. If the audience isn’t laughing, you should probably make some cuts.” So by necessity, the pieces had to be cut right down to the bone.
TMD: Field pieces are a big part of “The Daily Show.” What sorts of field pieces did “The Other News” try?
NR: We only did a couple. One, we sent a reporter to the equivalent of the Nigerian Academy Awards and she interviewed a bunch of actors. It was pretty funny, actually, because none of them would go on camera, on record, to talk about politics. Every single one of them was all nice and charming. They would say, “Oh, this is such a nice evening.” But as soon as we asked, “What do you think about the President?” They were all like, “No, no, no. We’re not talking about that … ” It was really comical. For the other field piece, the President of Nigeria said, “We’re going to start making pencils. We’re going to become the pencil capital of the world. This is going to create millions of jobs.” And the correspondents were like, “Pencils? What?” So they did an investigative piece about that. They went to find out where the wood comes from that makes the pencils. They interviewed government officials. They went to a school and talked to a bunch of kids about pencils. It was kind of like a goofy, “you’re kidding, right?”
TMD: How did you navigate cultural differences in the writer’s room, especially when helping make a joke funny that might require knowledge of local customs?
NR: If they threw out a name, I’d say, “Who’s that person? And why is he or she famous?” And they would tell me and then I’d go, “OK, I get it. I get the joke.” Or I would just say, “Do you guys know this expression? Do you guys use this figure of speech?” They would either say yes or no. And then we would just figure it out. The people we worked with watched a lot of American and British TV. They were pretty well versed. One was a huge Bill Maher fan and they all loved Trevor Noah and enjoyed John Oliver. They had seen pretty much all the American shows because they’re all online. We had a lot of common ground that way. There were certain figures of speech that were local they just had to teach me and then I would understand them. Certain things that seemed really funny to Nigerian people was the government, which has been fairly corrupt over the years. They were all very cynical, and yet very hopeful too, about their government. I got the contours pretty quickly. Sometimes I would hear a joke and I wouldn’t get it, but everyone else laughed. Then they would explain it to me after and I would go, yes, that really makes sense to me. And some of the jokes I didn’t think were funny, but the audience laughed their heads off and I’m like, that’s a good one. Some things translate and some things don’t, but it was really fun finding out which things we all had in common.
TMD: How did you address the potential problem of this initiative turning into a “white savior” narrative?
NR: That’s a good question. We were just hyper-aware of it at all times. I remember saying to them many, many times: “This is your show. You do whatever you want to do. If I were you, this is what I would do.” Sometimes they would take my advice and sometimes they wouldn’t. It never seemed to be about race to me or nationality. It was more like, I’ve done this for many years and you guys haven’t, so here’s what I would suggest. But it was always their show. That was really important to all of this: This is your show. You’re going to find out through trial and error what works, and they did.