Fake-news program “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” is taking a page from serious news organizations this week with on-the-scene reports from the war zone in Iraq.
Correspondent Rob Riggle, who has combat experience as a major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, spent five days in Iraq last week with “Daily Show” writer Kevin Bleyer and field producer Glenn Clements. They went with a USO sketch comedy tour known as “Operation Feel the Heat” — armed with small, handheld cameras — and also brought back video that will be used for a “Daily Show” about the troops and their lives in Iraq.
Although “The Daily Show” spends time on topics related to Iraq and often has one of its correspondents appear against a greenscreen that simulates the Middle Eastern country, it’s the first time the show has gone the extra step and visited Iraq.
Riggle, Clements and Bleyer visited several bases — including Balad Air Force Base near Baghdad and two forward operating bases — over five days. They performed with other comedians in 120-degree heat on makeshift stages, including a basketball court, then in between shot short videos for “The Daily Show.”
“Definitely it was run and gun,” said Clements, who with Bleyer ran the handheld camera. “First and foremost, we were there to entertain the troops.”
Clements said that there was a YouTube-esque aesthetic to the “Daily Show” videos, which will be about two minutes in length each night.
‘Happy to see us’
Riggle said he felt good about being able to be part of a comedy troupe that entertained the troops, saying that comedy and laughter is their escape from the deadly serious work they do every day.
“At the forward operating bases, they didn’t have any entertainment, USO-style, for quite a while,” Riggle said. “They were happy to see us.”
Clements and Riggle said they also heard from troops who watched the show; Riggle said several soldiers repeated lines from the Comedy Central show back to him. Each of the USO comedians stayed after the show, posing for pictures and talking for hours.
The “Daily Show” contingent said it is sensitive to the soldiers’ concerns, and the comedy this week from Iraq will focus on Riggle’s escapades while there. “Of course what’s going on is serious, and we take it very seriously,” Riggle said. “Any humor we did, it’s on me being an idiot. We know where the line is.”
Riggle and Clements went to the show’s producers in November to ask whether they could go to Iraq with a USO tour being planned and at the same time shoot pieces for “The Daily Show.” After months of preparation and training in what to expect when they got there, Riggle and crew left Aug. 10.
“Obviously, we thought it was an incredibly amazing opportunity, and (host) Jon Stewart himself is very active in supporting the troops, visiting Walter Reed,” “Daily Show” co-executive producer Kahane Corn said. “He was very keen to have some ‘Daily Show’ presence through the USO in Iraq to hopefully entertain everybody.”
Riggle is no stranger to combat. The “Saturday Night Live” veteran is a major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, public affairs division, and he served in Afghanistan and Kosovo.
Corn said the show’s staff has been on pins and needles since the crew left, sharing when they heard from the trio via interoffice e-mail. But Korn said that the show wouldn’t have participated in the tour it without knowing they would be as safe as possible.
“You’re nervous, and you want them to come home safely,” Corn said. “We felt they were well chaperoned by being part of the USO, and the USO took every measure they can to ensure their safety.”
Word on Friday that “The Daily Show” had a crew embedded with the U.S. military brought mixed reactions from executives at network news divisions charged with keeping their own journalists safe. While none would comment on the record, some said they were a little uncomfortable by it given how much time, effort and worry they spend on security issues.
Some journalism experts said that “The Daily Show” showed how seriously they took the situation by sending an actor with combat experience.
Fred Bayles, a Boston University associate professor who was a combat reporter in the Persian Gulf War and traveled with the troops, said Riggle is trained as a Marine to a certain level.
“It’s interesting because if you were going to compare that level of expertise ... this guy has a hell of a lot more experience than the average war correspondent,” Bayles said. Bayles recalled that in the 1991 Gulf War even “Hard Copy” and Mirabella magazine had accredited war correspondents.
“The telling will be in how they report it, whether they go out and get access (to the front lines),” Bayles said. “I don’t think it’s such a bad thing, and obviously the military wouldn’t have allowed it if there wasn’t value, PR value.”
Boston University journalism professor John Carroll said it will be tricky to find humor in a lot of what the soldiers go through.
“It’s a little bit of a high-wire act for them,” Carroll said. “You want to go over there and keep the character of the show as much as possible, but at the same time you want to be respectful of the situation. It’s not really funny, some aspects of it.”
Corn said “The Daily Show” has already decided not to show anything sensitive, and that the troops’ welfare is the first priority.
“In the end, our goal is something that the troops themselves would enjoy,” she said.