OBERLIN — Lya Finston got $5 Sunday night but only after asking an Emmy-winning writer and a well-known actor in front of a full house at Oberlin College’s Finney Chapel.
“I needed $5, so I figured I’d ask them,” Finston said about the question she posed to “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” head writer Daniel Radosh and “The Office” and “The Hangover” actor Ed Helms that drew laughs from the audience and gained her extra money from Helms. “But I’m glad everyone thought it was funny and my timing was comedic.”
Radosh and Helms, both alumni of the college from the 1990s, discussed their roots in satire and gave advice to aspiring comics and writers at the final event in this year’s convocation series.
Student Emma Eisendrath asked the duo about the role of women in the comedy field as opposed to when they first broke in with Helms saying it feels like there’s a conscious effort in the industry now to include women and other minorities.
“I don’t know if a movie like ‘The Hangover’ about three pretty comfortable white guys would get made right now,” he said, “The studios are looking for diversity in casts. I hear so much more of that as things come together, and I think it’s promising.”
Helms graduated from the college in 1996 and said from there he moved to New York City and surrounded himself with other comics in order to help gain the support he needed to move forward in his career, ultimately landing a gig as a correspondent for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” in 2002, where he appeared until 2006 after landing a recurring, and ultimately starring role, on NBC’s “The Office.”
“Moving to New York was probably one of the scariest things I had to do to move forward,” Helms said. “I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and had a lot of support there, and the only other people I knew in New York were other Oberlin kids. Everyone struggled.”
Radosh, a 1991 graduate, also worked on “The Daily Show” during Stewart’s tenure and won three Emmys, beginning in 2008 and until Noah took over in 2015, after spending some time in journalism.
Under the moderation of President Marvin Krislov, the two touched on topics like how to handle bombing a stand-up routine and at what point is satire too far.
“I don’t think there are any subjects that are off limits, but I think that people should be looking at the target of the joke versus the intent of the joke,” Radosh said. “Is the target the victim and the intent to diminish the problem? Because then it doesn’t matter how far you go. You’ve crossed a line.”
They also tackled what it’s like to work on satire for different presidents. Helms worked for “The Daily Show” during George W. Bush’s tenure and Radosh’s run has primarily consisted of Barack Obama.
However, both agreed Donald Trump presents an interesting challenge.
“During the Obama years, there were a lot of political and cultural institutions that were all functioning well enough that you could look at them and point out why there was humor value in it,” Radosh said. “The big difference now is not just that there is a president with a different ideology, but also all of those institutions have fallen apart and aren’t functioning how they’re supposed to.”
Radosh said the “catastrophe” in Washington, D.C., now isn’t even about being in opposition to decisions but is instead more like just sitting there and wondering, “What the hell is happening?”
“We’re used to doing satire where the person is putting on a faade, and we puncture it by showing the idiot underneath,” he said. “Donald Trump doesn’t put on that faade. He’s just the idiot. He functions like a stand-up comedian, taking his cues from the crowd, and it’s like, ‘If you’re doing the bit, what are we supposed to do?’”