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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Jon Stewart Taught me How to be A Lawyer

In the Fall, I was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, interviewed by correspondent Dan Bakkedahl.  (Clip here).   I didn't really want to do it; I watch and admire the show, but  I didn't think that appearing would either help me as an individual (I doubt my dean will value it highly at raise time, for instance (Toni--am I wrong?)), or constitute public service by educating the public about the legal system.  Also, I thought there was some risk, improbable as it might be, that I would come off looking silly.   But, one of my hipper colleagues promised that I would gain "street cred" with the students, and the media relations people thought it would be a good idea.  So I agreed.  There's no such thing as bad publicity, right?

The topic was the proposed Arizona Voter Rewards Initiative, which would have given $1,000,000 to some lucky voter.  (NPR story here).  The initiative failed, but it was named one of the NYT's 100 best ideas of the year, so it may not be dead yet.

I thought the initiative if successful would be void under federal laws prohibiting payment for registering, voting, or voting for or against a particular candidate.  (18 U.S.C. 597 and 42 U.S.C. 1973i)

I can't say I was particularly happy with the bit, but I took away some knowledge about a form of advocacy that shares some characteristics with legal advocacy.  First, Dan Bakkedahl and his team were very well prepared.   They came in knowing more about the law and the background of the issue than did the "mainstream" news outlets.   Second, they structured the interview with the idea of giving the sucker as little information as possible about where the questioning was going.  They separated related questions, for example, and saved the most revealing questions for the end, when they had already taped most of what they wanted.  Third, they paid great attention to detail in putting together their video.  For example, they made sure there were no working clocks within view of the camera, so that none of their edits would be detectable.  I suppose these are related to basic trial advocacy concepts, but it was impressive to see them executed so carefully. 

Probably their most effective technique was one that lawyers can't emulate: Editing together a question with an answer to an entirely different question.  You see, they do the interview with a single camera; first, they ask all of the questions and tape the mark's answers, and then they tape the questions, sometimes doing multiple takes, so they have several versions from which to choose.    So, a couple of questions went like this:

Question: Do you think it is important that everyone have the right to vote?
Answer: Very much so, yes sir. 

Question: Does the Arizona Voter Rewards Initiative make you angry? 
Answer: No, but I think it is a bad idea as a matter of policy.

On TV, it was like this:

Question: Does the Arizona Voter Rewards Initiative make you angry? 
Answer: Very much so, yes sir. 

The last thing the Daily Show team taught me was the value of an airtight release, which they made me sign at the beginning of the process.  The document made clear that they were free to present me in a false light, so nothing they did was unexpected.  (I guess I am a good enough lawyer to have understood what I was signing, a bad enough lawyer that I signed it anyway.)

I was less impressed with the humor content of the story.  Dan Bakkedahl has done some brilliant work  (this piece on the Gay Rodeo is  amazing), but the humor in this piece turned on Dan's feigned confusion of me, Jack Chin, with Jackie Chan, the movie actor.    Eric Muller blogged the issue at the time.  I thought it was playing on a racial stereotype, but worse than that, far worse, not particularly funny.

This will be my last post for a while; thanks to Dan Markel and the PrawfsBlawg family for giving me the opportunity to blog here; it has been a pleasure.

Posted by Marc Miller on April 5, 2007 at 12:11 AM in Culture | Permalink


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» Making the Daily Show: from The Volokh Conspiracy
Over at PrawfsBlawg, Jack Chin blogs about his experience being interviewed for a segment on the... [Read More]

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I was just talking to Jack Chin this evening, so I came home and watched the segment. Two things: 1) the biggest problem with this segment, by far, is that it wasn't funny; 2) that so-called "hipper" colleague isn't hip-- but he was right on this one. It did give Jack street cred. And that's what will be remembered: Jack Chin was so cool, he was on The Daily Show.

Posted by: Rachel | Apr 19, 2007 11:58:09 PM

You should have told him to hold the board still, punched him in the mouth, and then claimed you "slipped".

Posted by: Jackie Chan | Apr 6, 2007 12:13:22 PM

If you cannot recover money damages for somebody hailing you by the "N" word, the use of the "N" word should not be such a big deal. If mistaking or deliberately confusing Jack Chen and Jackie Chan is not reasonably actionable, then it is just a joke.

There's the nominee for "stupidest thing I've heard today." Merely because something is not actionable does not make it socially acceptable. If I can "joke" an elderly woman with Alzheimer's about her having been a hooker in front of an audience, that isn't civilly actionable* and might even be crudely funny, but it is not socially acceptable.

* I might have to be careful to avoid criminal prosecution for obscene speech, but even that isn't difficult; it could be an innuendo-laden scene along the lines of Bethel v. Fraser, in which to my knowledge the student speech was restricted despite not being criminally obscene.

Posted by: PG | Apr 5, 2007 8:04:31 PM

I love the Daily Show but usually skip the canned segments. With few exceptions (e.g. Rob Corddry's piece on "Spendocrats" and "Repiglicans"), they're often unfunny, or worse, insulting and embarrassing.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Apr 5, 2007 2:54:42 PM

I do not think jokes about overlap between racial or ethnic shared parameters is sufficient cause to take offense. Having witnessed riots, I believe it takes a lot more to get to real harm. Often hypersensitive responses to matters racial/ethnic/gender actually exacerbate divisions by justifying a feeling of being insulted.

For instance, it is perfectly fine to be offended by the use of the "N" word, but it is unrealistic, improper, too liberal, or simply laziness-prone to expect reparations for enslavement of one's ancestors. In real life, given where the threshold is being set for being offended, it is unrealistic to set a much higher threshold for actual compensation. Such disparity increases the chances of a person feeling inequitable treatment.

Therefore, it is preferable to have relatively consistent thresholds. If you cannot recover money damages for somebody hailing you by the "N" word, the use of the "N" word should not be such a big deal. If mistaking or deliberately confusing Jack Chen and Jackie Chan is not reasonably actionable, then it is just a joke.

I, personally, would not be offended by any play on my name, profession, abilities or lack thereof. For this reason alone, I am not a good candidate for the Daily Show while Jack Chen is priceless. His reasoned discourse makes him even better, if that is possible, for he plays a foil to himself as presented on the Daily Show.

As he may have realized, the contract clause in question does not appear to be watertight, contrary to his reading into it of his worst fears. That may make for an interesting hypothetical for a law school test question.

Posted by: Rattan Nath | Apr 5, 2007 12:49:22 PM

I was on the Daily Show (interviewed by Stephen Colbert, when he was still a "correspondent") in 1999, shortly after Jon Stewart took over the anchor desk. I regret to report that this resulted in exactly zero cred among my students.

Posted by: steve lubet | Apr 5, 2007 10:22:45 AM

I'm not sure Prof. Chin's positions were flagrantly misrepresented. I don't think they were misrepresented much at all (apart from his supposed "anger," which obviously isn't there anyway). Watching the clip, it's clear, he came across as a rather dignified straight man to the crazy dude. That's the formula. Need one real-life idiot, one interviewer that plays along, and one straight guy to suffer the bit.

I agree the Jackie Chan bit is insulting, but worse, NOT funny.

p.s. I watch the Daily Show regularly. What's surprising is that I'm reading (and replying to) this blog.

Posted by: mrshl | Apr 5, 2007 1:20:53 AM

Its an interesting question: when art and reality meld, what is the legitimate role of satire? In this case, they flagrantly misrepresented your position towards a comic end. I think you're right to point out the racially motivated component. Why didn't they instead confuse you with Jackie Chiles, the Johnnie Cochran inspired lawyer? I think you're right to set the record straight here, even knowing that most consumers of the Daily Show's end product will never read it. Like the work of Sasha Baron Cohen, the Daily Show takes some unpleasant liberties with its subjects. No easy answers, I think.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Apr 4, 2007 10:43:08 PM

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