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Turns Out, Fox Isn't Funny

Watching the right wing's try at 'The Daily Show.'

By Elaine Corden 6 Mar 2007 |

Elaine Corden reviews TV and pop culture for The Tyee.

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Brilliant in its sheer stupidity?

Like almost everything the Fox News channel cooks up, The 1/2 Hour News Hour, the network's new Daily Show-esque satirical news program, is diabolically brilliant in its sheer stupidity. It started Feb. 18, and has already made waves with its use of iconic right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh and Ann "Ignore-Her-and-She'll-Go-Away" Coulter as de facto spokespeople. The show seems like a rather wonderfully democratic spectacle that uses comedy as its own rocket grenade launcher. It seems Fox is attempting to attack the left with the weapons the left itself created.

Much to my pain-for-pleasure chagrin, Fox News has yet to traverse the 49th and make itself available here, but The 1/2 Hour News Hour is, thankfully, available on YouTube and at Political Humor.

Though the use of The Daily Show's wildly popular format comes as an affront to lefty-fans of Jon Stewart's brilliant nightly broadcast, one can hardly fault Fox's logic. Politics, particularly the hard-right, grumpy-old-man-politics of Fox News, is a hard sell to young people. Every post-X Generation has grown more and more attached to irony, sarcasm and mockery to the point that it's become the default language. We've all heard the startling fact that most college-aged kids get their news from Stewart or Stephen Colbert's Colbert Report, but the crutch of irony goes deeper: at its most harmless, it's a "Jesus is my Homeboy" t-shirt or a Hello Kitty vibrator; at its worst, its an entire generation unable to look sincerity in the face.

Ironic potato chip generation

The folks at Fox News may be moronic, but they ain't stupid. They've looked at a young generation to whom even potato chips must be sold with eyes rolled, and have adjusted their language accordingly. The kids don't want O'Reilly preaching hellfire and brimstone. They want smug, in-jokey, whip-crackers poking deserved fun at admittedly ripe targets like Hillary Clinton, self-righteous hippies and liberal Hollywood.

The Fox take on fake news is much what you'd expect. Created by 24 mastermind Joel Surnow (recently under fire for that show's starkly pro-torture messages), it unabashedly apes elements of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, practically setting itself up for failure by inviting comparisons to the two smartest shows on TV.

The 1/2 Hour News Hour features two anchors, Jennifer Lange and Kent McNally (Jenn Robertson and Kurt Long) who deliver fake news stories that target the sacred cows of the left (a joke about Cindy Sheehan going on a shooting spree anyone?) in their smarmiest fake-anchor tones. On the opening night, a sketch featuring Coulter and Limbaugh portrayed Rush the rotund radio mouthpiece as he gave a victory speech after wining the 2009 presidential election, wresting the country from the hands of a mentally-ill Howard Dean.

Who owns humour?

The premise is funny, but boy howdy, the jokes are not, despite how high the producers turn up the canned laughter. You know you're in trouble when Ann Coulter, who apparently still thinks fag jokes are funny, gets in the best line as Limbaugh's victorious Veep. ("Invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity" says Coulter of her nation's enemies, suggesting she either didn't know she was on a satirical show, or that her whole persona is a performance art piece so wickedly dark it kind of blows one's mind.)

For those of us who thought the rest of Fox News was supposed to be comedy, the failure of The 1/2 Hour News Hour was expected -- many of us may have felt that satire belonged to the oppressed, that it was the domain of the leftist intelligentsia, or at the very least that its purpose was to speak truth to power. And given that Fox tends to shill for the current administration, satire seems damn near impossible. Many of us forget that there have been acclaimed and popular right-wing satirists (P.J. O Rourke and Tom Wolfe writing for Rolling Stone in the 1980s certainly springs to mind), and that the Clinton administration endured some wickedly funny satire. So it's not that satire is the domain of the right or the left, but rather of the wit.

The 1/2 Hour News Hour fails not because it is overtly mean-spirited (isn't all the best humour a bit cruel?), but because it's just not that funny. Conservative blogs like Hot Air and Right Wing News as well as liberal media like Slate and Hollywood Reporter alike seem to agree that it's simply poorly written and not sharp enough to go toe-to-toe with The Daily Show.

Indeed, watching it, I, an admittedly left-leaning TV columnist, couldn't help but feel a little sad that the adversary was not a little more worthy. It's possible for an opposing viewpoint to make a lefty laugh (witness post 9-11 Dennis Miller, or Bill Maher, when the mood strikes) but it has to be, well, it has to be more than a cheap Marion Barry joke. (Yes, the first episode of The 1/2 Hour News Hour contained a Marion Barry joke. Way to stay current, writers! Shagadelic! Where's the beef? Wasssuppp!?)

This show (and its as-yet uncertain future) fails not because satire belongs to the people, but because, though some of it thought it not possible, Fox has underestimated the intelligence of its audience.

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