THE BACK PAGES

The war against Jon Stewart

Afraid it’s losing the youth vote to Comedy Central, Fox News attempts to get funny

JAIME J. WEINMAN March 5 2007
THE BACK PAGES

The war against Jon Stewart

Afraid it’s losing the youth vote to Comedy Central, Fox News attempts to get funny

JAIME J. WEINMAN March 5 2007

The war against Jon Stewart

tv

Afraid it’s losing the youth vote to Comedy Central, Fox News attempts to get funny

JAIME J. WEINMAN

Why are the producers of Fox News so desperate to be funny? This past month, the conservative cable news channel added two shows that attempt to make fun of liberals, instead of just calling them traitors the way Fox News’ regular anchors do. You don’t see CNN trying to come up with a comedy show, but then Fox News’ new programming ventures may be more about a political movement than news— or, for that matter, comedy.

The 1/2 Hour News Hour, Fox’s answer to The Daily Show, comes from Joel Surnow, creator of the comedy-challenged hit 24. The first episode included a guest appearance by Surnow’s friend Rush Limbaugh and comparisons between Barack Obama and Oprah. If that’s not enough liberal-bashing comedy for you, Fox News has also come up with a latenight talk show called Red Eye, starring former Maxim UK editor Greg Gutfeld. Gutfeld, who once called liberals “patriotic terrorists,” tried to prove how cutting-edge Red Eye was by informing his co-panellists that Fox News was allowing him to say the word “douche.”

An article by Doug Giles, a columnist for the conservative site Townhall.com, may provide a clue about why Fox News is trying to get hilarious. Giles warned his ideological comrades that they would lose the culture wars unless they learned to make viewers laugh. Pointing out that demographic trends strongly favour consumers of Comedy Central, he wrote: “Blowing off this bunch that’s not listening to conservative talk radio, watching Bill [O’Reilly], or logging on to Townhall. com is to dis a crowd that will, in short order, be influencing our nation after you take the big dirt nap, conservative mom and dad.” This isn’t just about trying to fill up some

time on a 24-hour news channel. With the popularity of liberal-leaning humour among young people, and the liberal-Democratic tilt of young voters in the 2006 mid-term elections, conservatives are worried that the future belongs to people who have been brought up to think that tax cuts and preventive war are for dorks. Fox News, a network formed to assist the conservative movement, found itself faced with a choice: find the funny, or watch its movement slip into irrelevance.

Will the combination of humour and Republican party boosting ever take off? Gavin McNett, a writer for the liberal humour blog Sadlyno.com, doesn’t think so. He says today’s conservatives have a “hermetic, self-referential world view” that leads them to mistake talking points for jokes. “Referencing one of their common shibboleths often serves the purpose that humour would serve,” he continues. “There has to be an element of surprise in humour—and conservatives hate surprise. It’s just how they’re wired.”

Sure enough, most of the jokes on The ill Hour News Hour aren’t really jokes at all: they’re Fox News segments with a laugh track. A typical remark from the pilot episode is that Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean is mentally ill and “getting the medical attention he has so desperately needed.” We’re expected to laugh not

because there was any amusing spin on the talking point, but just because we agree. Anyone who doesn’t already agree will be flipping the channel to a real comedy show.

But contrary to what McNett says, there have always been successful right-leaning comedians and comedy writers; today’s most prominent examples are Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. Their episodes carry titles like “Die, Hippie, Die!” and make fun of environmentalists, hybrid cars, and liberal atheist Richard Dawkins. A typical episode of South Park produces more laughter at the expense of liberal sacred cows than anything Fox News can come up with.

The difference is that Parker and Stone are not party men; like liberal comics, they have a political philosophy that they incorporate into their work. Much of today’s conservative movement, on the other hand, is based on partisan politics: Fox News or Townhall.com are unofficial organs of the Republican party. It’s hard to be an effective comedian while being an advocate for a party, any party: Al Franken hasn’t been particularly funny since he stopped being a political satirist and became a Democratic candidate for the Senate.

But Fox News will keep trying to entice young viewers with The 1/2 Hour News Hour’s mental illness jokes. As Doug Giles wrote, if conservatives can’t crack wise, they may lose “our ideological battle with the secularists who whiz on traditional American values.”

That’s comedy gold right there. M