Fox News Admits It’s a Joke
The 1/2 Hour Daily Show wannabe.
Sound & Vision, Jesse Singal, University of Michigan, Feb. 22, 2007
The 1/2 Hour Daily Show wannabe.
Jesse Singal, University of Michigan
Most TV producers would kill for the sort of success Comedy Central has had with The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and its spin-off, The Colbert Report. Both follow Colbert’s maxim that “the truth has a well-known liberal bias,” and both have legions of adoring fans. It was only so long before someone tried to cash in with a similar concept, but one targeting a redder part of the political spectrum. That day is upon us. Those watching the end of Hannity’s America on Fox News Sunday night saw Hannity introduce The 1/2 Hour News Hour and explain that “whenever I’ve seen shows like this in the past, conservatives, they always take the brunt of the joke, so tonight we bring you some balance.”
1/2 Hour, which premiered at 10 p.m. on Sunday night and stars Kurt Long and Susan Yeagley as its anchors, is the brainchild of 24 co-creator Joel Surnow. Long opened with an impressively subtle joke: “Dispelling reports that she would staff her White House with longtime cronies and political appointees, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton vowed that if she becomes president, she will surround herself with a diverse, multi-ethnic, multigenerational group of angry lesbians.”
And in case that wasn’t was heavy-handed and unrestrained enough, the show became even more aggressive. This became painfully clear during a back-and-forth between Long and Yeagley dealing with And Tango Makes Three a controversial book based on two real-life gay penguins at the New York Aquarium who raised a chick together. Some other books, the anchors tell us, are also catching flack for presenting adult themes to children. A rapid-fire series of jokes follow, each presented in the form of a fake picture book and dealing with a different topic. Homosexuality: Harry Potter and the Alternative Lifestyle. The economy: The Lion, the Witch the Wardrobe and the Budget Deficit. Body image issues: Little Women with Junk in the Trunk. Healthcare: Charlie and the Cholesterol Factory, James and the Giant Melanoma, and Garfield Goes to the Free Clinic.
Laughing yet? Of course you’re not. It’s not funny to switch one word for another. If it were, I could say that another controversial children’s book is Cloudy with a Chance of Iraq, and it would be funny. But it’s not.
In an attempt to slaughter every liberal sacred cow, in one episode, they decided to go after Senator Barack Obama. Long explains that since admitting he used cocaine when he was younger, Obama’s popularity among Democrats “plummet[ed] to an all-time low of 99.9 percent.” He goes on: “But, in a related story, Senator Obama has just been endorsed for president by former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry.” May as well riff on O.J. Simpson and Chappaquiddick while you’re at it. You can watch the whole plodding segment on Obama here.
Dated references aside, many of 1/2 Hour’s problems can be traced back to its reliance on straw men and caricatures. There was a long riff on how actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. was supposed to be the guest Sunday night but he did not arrive because his electric car didn’t work. But there’s no factual basis to it.
When you watch Jon Stewart, on the other hand, you’re presented with a substantive basis for his critiques. Take a recent example: Stewart is discussing the non-binding congressional resolution to condemn Bush’s Iraq escalation, and how utterly ineffectual it is. He shows a couple of clips from the resolution, clips that say that members of House “support and protect the members of the United States Armed Forces,” but disapprove of “the decision of President George W. Bush.” Stewart makes a series of panicky noises. “Disapproves? Can we even say that on TV? Oh my God, I hope they didn’t bleep that.” The joke works because Stewart is pointing out how ridiculous it is for the House to have such a heated, interminable debate over a resolution that won’t actually do anything. In other words, it’s firmly rooted to something actually going on.
1/2 Hour refuses to make the effort to set up its jokes or consistently anchor them to real, specific references. The show is all punch lines—and poor punch lines, for the most part. A few of the jokes do work—I chuckled when Yeagley said that Dennis Kucinich had called for a return of the fairness doctrine, but “unfortunately, he said it on Air America radio so nobody heard it.” Even when 1/2 Hour is successful, however—and these instances are few and far between—it’s not living up to what it promises. The show is being marketed as a conservative alternative to The Daily Show, but would Stewart ever pause at the idea of making fun of Kucinich? Obviously he would not, because he has done so before.
This could be the ultimate undoing of 1/2 Hour: the idea that its role is to serve as the conservative counterpoint to Stewart. What Surnow and the show’s other handlers don’t seem to get is that Stewart really isn’t all that biased. The show has a liberal slant, yes, but Stewart is, above all else, a bullshit detector. He never refrains from pointing out when a liberal says or does something stupid. Stewart’s stance is that he is amused by the circus of U.S. politics, and he’s so sick of the way the country is run, that he’s not about to hand out any free passes for those who sit on one particular side of the aisle. Stewart can ridicule John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Kucinich, and the rest as effectively as anybody. This leaves 1/2 Hour without a niche. For it to get better, it will have to pay closer attention to specific examples of what real public figures are saying and doing, but it is unlikely to ever be as deft as The Daily Show.