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Half a Laugh

Do conservatives bring the funny?

Can conservatives be funny? Apparently not--if the measure is Fox News' "The 1/2 Hour News Hour," the painfully scripted conservative answer to Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." That's sort of telling in and of itself: Mother Jones doesn't produce "The Daily Show"; Comedy Central does. Fox is entering a fray in which it has no expertise; that is, good humor. And how could it? This is after all a crowd that thinks that calling John Edwards a faggot is pretty funny stuff. In fact, Ann Coulter herself makes cameos on the show as the "vice president" to Rush Limbaugh's "president" in a gross rip-off of a common "Saturday Night Live" skit:

Part of what makes "The Daily Show" so funny is its timeliness, something "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" immediately loses by being only a weekly program. But, truthfully, "The 1/2 Hour News Hour"'s absence of timeliness is more accurately grounded in its fundamental misunderstanding of the formula for great political satire: using issues of the day. "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" takes shots at the ACLU, for example, apropos of absolutely nothing. The group hasn't been in the news lately, the issue "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" attacks them for--pregnant women's privacy rights vis-à-vis drug testing--is years old, and the potshots just seem like frustrated venting, not wry commentary. Check it out:

It's hard to know where to begin. Obviously no one was suing for the right to snort cocaine, but that feels beside the point here. It's hard not to keep staring perplexed, squinting a little, and uttering, "I don't get it" every few seconds.

I wondered perhaps if I was watching the show too much as a liberal. I had to confront the inexorable reality that perhaps I couldn't separate my own politics from this program. So I tried the following thought experiment: Imagine the show is "SNL" and that Rush Limbaugh is played by, say, Michael Moore (I know, he's awful, but how many liberal firebrands can you think of?) and Moore thanks, say, Sam Brownback for a good race to the White House and wishes him well getting the help he needs. Yeah, still not funny; still don't get it. In fact, the script is flawed from a conservative point of view anyway. Limbaugh and Howard Dean run for president and there's a recount? Meaning in this hypothetical, the country was torn over such a decision; it wasn't a runaway conservative victory? Conservatives could barely beat Dean. I'm pretty sure if I were a conservative, I would find that distinctly uncomfortable.

This happens again during a global warming bit where the guest "expert" rationally explains how global warming caused a blizzard, firmly and convincingly establishing global warming as a real phenomenon. Then the "expert" explains Britney Spears' panty-less behavior using global warming. So the gag, I suppose, is that liberals use global warming to explain everything? It doesn't sound like he's saying global warming isn't real, just over used. That's pretty weak stuff, and definitely not laugh-out-loud funny.

But then no one is really laughing out loud are they? There appears to be a studio audience, and yet ... the laugh track kicks in so obviously that you begin to wonder just who is in that audience: the undead? temps? It's not even a good laugh track; every chuckle on "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" is straight out of "The Brady Bunch"; it's so noticeable that it starts to occur to you that absolutely no one uses them anymore. Not that a laugh track can't be used sartorially, but this is no "Monty Python's Flying Circus." In fact, after one or two jokes, it becomes clear that "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" isn't even using different tracks; every time it's the same canned, stale, fake, 1960s "comedy-enhancer" track that live studio audiences replaced decades ago; no occasional cough or guffaw or titter, just the same generic "hahahaha" time and again. I bet if you play it backwards it really says "Invade France" or something--though actually that might be funny and I don't think creator Joel Surnow (also of "24" fame) frankly is capable of funny. Or casting. Check out these deadweights:

Oh, black pols and their coke--gets me every time. Here's the thing: Most television hosts are personalities. From Bill O'Reilly to Chris Matthews to David Letterman or John Stewart, all reign over their shows, alternately expressing confidence, rage, sarcasm, charm, and, well, apparent interest in what they are doing. The Stepford couple in "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" have perfected the faux shocked naïf: "But however can that be?" Unfortunately they have no other tricks. Since they are actors and not personalities, the pair simply tries to act like they anchor a news show. Stewart and Stephen Colbert anchor their fake news; they run their shows. "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" hosts would fall apart if asked to improv, ad-lib, or riff on their own. So they sit up straight, rarely inflect, and have cold dead eyes. I've seen more personality in John Kerry after a strong dose of Ambien.

Where's the passion and wit of P.J. O'Rourke, Christopher Buckley, Tucker Carlson, even Dennis Miller (remember him on "SNL," babe? Alas ... )? I don't believe comedy has to be consigned only to the left (though there is something about breaking rules and being ostentatious and arch that works well with humor but not so well with conservatism). Certainly, at least, "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" need not be this bad. Which brings me to a theory popular on "The Daily Show" message boards: Liberals write "The 1/2 Hour News Hour." It's all a big hoodwink to make conservatives look humorless; how else to explain the painfully unfunny content, the pat script, and vacuous hosts? Far be it for me to tell Fox News how to run their comedy department, but I'd start looking for moles.

By Sacha Zimmerman