Tuesday, February 27, 2007
FOX 1/2 Hour News Hour. Comedy gold without Irony, Satire, or anything actually funny. "That's A Joke Folks"
Posted by Plaid Adder on Democratic Underground
Mon Feb 26th 2007, 06:38 PM
As you may have heard, FOX's cable channel has just debuted a half-hour "satirical" program entitled "The 1/2 Hour News Hour." It is supposed to be the conservative answer to The Daily Show. I was pointed to a clip of it by a friend who was brave enough to track it down on YouTube. Based on this 2 1/2 minute segment, I would not say that Jon Stewart needs to stay up nights worrying about job security. But in fact, even before I saw the segment I was pretty sure this show was going to be a dog. Why? Because a "conservative answer to The Daily Show" not only does not, but cannot exist. And because I've got the time and because I've long wanted to write something about the relationship between ideology and comedy, I'm gonna take a few moments to explain why.
Well, more than a few. This is long. Go get a sandwich and a bag of chips, it's gonna be a while.
Ideology is very important to me; but so is humor. I do not understand how anyone can survive the buffetings of this nutty universe without a sense of humor. With comedy, what I care about first is whether it makes me laugh. Ideology is a secondary consideration. There's a lot of stuff that I think is hilarious which does not stand up to any kind of political test, and in fact if you are going to be a woman and be into humor you pretty much have to inure yourself to a certain amount of sexism. Most of the comedy that really speaks to me is written by men, singly or in teams, and you can see the results in how the women performers/characters are treated. But this is a discussion for another time. My point is: I'd be willing to watch a "conservative" political show if it was funny enough. But funny is something that seems to pretty much elude the would-be practitioners of right-wing political satire. Take, for instance, right wing comic strips like "Mallard Fillmore" and "Prickly City," and compare them to, say, "Bloom County" and "Boondocks." You see what I'm talking about?
So why is it that so much right-wing political humor just plain doesn't work--even for its target audience? Well, I have a few crackpot theories, but the one I think "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" most clearly demonstrates has to do with the basic conflict between comedy and authority. This is a point that was clarified for me by another friend, who in response to my comment that creativity and authoritarianism don't often align themselves, argued that disrespect for authority is the foundation of real comedy. I was initially skeptical, even though this holds true for most of the comedy that I personally like--especially Blackadder, in which the central joke around which the show is built is that the protagonist, messed up as he is, is smarter and saner than the barking mad authority figures who conspire to ruin his life. Over the course of history, however, comedy has generally been regarded as conservative because it's so formally dependent on closure and the happy ending. And I was thinking about the fact that the most popular American form of comedy that has emerged during my lifetime is the TV sitcom, which is more often than not based on the (albeit, now, usually dysfunctional) nuclear family. But then it occurred to me that most of these family-centered sitcoms are driven by constant challenges to the father's patriarchal authority. Even in The Honeymooners, a show that managed to turn a threat of domestic violence into a catchphrase, the comedy derives from the basic contrast between Ralph's attempts to assert himself as "king of the castle" and the obvious evidence that Ralph is not king of anything, even and especially at home. The form requires that this authority is always temporarily reinscribed at the end of the show--if only by the fact that the women and children who challenge the father's authority nevertheless remain trapped inside the family--but the challenge is reopened as soon as the next episode begins.
Obviously, challenging authority is a problem for a show which is trying to be funny while defending the agenda and worldview of the regime currently in power. "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" exists only in order to help the authorities consolidate their power, and the target audience for this show--hard-core FOX viewers--can be assumed to have a pretty strong authoritarian bent. So they're not going to want to see the show attack authority anyway.
This leads me to a related problem with a lot of right-wing satire, which is choice of target. Craig Ferguson's now widely publicized February 19 Late Late Show monologue includes a clear statement of what I have long believed is one of the cardinal rules of responsible and effective humor: mock the powerful, not the vulnerable. Mocking the powerful has the positive effect of reminding everyone that though these figures may be powerful, they are not superhuman, and can be resisted/outwitted/defied; it also has the therapeutic effect of validating the anger and pain we feel as we suffer for these people, and reminding us that in fact, it's not us, it's them. Mocking the vulnerable is just bullying, and all it does is pander to the audience's worst instincts. Right-wing pundits in the main either don't understand this rule, or have a seriously warped understanding of who's vulnerable and who's powerful. Take, for instance, Rush Limbaugh's hilarious impression of Michael J. Fox on Parkinson's medication. What made him think that was funny? Did it remind him of when he was a boy and they all used to band together on the playground to torment the kid with cerebral palsy? Or in his mind, is Michael J. Fox a servant of some vast international conspiracy of Parkinson's sufferers out to destroy all that is good in the world?
Unfortunately for "The 1/2 Hour News Hour," most of the powerful--George W. Bush and his lackey, minions, hangers-on, handlers, and corporate sponsors--are off-limits. But since the 2006 midterms, the Democratic Party has started to give the GOP more of a run for its money, so there's no reason this crowd couldn't have a good time mocking the Democratic Party power elite--the same way The Daily Show regularly does. And indeed, that's what their segment on Obama attempts to do. But that spot demonstrates another problem that a lot of right wing 'humor' manifests, which I will call irony deficiency.
Irony has been defined many different ways, but the definition I think works best here is that irony is what we see when we contemplate the gap between what appears to be and what is, and/or the gap between what is and what ought to be. The main project of The Daily Show is to satirize the media; and because the media are responsible for creating perception, and because the perception created by the media has lately become massively and outrageously divergent from anything one might call reality, and because reality right now just sucks so hard, every aspect of The Daily Show is about irony. Irony is, in fact, more foundational to the show than any specific ideology.
During a recent piece on global warming, for instance, one of TDS's "correspondents," John Oliver, proposed that in the name of environmental responsibility, TDS's foreign correspondents could stop actually flying to Paris, London, Baghdad, etc., and instead merely deliver their reports from the studio while standing in front of some kind of computer generated background of the place in question. Jon Stewart then tries to prevent Oliver from revealing to the TV audience that he is in fact standing in the studio right next to Stewart in front of a computer generated image of Paris. The results are hilarious--partly because of the delighted response of the studio audience, who have of course been in on this secret all along, and who love it that Stewart is being forced to come clean for the viewing audience. There's no explicit ideological point to any of that; but it does remind the show's audiences of how closely controlled the medium of broadcast journalism is, how little the viewers really know about what they are consuming, and how pathetic the reality of broadcast news becomes once you look behind the curtain. And that, I would say, is probably what most of the writers, producers, and performers would tell you the show was really about, after you got them past the bullshit about how all they care about is being funny.
The producers of "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" have no interest in incorporating this kind of irony into their program. Educating viewers about the various kinds of manipulation to which FOX News subjects them is most certainly not part of this show's project. So they will never be able to do any of the deconstructive work that helps make The Daily Show more compelling and more important than just a collection of parodic and topical skits strung together by an announcer. Because "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" is itself part of the FOX News machine, it's structurally prevented from challenging the special brand of insanity crafted and sold by its parent network. Nor, as part of the media organ consecrated to promoting the greater glory of the neoconservative agenda, are the show's producers interested in leading viewers to contemplate the gap between the world as Bush has remade it and the world as it could be. So they're pretty much SOL on the irony front.
But this in itself wouldn't have to be a problem, given the show's target audience. In my experience Americans in general and right-wing conservatives in particular have a lot of trouble with irony. One of the things I think right-wing evangelicals hate most about "gay culture" is its ability to render ironic concepts and categories which the Christian right desperately wants everyone to accept as absolute and universal truths. It's not a coincidence that the opposite of rendering something ironic is to play it "straight," nor is it arbitrary that the oblivious character who innocently feeds the setups to the comedian without ever getting any of the jokes is called the "straight man." The ability to perceive and appreciate irony is linked to the ability to acknowledge that the way your church and your state and your parents always told you things are isn't the only way for them to be. Since most of the neocons seem to really need the assurance from these authorities that there is only one way for things to be, they are naturally going to be kind of uncomfortable with irony.
So, OK, conservative political satire without irony for people who love authority but don't like irony, well, it could work. Except that when you eliminate irony, you're pretty much taking the teeth out of your satire. Once the irony's gone, basically you're left with...well, with what's on view in "The 1/2 Hour News Hour's" Obama segment.
Watching this, I was struck at first by two things. Thing one: "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" is at a major disadvantage, compared to The Daily Show, because it cannot really use the format. As I've explained, part of what keeps The Daily Show fresh is the fact that it keeps finding new ways to identify, mock, and exploit the absurdities of cable news itself. My current favorite is Stewart's "Meet me at camera three" segments, which exploit a convention that on 'straight' news shows is just a trick to create the illusion of change and development by shooting the same bullshit from a new angle. On The Daily Show, moving to camera three actually takes the show to a new place, where, magically, Stewart can directly address whatever powerful figure he's taking on in an intimate and often surprisingly raw confrontation. "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" restricts itself to treating the format as a platter on which to serve up a bunch of punch lines. The only thing that distinguishes the "1/2 Hour News Hour's" format from a regular local news broadcast is a certain deliberately exaggerated woodenness on the part of the two anchors. At least, I'm assuming it's deliberately exaggerated. It's a little hard to tell.
Second, there is an unfortunate reliance on what Addison and Steele used to call "false wit." False wit, as defined by the old Spectator team, is a category of wordplay based on arbitrary coincidence. Their prime example was the pun, in which the 'wit' exploits the fact that two or more words with different meanings and origins happen to sound similar. Their basic problem with "false wit," from their perspective was that it didn't reveal anything important; it just used these meaningless correspondences to generate a brief flash of amusement. The Daily Show is not above using false wit; in fact, it is one of the show's major formal elements, as a graphic featuring some sort of snippy little pun usually appears behind Stewart after he's about 10 seconds into the spot. However, The Daily Show, once again, uses this trick ironically, as a commentary on the mainstream media's use of this kind of wordplay to dumb down and mischaracterize the material they present. This is demonstrated in a recent segment on the infamous diaper-wearing astronaut, in which Stewart keeps suggesting various puns ("Space Oddity," "Astro-Nut," etc.) only to find that they have all already been taken by real news outlets. He has to content himself with the caption "Very Accomplished Woman in Tragic Local Story"--an accurate description of the story which, precisely because it is not reductive, sensationalizing, or cute, is of no interest to the 24-hour news channels.
"The 1/2 Hour News Hour" has taken "false wit" to a brand new place. Apart from one setup joke about Obama's rock-star popularity and a random fart reference, all the jokes in this segment rely for their meaning on arbitrary coincidence--most particularly the arbitrary coincidence of skin color. Almost all the jokes in that segment work by drawing a connection between Obama and another well-known and (to FOX's audience) sinister figure who has little in common with Obama except for not being white. For instance, the punchline to the revelation that Obama has admitted to cocaine use in adolescence is an endorsement from Marion Barry--a corrupt African-American Democratic politician with widely publicized drug problems. The next gag is a reminder that Obama's middle name, "Hussein," is the same as the last name of the Middle Eastern dictator we just executed--which carries in it the embedded reminder that Obama's last name is only one letter away from the first name of the Saudi Arabian terrorist we still haven't tracked down. This leads into an ad for "BO Magazine" (again, the joke is based on the arbitrary coincidence between Barak Obama's intitials and the playground acronym for "body odor") which is a parody of Oprah's "O" magazine--Oprah being, of course, another African-American public figure wildly popular with white middle-class Americans. One of the fake articles that flashes during the voiceover is titled, "Obama or Tiger Woods--Which Is More Diverse?", another comparison based on the apparently endlessly amazing fact that, like Woods, Obama is African-American.
I guess I can sort of see how this string of coincidences plays on the latent xenophobia and racism of your assumed target audience in order to demonize Obama...but even so, how is it funny? There's no element of surprise, there's no revelation, and it doesn't actually say anything about either Obama or the media's Obamania. All it says is, hey, Obama's black, just like these people. And he's also a Democratic front runner. And he's popular with the media. Isn't that HILARIOUS?
Compare this with The Daily Show's running commentary on Obamania--which includes, for example, a segment in which "correspondent" Samantha Bee, after gushing about Obama's unlimited charisma, suddenly cries out ecstatically that he has cured her herpes--and you can see what a difference that layer of irony makes. The target here is not Obama himself, nor Obama's blackness, but the self-fueling media frenzy that has once again led to the total abandonment of the practices we normally think of as constituting responsible journalism. And, you know, the obligatory joke about Samantha Bee's sexual proclivities, which brings me back to my point about inuring yourself to a show's treatment of its female performers, but again, I digress. At any rate, my point is that because fundamentally this show is about the media, The Daily Show is mining a much richer vein of material than what's available to "The 1/2 Hour News Hour."
That's before we even get to the question of what's going on with the two anchors. I was watching their leaden "banter" and thinking, well, what are they really parodying here? It can't be The Daily Show, because apart from the opening shot of a studio audience that is then immediately replaced by a laugh track, it doesn't sound or act anything like The Daily Show. It can't be FOX News, because a) they can't do that and b) FOX News may be head-bleeding bad but it's not boring. In fact, it can't really be cable news at all, because the whole problem with CNN et al. is the constant hyperstimulation required by the 24-hour cycle, whereas what these anchors are modeling appears to be some sort of smiling tranquilized catatonia.
In fact, I thought, what this really reminds me of is the old Saturday Night Live Weekend Update with Dennis Miller et al. back in the 1980s. (Ah, Dennis Miller. A tragic demonstration of the pitfalls a comedian faces when he tries to reinvent himself as a conservative shill.) And then it came to me: they're parodying the liberal media. Which, of course, no longer exists. Which might explain the stylistic time warp.
So, anyone who's staying up nights worrying that "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" will actually become serious competition for The Daily Show, I think you can get a good night's sleep tonight. There is no way for a show written by right-wing hacks to do what The Daily Show does. Because what they don't seem to get is that The Daily Show did not start out as a "liberal" bastion. It started out as a comedy show about the news. It became the voice of America's pissed-off progressives, liberals, centrists, and non-extreme Republicans because for years it was the only place you could go on television to see people who understood the rampant, snarling, man-eating ironies generated by the Bush administration and its wholly owned subsidiaries. The Daily Show certainly has a clearly identifiable ideological viewpoint; but it's not just about ideology. It's about all the things that make humor work and that make humor necessary--including the sense we all have of being trapped inside the insanity of our country's two most crazed authority figures. And it's the best example I've come across in my lifetime of satire that actually works. The Daily Show has actually effected positive change--if only by pushing "Crossfire" off the air. I doubt we're going to see any of that change reversed by "The 1/2 Hour News Hour."
The Plaid Adder