Don’t fret too much if you missed Sunday night’s debut of The 1/2 Hour News Hour. The program—Fox News Channel’s answer to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart—was awful, not a real contender against its Comedy Central rival. It wasn’t just that the jokes on the Fox spoof often failed. That’s par for the course in satire, political or otherwise. It’s that the whole atmosphere of the show was grimly, thuddingly unfunny. The question is, why?
For Alessandra Stanley, the chief TV critic of the New York Times, the problem was the show’s conservative slant—that is, its single-minded focus on targets like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and global warming. The debut completely spares Dick Cheney and President Bush, the constant foils for Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart. As Stanley complained, “The Fox News comedy only leans on the Left.” For his part, the show’s creator, Joel Surnow, one of Hollywood’s few outspokenly right-wing big wigs, is happy to admit that The 1/2 Hour News Hour is “unabashedly coming from a certain point of view. . . . We’re not looking to be balanced.”
But partisan bias isn’t what ruined the show’s debut. Some of the problem was simple execution. Surnow’s fame rests on the runaway success of his action show 24. But his infallible instinct for quick-cut, split-screen drama doesn’t translate into comic timing. Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter make cameo appearances to open the show, pretending to be President and VP circa 2009, and the piece could not have been more leaden. As for the faux anchors behind the news desk, they do one awkwardly scripted set piece after another, interrupted only by a maniacally fake laugh track. Almost no footage of real politicians and activists is used to vary the tempo and lend some verisimilitude to the newscast.
In fact—and here, I think, lies the show’s deeper defect—The 1/2 Hour News Hour seems much less interested in politics per se than in scoring ideological points. The most effective bits on The Daily Show often consist of little more than cleverly juxtaposing quick clips of Bush, Cheney, John Kerry, or Nancy Pelosi doing what politicians do—pontificating, evading, euphemizing. Very often, all the host has to add is a quizzical look or a sly remark.
The Fox show, by contrast, aims to advance arguments and knock down prejudices. It is just as earnest in mocking the ACLU, anti-smoking crusaders, and “angry lesbians” as those groups are in advancing their own agendas. And earnestness, Left or Right, simply isn’t funny.