There was a time when the idea of a different spin on the dry humor of The Daily Show might have made sense. Around the time that Stewart and co. produced America: The Book, they were a twister (or some other forceful natural phenomenon) of popular criticism with an immense influence on the countryï¿½s youth. If some exceptionally creative folk wanted to satirize the hostï¿½s persona, or the occasionally cutesy segments, or the behavior of the correspondents, then, with a certain amount of intelligence and skill, this mighty task might have been achieved.
If they wanted to make the humor on this satirical show particularly conservative, so be it, as long as they got good comedy out of it. This would have been quite difficult, even for some of the best writers around, since The Daily Show is hardly a straightforward news program; it would have been akin to an attempt to spoof the Austin Powers movies, since they themselves are a response to the already-jocular Bond films. But, hard as it might have been, the result of such an effort could have earned our respect. Such a thing cannot be said of Fox News Channelï¿½s recent birth, ï¿½The Half-Hour News Hour.ï¿½
We are at a strange moment in the publicï¿½s relationship with Murdochï¿½s cable network. Its numbers have fallen significantly, but it is still far and away the most popular channel of its kind. FNC and its parent company are insulated enough that they allow Matt Groening and Seth MacFarlane to ridicule the administration they adore in almost every new episode of their shows. Yet, self-assured and smug though they might want to seem, their shrinking viewership, for example, suggests that there are indeed cracks in their veneer.
After 2004ï¿½s documentary Outfoxed was released, the vocal minority, outraged by the willful dishonesty of the network, was joined by an increasing number of people who had previously ignored or avoided the popular channel. The mild chortle at its ï¿½Fair and Balancedï¿½ slogan became a marginally deafening roar of laughter, and Olbermann began to make Oï¿½Reilly so mad that the ï¿½Factorï¿½ host now refuses to refer to him by name as he insults him. Essentially, there are many people around this country who still watch Fox News, yet instead of being accepted as a simple alternative to the other hyperactive cable networks, it is now a powerful, long-running joke. In fact, Olbermann has already pointed out that The Half-Hour News Hour is particularly unnecessary when the channel that spawned it is an endless supply of comedy on its own. But, spawn it they have, and now we are here to judge it as harshly as it deserves.
Some of the intrepid souls that helped to create and research Outfoxed continue to sacrifice their free time to watch Fox News and point out its myriad inaccuracies and outrageous moments on their website, NewsHounds. They split their duties amongst the Channelï¿½s shows, and although they are generally accustomed to Foxï¿½s unsavory behavior, they still occasionally become outraged by what they see on their screens. Accordingly, Deborah Yesner, who has been suffering through The Half-Hour News Hour since its premiere, describes the show as what would happen if ï¿½Mike Gallagher and Mike Savage had a few drinks and wrote down their favorite one-liners.ï¿½
Indeed, The Half-Hour News Hour is not a clever response to The Daily Show, or a clever anything at all. In addition to its cheap, mean-spirited humor, the show actually features a boisterous, obnoxious laugh track, a tactic that, devoid of irony, hasnï¿½t worked since the middle seasons of Seinfeld. Yet, though it does feature several (unknown) actors ï¿½ who I donï¿½t blame for accepting a paycheck ï¿½ The Half-Hour News Hour is not, in its own mind at least, a sitcom.
The man and woman who anchor the show fluctuate between smug and smugger, and whenever the recorded laughter plays, they revel in their false adulation. And then thereï¿½s the humor, which is not onlyï¿½ not humorous, but quite specifically blunt and mean. Whether it was the giant, fake guffaw after describing Hillaryï¿½s potential cabinet as ï¿½angry lesbians,ï¿½ or turning James and the Giant Peach into James and the Giant Melanoma ï¿½ as Yesner wrote on NewsHounds, ï¿½Iï¿½m sure John McCain found that hilariousï¿½ ï¿½ their obsession with cruelty supersedes even their lack of wit as the main reason why the show is such a failure. If this were South Park slamming Cruise and Travolta, then the cruelty would be warranted, appreciated, and celebrated, but the show is not written by people with a sliver of the talent of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Comedy, and satire in particular, can be at its best when not playing nice, but when the bullying nature of Oï¿½Reilly and Hannity is your only method of attempting to induce laughter, then you most certainly have not succeeded.
In her comments about the show, Yesner wrote, ï¿½I don’t think the writers really understand comedy. They crossed that line and the anger and cruelty came through. That’s never really funny to anyone except the bullies.ï¿½ Just as schoolyard terrors tend to take out their rage on others due to deep-seated insecurity, the showï¿½s laugh track suggests that the even people behind The Half-Hour News Hour are uncertain of their productï¿½s viability. ï¿½In the very last scene which was added on,ï¿½ Yesner explained, ï¿½they showed an audience to convince the fans that it was all really hilarious.ï¿½ Well, at least theyï¿½re self-aware.
As depressing as the very existence of The Half-Hour News Hour is, its importance pales in comparison to a parallel development. Although Yesner is certainly correct in stating that Fox is ï¿½afraid of [Stewart’s and Colbertï¿½s] influence and ratings,ï¿½ a look at Comedy Centralï¿½s 11 oï¿½clock programming makes one wish for the heady days of 2004. The Colbert Report continues to grow in stature, staging guitar-playing contests between its host and The Decemberists, but the focal point of the past decadeï¿½s fake news has been left for dead with a barely-there Samantha Bee and the PC guy from those cutesy Mac commercials. Jon Stewart can still squeeze laughs out of the look on his face after showing a particularly well-selected clip, but, funny though it might be, The Daily Show rarely inspires the passion it once did. A recent Laguna Beach parody recalled the top-notch humor of the show in past years; in its sly way, it angrily criticized the vapid entertainment provided by MTVï¿½s cottage industry of ï¿½realï¿½ pretty-white-people shows. This was a reminder of the program that has gradually slipped away from us as its various correspondents have gone on to successful careers away from ï¿½fakeï¿½ news.
What made The Daily Show so valuable was that, although it is not ï¿½real news,ï¿½ it always felt more honest, and certainly more intelligent, than what we had come to accept as the norm in televised journalism. Though it was somewhat juvenile in the Lewinsky days, it grew into a nightly expression of the frustration and resentment its audience felt towards the information with which they were presented. One doubts that Tim Russert would have eviscerated ï¿½pro-familyï¿½ man Bill Bennett with the efficiency and eloquence that Jon Stewart once did. And to see Stewartï¿½s show slide into a still-amusing but relatively toothless comfort zone is harder to swallow than any of the jokes on The Half-Hour News Hour.
Whereas the decline of The Daily Show is certainly visible, it is nonetheless quite subtle compared to the mix of cruelty and desperation on display in The Half-Hour News Hour. Indeed, as Yesner points out, ï¿½FOX is accustomed to shoving stuff down their viewersï¿½ throats.ï¿½ But, unintentionally hilarious though the Channel might be, its bluntness had previously been channeled into shows that take themselves quite seriously. In doing so with what is supposed to be comedy, the suits at FNC are showing a degree of vulnerability to which they would never otherwise admit. Although we are slowly losing The Daily Show as a vital outlet for our frustration, the existence and botched execution of The Half-Hour News Hour suggests that we might eventually lose Fox News as televisionï¿½s loudest landfill.
Yesner agrees, to a point: ï¿½I say they’re doomed but don’t see it yet. However, it’s possible that they’ll try a Coulter/Limbaugh shift, making political attacks viler while increasing their tabloid focus.ï¿½ So, The Half-Hour News Hour might not actually signal the beginning of the end, but a transition into an even more unpleasant state. As unfortunate as that might seem on its surface, there is always the chance that the increase in cruelty might actually invigorate Stewart and his team, and give us back the show that attacked the world around it with a passion and intelligence so particularly rare in todayï¿½s television. One can dream about The Daily Showï¿½s return to form, but, for now, we can all hope that The Half-Hour News Hour will vanish as quickly as possible.