The 1/2 Hour News Hour (if you can even believe such a crappy title exists on TV) is built around the idea that all political comedy currently skews left-wing, and Republicans deserve a laugh too. Created by Joel Surnow, the Fox News show tries to approximate the sardonic atmosphere of The Daily Show but for the shits and giggles of donors to the American Family Association. Kurt McNally and Jennifer Lange, two fresh faces (another approximation, this time of Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon) sit at a news desk announcing mock stories about your Liberals of Choice, while in a clipRush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter act as president and vice president of a hypothetical United States in 2009, which has just been ravaged by a Democratic congress. Limbaugh’s eyes glint at the screen as his punchline rolls, “America’s best days are still ahead of her now that the grown-ups are back in charge.”
Fox is testing out two pilots of the show on air, to see if it can actually compete against Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher. It will find itself woefully incapable. The problem is not that the writing on 1/2 Hour feels dull—a given for anyone who has endured a Sean Hannity joke—but that the setup for Surnow’s big punchline is all wrong: Political humor is inherently anti-establishment. And there is no American establishment today more sinister and ripe for satire than the Republican Party, a group that promotes Christian fundamentalists’ goals for cultural oppression at home and propagates a War on Terror abroad that is itself driven by terror.
When The 1/2 Hour News Hour reaffirms Karl Rove’s self-serving talking points, it doesn’t challenge—it genuflects. And taking institutions to task is an essential part of how satire makes sense of this world by picking it apart. To be reverent to authority, as Bart might say, is so unfunny. (Even neo-conservative crazies can agree that the biggest laugh of the night is when Coulter self-deprecatingly cracks that if you don’t watch 1/2 Hour, “we will invade your countries, kill your leaders and convert you to Christianity.”)
At times, 1/2 Hour works by questioning the false sense of progressivism instilled in idealistic Democrats. This just in: “Hillary Clinton vowed that if she becomes president, she will surround herself with a diverse, multiethnic, multigenerational group of angry lesbians.” True enough, but 1/2 Hour becomes ugly instead of smart when it relishes in the conservative cause like a beacon of light. (The creators should know better: Satire is always dark.) A crack about how the ACLU helped give more presence to white supremacy groups reeks of a smarmy partisan power play. Only Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly—Al Franken and Michael Moore on the other bench—can laugh in that lame game of one-upmanship. The jokes only serve to stroke their smug sense of superiority, a confirmation of their righteous place in the world order.
Comedy is about common sense. The Daily Show pokes holes in the false presumptions of government and media; Colbert exaggerates and caricatures them for effect. Their agenda is not a left-wing party line—it’s political clarity. If they kick liberals less, it’s because they’re already down. And liberals, like all of us, crave change in a time of chaos and confusion. Like satire, they’re at least attempting to break down the status quo, even if they’re wrong. A good comedian asks questions and makes no alliances (not even with liberals). The 1/2 Hour News Hour knows the hand that feeds it, and so it is inevitably the comedy of complacency. And that’s not funny at all.