Around the time political elites were gearing up for the 2008 presidential election, Fox News debuted The ½ Hour News Hour, one of the few comedies ever featured in its lineup. The program, a Daily Show-style faux news program with a strong conservative slant, was the brainchild of 24 creator Joel Surnow. From the outset, Surnow was open about the show’s agenda: “Quite frankly, we’re not trying to be a balanced show,” he said on an episode of the Hugh Hewitt Show. “This is just what this show is. [It] does skew from the right.”
It wasn’t an unreasonable endeavor. As Oliver Morrison points out in The Atlantic, liberals have long dominated the late night talk show arena, while conservatives control talk radio. And at the time of The ½ Hour News Hour‘s debut, political satire was the wheelhouse of leftist heavyweights like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Mahar. The prominence of these figures spoke to a new degree of import that satire had taken on in recent years. Americans were mired in two overseas wars — about which they had been grossly misled — with no end in sight. The President was as unpopular as any of the modern era and Republicans and Democrats had already begun the mad scramble to find candidates for the 2008 primaries. Moreover, new forms of social media had tethered us inextricably to current events, making it nearly impossible to distance oneself from it all. That everyone now had a voice was a remarkable development, but it also presented us with the new dilemma of distinguishing the credible voices from the constant drone of all the others.
Because of this, satire had suddenly become one of the most potent means of shaping political identities. Perhaps this was why Surnow chose this point to launch his new show because the stakes seemed much higher than normal. If that’s the case, it only makes the result all the more unfortunate: The ½ Hour News Hour (18 February 2007 – 23 September 2007), was canceled after a single season.
In trying to understand why Surnow’s experiment failed, the obvious answer is that it just wasn’t funny. Numerous outlets skewered it as painfully derivative, the jokes too heavy-handed and predictable. For example, the pilot episode featured a sketch with Rush Limbaugh as the president and Anne Coulter as his vice president. At one point the commander-in-chief asks if the VP would like to join him in a cigar.
“Isn’t the White House a smoke-free zone?” Coulter asks.
“Not anymore,” Limbaugh replies with his trademark smugness. Cue the laugh track.
While Fox News devotees might have regarded the duo’s appearance on a late night comedy program as a strike against the Left-driven media, many critics found the sketch absurd in its obviousness. Was there anything surprising or transgressive about two of the most recognizable conservatives in America appearing on an openly conservative program? It would have been more surprising if they hadn’t appeared.
But this explanation doesn’t get to the heart of why The ½ Hour News Hour didn’t pan out, nor does it offer any new insights as to the nature of political satire. A better question might be why the show irked so many critics, especially considering that it was simply emulating other critically-acclaimed programs. And from this we might also pose the larger question of why conservatives appear to have less facility for satire than liberals.
One contributing factor to the show’s failure might be Fox’s demographic. Late night talk shows that employ the kind of humor The ½ Hour News Hour was invoking cater to younger audiences. The median age of The Daily Show viewers at this time, for example, was 36, while that of The Colbert Report viewers was 33. Meanwhile, Fox News viewers tallied in at a median age of 68, and it’s a safe assumption that many, if not most, of those viewers tuned into the network not only because of their conservative predispositions, but also because it avoided the antics of late night television. The ½ Hour News Hour was a comedy program chasing an audience that wasn’t interested in comedy.
However, the bigger problem might have been that Surnow et al misunderstood the function and form of political satire altogether.
To its credit, The ½ Hour News Hour strove for laughs, and some of the jokes were genuinely funny. “Illinois Senator Barack Obama admits that as a teenager he sometimes used cocaine,” says Kurt McNally (Kurt Long), one of the show’s cohosts, in one faux-news bit. “The news sent Obama’s approval rating among Democrats plummeting to an all-time low of 99.9 percent.” Indeed, the show’s writers had an intimate understanding of joke formulae, which shouldn’t be surprising considering they included Emmy-winners from Late Night with David Letterman and Real Time with Bill Maher. But is understanding the formulae enough?
Certainly there’s comfort in laughter, which satire aims to evoke, but successful satire must move beyond laughter alone. It should offer a critique of persons, places, institutions, and/or ideas that pose some threat to society. In a sense, it weaponizes humor in an effort to draw attention to a problem.
This is why historically, satire has been a tool of the powerless and the marginalized. We mock world leaders, governments, and oppressive traditions not only because it’s amusing, but because it’s a way of calling out corruption and incompetence among those who have the most control over our lives.
Things get tricky, however, when we try to distinguish satire from simply making fun of someone. The latter doesn’t require much skill or artistry, certainly not as much as the former. Moreover, satire entails a considerable power imbalance between speaker and target and usually comes from the bottom up. This is why, as Jezebel writer Lindy West points out, at company parties it’s the boss who’s roasted, not the custodian. For people in positions of power to mock their subordinates isn’t funny, it’s tasteless.
It’s not as if there was no humor to be found in Half Hour News Hour, however, as these clips demonstrate:
It makes sense then that liberals tend to have more facility with satire than conservatives. As author Alison Dagnes argues in her book A Conservative Walks into a Bar: the Politics of Political Humor, conservatism focuses largely on supporting longstanding institutions and traditions, while liberalism aims to challenge and, at times, dismantle these things. If conservatism is a matter of defense, then liberalism is a matter of offense, and for conservatives it is hard to be a defender of the status quo while also portraying oneself as a martyr for the underclass (although to be fair, this is a rhetorical strategy often employed by both sides).
This is not to paint liberals as the martyrs. At the time of The ½ Hour News Hour‘s debut, Democrats were making inroads to controlling both the House and Senate, and polls showed that Americans’ bleak view of the country’s direction had given them a hand up in the presidential race. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report had hit their stride, running nearly neck-and-neck with their ideological opposites The O’Reilly Factor and Hannity & Colmes. To portray the Left as beleaguered idealists suffering under the reign of the Right would be, at the very least, disingenuous.
Nevertheless, many of the institutions that conservatives supported continued to exert influence over the majority of Americans. Roughly 82 percent of Americans identified as Christian at this point, a group that has always tended to vote Republican, as have members of the US military, which constitutes ten percent of voters. Police also usually vote Republican. Small business owners, particularly those in the areas of finance, real estate, and trade, are far more likely to identify as conservatives; Republicans are also much more likely than Democrats to occupy high-ranking business positions.
“Whether Republican or Democrat, the losers lose little or nothing because there was little or nothing to lose to begin with,” argues Professor of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Maryland Jon Huer in his book Call from the Cave: Our Cruel Nature and Quest for Power. “Why? Because the REAL POWER in America is economic, not political.” Indeed, some of the most vital aspects of our lives have traditionally been managed by conservative interests. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though it does bring into question the notion that a political majority is the only relevant type of power. In fact, if there’s anything to be learned from the 2009 election, it’s that a political majority doesn’t guarantee anything. Those traditions and institutions that liberalism seeks to challenge — often that’s where the real power lies.
Additionally, Surnow seems to have underestimated the very show he was attempting to parody. Given that at the time of The ½ Hour News Hour‘s creation the wheels were already in motion for what promised to be one of the most sensationalized elections in US history, he had good reason to turn to satire. The field of potential candidates was ripe for lampooning, the Left as much as the Right— — why should The Daily Show get all the fun?
What he overlooked, however, is that The Daily Show didn’t start out as a political program. When Jon Stewart took over as host in 1998, it was a modestly amusing local news spoof featuring celebrity interviews and character-driven sketches. While 9/11 set into motion the gradual process of shaping the show into something more biting, it wasn’t until the 2004 presidential election that it finally seemed to find its political voice. The show’s natural evolution was a response to any number of national circumstances, from the Virginia Tech massacre to the 2008 financial and housing crisis to the advancement of LBGTQ rights. While the overwhelming bulk of the jokes were at Republicans’ expense, Stewart and his team didn’t shy away from deriding those on the Left. In fact, Stewart continually lambasted Democrats for their timidity and ineffectiveness, describing them as “Ewoks, at best.” Arguably, the real target wasn’t the Right so much as it was our steadfast commitments to any ideology.
The ½ Hour News Hour, on the other hand, attempted from the outset to be what The Daily Show took years to grow into. In doing so, the writers eschewed humor for political savagery, of which there was already plenty floating around on all the major networks. In addition, it was unabashedly steeped in ideology. Trouble is, ideology by itself just isn’t very funny. Critiquing it can be good for laughs, as the best satirists understand, provided one is willing to send up their own beliefs as well. But Sernow had already made it clear that he wasn’t going to go after conservative targets. When asked by Hugh Hewitt before the show’s air date if he would attack the Right as well as the Left, he replied, “No, not really…We’re balancing off all these thousands of other shows and comedians that talk about how stupid Bush is, and what a fascist Dick Cheney is. You can get that anywhere.”
Well, of course you can. Bush and Cheney were the most powerful men in the world at that point. Perhaps this made them easy targets — as is the case with every US president — and maybe the gags became tiresome for some viewers, but that didn’t make targeting them any less of a moral imperative. Powerful people require powerful opposition. “Making fun of the president is not ideological,” says New York Times columnist Alessandra Stanley. “Not making fun of the president, on the other hand, is.”
Now, as we settle in for the Trump era — which promises plenty of material for comics — the lessons of The ½ Hour News Hour‘s failure seem more pertinent than ever. They speak not only to our political identities but also to our very notions of power. If conservatives want to utilize the power of satire for their own rallying purposes, then they must understand where that power comes from: ridicule of the Sernow variety might be good for a chuckle or two, but it’s ultimately toothless as a critique of those in command. In many ways the conservative mission remains at odds with that of satire, and the only remedy seems to entail either the Right drastically altering its platform, or for the Left to suddenly ascend to some pinnacle of authority that would open it to the same degree of mockery as its political counterparts, neither of which is likely.
What is likely is that more shows like The ½ Hour News Hour will be produced. And rightly so: why shouldn’t there be a conservative equivalent of The Daily Show? If done correctly, it could be a boon to America’s national discourse — assuming the producers learn from Sernow’s mistakes. Unfortunately, lessons that conflict with our most ardent beliefs are usually the hardest to swallow.