The ½ Hour News Hour and An American Carol were a television show and feature film made by conservatives, for conservatives, at the expense of liberals. And yet their objective badness is perhaps one of the few issues in the last half decade on which liberals and conservatives are in agreement. They sought to prove that conservatives possess a quality sense of humor, and in failing, did just that.
Fox News Channel launched The ½ Hour News Hour in February 2007, billing the satirical “news” program as a right-wing retort to The Daily Show. Critical reception was negative from its infancy, including a then-record-low MetaCritic score of 12. In spite of this universal disdain (or perhaps because of it), initial episodes lead their time slots across all of cable. Those impressive early numbers soon eroded, however, and the show was euthanized after 17 episodes.
History repeated itself a year later with An American Carol, the liberal spoof from post-9/11 conservatism convert David Zucker. Roundly panned from both sides of the aisle (including scathing reviews from right-leaning rags the New York Post and Washington Times), it nonetheless received plenty of support financially (Carol's budget was in the neighborhood of $20 million), and promotionally (both Zucker and his cast were ubiquitous on right-wing media outlets in the weeks leading up to its nationally-released opening weekend), only to ultimately flop commercially (of that $20 million, only $7 million has been recouped).
So how did they come to be both historically unfunny and bipartisanly reviled? Content-wise, The ½ Hour News Hour’s shortcomings can be traced back to its creator Joel Surnow, whose claim to fame at that point was co-creating 24, a show whose torture scenes were the first in entertainment history to show graphic genital mutilation in a non-comedic light. But this same reasoning can’t be applied to An America Carol, whose co-writer/director boasts a resume including Airplane!, The Kentucky Fried Movie, and the Naked Gun. So what happened, then, to David Zucker?
Did he simply lose the ability to make quality comedy when he adopted right-wing ideologies? Unlikely, considering Simpsons scribe John Swartzwelder is a staunch gun rights activist, self-described “anti-environmentalist,” and most prolific writer in the show’s history. Same goes for Thurber Prize-winner and frequent New Yorker contributor Christopher Buckley, son of National Review founder William F. Buckley. Not to mention Kelsey Grammer and Rip Torn, recipients of a combined 21 Emmy nominations. And it’s hard to imagine filmmaker John Hughes’ body of work being any less seminal simply because he consistently voted Republican.
Perhaps then An American Carol failed because comedy aimed at liberals and liberalism is inherently lacking? Again, unlikely, as any fan of South Park or Team America: World Police or The Onion’s 'The Vice Presidency Of Joe Biden' series would argue. So too would Rahm Emanuel, who as Democratic Caucus Chairman advised new Democratic members of Congress not to appear on right-satirizing The Colbert Report.
Those in search of a smoking gun should instead look to Zucker’s declaring, “…I am a proud member of the stupid party” in the weeks leading up to the film’s release. Judging by this admission, it stands to reason that An American Carol's biggest flaw was that it was made on the pretense that whether it was funny or not was immaterial, because the conservative audience wouldn’t know the difference. It’s not that Zucker couldn’t have made a sharp, insightful, subversive film, it’s that he assumed he couldn’t.
But the biggest failing, and one shared by both, was highlighted by Surnow’s reasoning for The ½ Hour News Hour: “You can turn on any show and see Bush being bashed. There really is nothing out there for those who want satire that tilts right.”
When Surnow said this in early 2007, he was both right and wrong here. He was right because at the time of the quote jokes at the expense of President Bush were omnipresent, just as this 2010 study of political jokes in late night revealed President Obama as the butt of 3 times as many jokes as the next closest recipient, and 41% of The Daily Show’s partisan material was aimed at the left. President Bush was bashed because he was a conservative, yes, but more than that he was bashed because he occupied the most powerful position in the world, and even when it’s occupied by his political antithesis, it remains the de facto target.
So where Surnow was wrong was in presuming that effective comedy tilts right or left, because the tilt of truly effective comedy, comedy that affects and resonates, is either inwards or upwards.
This idea is perhaps best exemplified by The Blue Collar Comedy Tour. Yes, its fan base is overwhelmingly conservative, but its success lies in resonating with an audience that identifies itself not as a political movement but as a socioeconomic underclass. To wit: it’s “…you might be a redneck”, not “…you might be a conservative.”
It’s why The Blue Collar comedians’ on-stage attire consists of cut off flannels, weathered jeans and dirt caked-boots instead of clothing more befitting their unimaginable wealth. The majority of their material stems from parodying their audience, and so by dressing as one of them, the audience is able to project themselves onto the now self-deprecating material. But were they to wear, say, the finest designer suits, the material’s trajectory would turn downward, and what was once self-effacing comedy becomes mockery.
And it’s the bipartisan adoration of South Park which best illustrates the upward tilt of comedy. When the show viciously attacks Hollywood’s most outspoken lefty stars, liberals are just as appreciative as conservatives, because leftward or rightward always operates in deference to upward; you may agree with their political stances, but they’re still incredibly wealthy, attractive, and powerful. It’s also why cries of racism over South Park’s naming of the black character “Token” are unfounded, since the joke’s trajectory is aimed upward towards the long-standing hypocrisy of Hollywood’s powers-that-be who dare insult us with thinly veiled attempts at racial equality.
In the grasp of capable hands, comedy is an astoundingly effective weapon for the weak against the powerful. Directed upward, it seeks to cut down the mighty and level the playing field. Directed inward, it serves to empower the weak by cutting themselves down on their own terms. But that’s it, because a comedy landscape where comedy aimed downward is not only acceptable but the norm, where Goliath is armed to the teeth against a defenseless David, well, that isn’t a comedy landscape at all. That’s just High School Redux, and where’s the fun in that?
Conor McKeon is a writer living in Brooklyn… New York.