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Can Conservatives Be Funny?

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It was in 2007, as the pipe dream of a South Park comic alliance faded on the right and Obama began his rise, that no less a Hollywood powerhouse than Joel Surnow, the unapologetically conservative (and decidedly unblacklisted) co-creator of 24, devised a comedy show to fill the vacuum. With a pair of SNL-style news anchors and a set and graphics emulating The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, his effort was titled The 1/2-Hour News Hour and aired by Fox News. “You can turn on any show and see Bush being bashed,” Surnow said. “There really is nothing out there for those who want satire that tilts right.”

The mirthless result was canceled after 15 episodes. (Those who wish to verify its low laugh quotient can find samples of The 1/2-Hour News Hour, like all examples of conservative comedy in this article, online.) It remains the worst-rated program ever at Metacritic, the review-aggregating website. Conservatives piled on, too, with Right Wing News deeming it perhaps “the least edgy show made since Leave It to Beaver.” The tired satirical targets included the ACLU, Dennis Kucinich, and, unaccountably, the environmental activism of the second-tier celebrity Ed Begley Jr. A Hillary Clinton administration was imagined as a potential enclave for “a diverse, multigenerational, multiethnic group of angry lesbians.” A parody Obama magazine was sophomorically titled BO. David Frum, writing for National Review, said The 1/2-Hour News Hour might well be mistaken for “some not very clever left-wing blogger’s mean-spirited parody of a right-of-center comedy show.”

Since then, Fox News has continued to dabble in comedy, a somewhat jarring calling for a news channel. Its two regular cutups are Miller and Greg Gutfeld, hyper­articulate middle-aged white dudes with somewhat similar personas: They’re congenitally pissed off. As someone who found the quick-witted Miller a delight in his early SNL incarnation, I find him less amusing now, but not so much because of his much-discussed and much-exaggerated post-9/11 move rightward. Miller was never a lockstep liberal. In 1995, he told USA Today that on most issues he would choose Newt Gingrich over Bill Clinton “in a second.” Though he portrayed Ronald Reagan as doddering in an HBO stand-up special a year later, he nonetheless compared him favorably to Clinton, whom he loathed for his disingenuousness. Then and now Miller has described himself as libertarian, and he was and is socially progressive. In his 2010 HBO special The Big Speech, he gets the same right-wing Orange County audience that applauds his war-on-terror bellicosity to cheer his unabashed endorsement of gay marriage.

Which is to say Miller is no hypocrite. The real problem—and this is also the case with David Mamet’s right-wing ruminations—is that his tone has become preachy. He too often seems a pundit first and a comic second. The ranting monologues Miller contributes to The O’Reilly Factor are in the same stylistic vein as Lewis Black’s comparable segments for The Daily Show, but they lack the saving comic grace of Black’s implicit self-mockery. Miller takes himself too seriously to levitate into the comically absurd. As he tells his audience early on in The Big Speech, “We’ve got a country to save.” Well, fine, save the country, save the whales, save whatever, but let’s have some jokes. His Nancy Pelosi insults—calling her “Cruella Demented” and “batshit crazy”—are so generic they could be hurled at any despised liberal. Miller’s mix-and-match cultural name-dropping is now untethered. He describes Pelosi at an Obamacare forum as sounding “like Professor Irwin Corey explaining the infield-fly rule in Farsi while under the influence of an amyl-nitrate ampoule.” If only! As was also true of Miller’s liberal former SNL colleague Al Franken in his ill-fated Air America talk-radio phase, a political mission is not necessarily compatible with humor. Miller might serve his cause better by following Franken’s example and getting out of comedy altogether to run for office—as some in conservative California salons have long encouraged him to do.

Unlike Miller, who drops into Fox News for the occasional cameo, Greg Gutfeld is a signature personality on two daily Fox News shows that emulate the now ubiquitous Kaffeeklatsch panel format of The View: The giggly The Five (in late afternoon) and the fiercer Red Eye (scheduled by Roger Ailes in the stunt time slot of 3 a.m.). Gutfeld is more of a wisecrack artist than a comedian and, like Miller and other comics on the right, is careful to label himself a libertarian, so damaged is the conservative brand. But if you listen to Gutfeld on Fox or read his recent best-selling manifesto, Not Cool, he seems much more of a standard-issue conservative and, in keeping with that, older than he actually is (49). His targets are the usual shopworn suspects, some of whom are so far removed from the main arena of 21st-century liberalism that comic complaints about them are deadly on arrival: Rachel Carson, Yoko Ono, Hurricane Carter, Howard Zinn, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Oliver Stone, and even Dan Quayle’s old fictional bête noire, Murphy Brown. In Not Cool, Sean Penn gets 18 references, and even Robert Redford merits nine. Like much of the right, Gutfeld can’t stop fighting battles from the 1960s that are increasingly baffling to post-boomer audiences.


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