Fake news entry cranks up the volume, not laughs
If there's one thing this season of TV has taught us, it's that comedy is hard, no matter your political perspective. Aaron Sorkin, late of "The West Wing ," might be a whiz at high-minded liberal dialogue, but "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" proved that he can't write a comedy sketch to save his life. And Joel Surnow , executive producer of "24," might be a master of adrenaline, suspense, and gratuitous televised torture. But that doesn't mean he understands how to parody the news.
That's what he's trying to do, ostensibly, as executive producer of "The 1/2 Hour News Hour, " a faux news report that premieres Sunday night at 10 on the Fox News Channel. But "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" feels less like a current-events parody and more like a form of revenge: a wholly-partisan response to the perceived left-wing biases of "The Daily Show, " "The Colbert Report ," and anything else on television that Rush Limbaugh doesn't like.
Indeed, Limbaugh turns up briefly in Sunday's premiere as a fantasy US president, which, itself, seems an answer to Al Gore's turn on "Saturday Night Live " last fall. (It won't take much imagination to guess who Limbaugh's thin, blond vice president might be.)
And then there's the make-believe newscast itself, so filled with pointedly partisan jokes that it feels like each punch line should be followed with a bitter "nyah-nyah-nyah." Sunday's installment, which re-airs on Feb. 25, pokes fun at Barack Obama , fear of global warming, and Ed Begley Jr.'s electric car. For good measure, it tacks on a couple of bilious fake ads for the American Civil Liberties Union.
It's tailor-made to push a particular set of buttons, and though Fox hasn't made much of a commitment so far -- only two episodes have been ordered, the second will air March 4 -- the show may well find an audience. A leaked clip has already made wide rounds on YouTube, and prompted the expected string of politically-charged comments: Love the show, hate liberals, and vice versa.
In truth, there's nothing wrong with partisan humor, as long as it's actually funny. But here, even the less-political jokes are hopelessly obvious or old; there's a riff, for instance, on Suzanne Somers's destroyed house in Malibu. And hard as comedians Kurt Long and Jenn Robertson try to channel the perky hosts of "Weekend Update," the scripts bludgeon even the easiest punch lines to death, like the one about a "Shi'ite Happens" T-shirt.
All in all, "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" makes you appreciate what Jon Stewart and his writers are able to do, day after day. And it also makes you understand a crucial difference between the two fake newscasts. Whether or not you think liberal bias bleeds into "The Daily Show," Stewart's target isn't conservatives, per se. It's the pompousness of traditional news shows, the hypocrisy of government officials, the absurdity of the Washington political dance. For all of his famed snarkiness, Stewart isn't a know-it-all, sneering from on high. He's a stand-in for the viewer, throwing up his hands.
As "The Colbert Report" makes clear with spot-on parody, frustration isn't Fox's bailiwick; the news channel built its success on confident pronouncements about the way things ought to be. Maybe that's the way to think of "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" -- not as a comedy show, but as political wish-fulfillment, a list of jokes hurled directly at the choir. In the end, the choir members might feel smugly satisfied. But they probably won't be laughing very hard.
(Correction: Because of an editing error, the photo caption accompanying a review of "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" in Saturday's Living/Arts section incorrectly identified the actor who anchors the fake newscast. His name is Kurt Long; the character's name is Kurt McNally.)