The hype leading up to it touted a late-night satire from the right, a high production-value show with veteran TV heft behind it and an enormous, ready-made cable news audience served on a platter. The most powerful force in late night had a clear liberal bent; red staters were ready for their own Jon Stewart. On the night of its premiere, about a million and a half people tuned in. Critics, however, hated it, noting in blistering reviews that the show committed the number one sin in comedy, which is that all of the jokes sucked.
No, I’m not talking about Greg Gutfeld’s unfunny new late night Fox News show, Gutfeld!. I’m talking about The ½ Hour News Hour, a 2007 show that bombed so badly that it remains, to this day, one of the worst-reviewed shows of all time.
The ½ Hour News Hour was supposed to be a Daily Show for conservatives unleashed like a cloud of sewer gas toward the end of the George W. Bush era. Brought to Fox News audiences by the creator of the megahit 24, it featured Rush Limbaugh in a recurring role as a fake president and a cartoon called Guy White: Closet Conservative, which was about a man who worked in an office full of liberals and tried to keep his ideology a secret.
Apart from being totally unrealistic—I did not know a single conservative in the year 2007 who would, for even a second, shut the fuck up about it—the show was tedious, derivative, stale, and nonsensical. Six months after its widely watched premiere, Fox News executives took their failed experiment out to the proverbial back shed and put it out of its misery.
The conservative brain trust tried again after the start of Obama’s second term with a YouTube-only attempt called Flipside. Despite the fact that 2013 was probably a better time for conservative outsiders to point out the absurdities of the party in power in Washington, that, too, failed to get traction on account of the fact that it, too, wasn’t funny.
I was thinking about The ½ Hour News Hour and Flipside as I watched reviews of Gutfeld’s show come in like entries in a slam dunk contest on a 5 foot rim. The ½ Hour News Hour’s failure was historic. It was humiliating. It could have served as a powerful teaching moment for How Not To Do Conservative Comedy.
In fact, there are so many examples of conservatives who fancy themselves to be a bit of a crack-up but whose efforts ooze desperation. Every time Mike Huckabee presses “send tweet,” an angel slits her wrists. Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert is about as funny as fetal alcohol syndrome. Ann Coulter’s jokes are just things a drunk aunt would yell as she was being dragged away from a family wedding.
Conservative comedians who define themselves as such are invariably angry at the world but don’t understand why, and also seem angry at their audiences. Donald Trump seems to think calling something a joke was simply a way to retroactively apply plausible deniability to incendiary statements unbecoming of a gas station attendant, much less a public servant. I once witnessed a “conservative comic” storm offstage at a New York show, and it got a bigger laugh than any of his jokes because everybody thought it was a bit. It wasn’t.
There are so many aggressively, confidently unfunny conservatives in public life that the question “Why are there no conservative comics?” has become a meme. There is truly no excuse for conservatives to be this unfunny en masse. Why are they like this? Why are they so predictably like this that we’re on about our fourth round of Where’s The Conservative Daily Show? think pieces emerging from the ground like cicadas?
Here’s what conservative comedians keep getting wrong.
“For conservatives to be funny, they would have to be self-aware yet thick-skinned, opinionated yet open-minded, irreverent yet perceptive. It’s not impossible, but it’s awfully rare.”
One might guess that people don’t find conservatives funny because modern audiences expect successfully funny people to say things that they agree with in exchange for their approval; Seth Meyers called laughter-with-agreement “clapter.” It’s an affliction that affects audiences at all points on the ideological spectrum; some of the best jokes in some of the best mainstream comics’ sets are met with hesitant laughter and chiding “ooh” sounds, while one of the worst sets I’ve ever seen consisted of a comedian shouting widely-agreed-upon liberal talking points while the audience laughed its head off. I agreed with everything she said but— where were the setups? Where were the punch lines? None of the things were jokes! I hated it! Comedians are able to get away with a few obvious crowd-agreement generators in order to keep energy up during a show or during a set, but things get unbearable when a comedian leans too much on these lines. The ½ Hour News Hour, Gutfeld! and other conservative attempts at comedy rely almost entirely on the very cheap clapter-generating tactics they purport to hate so much from the other side.
The second problem here is that the things that Gutfeld and other clapter-chasing conservatives assume their audiences will laugh at and agree with would be considered cruel and unfeeling by mainstream audiences. People make jokes from the “I’m a selfish asshole” perspective all the time, but they take the time to explain where they’re coming from in order to get their audience to buy into who they are. It would take a little work to bring all but the hardest of hardcore Fox audiences around to understand what the premises of many modern conservative “jokes” even are, but the Huckabees of the world do not see the need to do any work to explain their point of view, because they have no idea what people who don’t already agree with them actually think.
Another problem with conservatives who want to be funny is that they lack the empathy and self-awareness necessary to connect with people in that way. People who are successfully funny know themselves well enough to understand exactly why a person might find them ridiculous, even if the point of their joke is to explain to their audience why, despite these things, their ridiculousness makes a kind of twisted sense. Others rely on an external sensitivity in order to communicate observations about others. In order to do this, the funny person must understand who they are, how other people think and feel, and why.
“I am a funny and cool guy who is right all the time” isn’t a funny persona; it’s just an asshole persona. “Everybody else has gone crazy except me, and if you’re not laughing, so have you,” isn’t funny; it’s alienating.
Gutfeld, like all who failed before, lacks the self awareness to admit his faults and the empathy to understand his audience. He’s a clown that, rather than assembling animal balloons, shows up to the children’s party and yells something at the kids about Brian Williams that would have been kind of funny in 2015.
A lot of good comedy is about observing and ridiculing power, whether real or imagined. The fact that modern conservatism has evolved into a cult with no ideology beyond “Having Donald Trump as a dictator would be great” makes that a bit more difficult. Falling in line isn’t funny and can never be, and it defangs any conservative attempt to ridicule liberals for their perceived unquestioning allegiance to progressive orthodoxy. Sacred cows are the enemy of humor.
So for modern conservatives, successfully understanding and making fun of political power is out. That’s okay! The power a comedian confronts doesn’t need to be political. It could be as pedestrian a perceived power imbalance as “I’m a short man and women don’t want to match with me on dating apps!” and point out the absurdity of that powerlessness: “Here are some ways that a short man is actually the best guy to date.”
The power a successfully funny person ridicules doesn’t even have to be real to the world at large as long as the funny person is able to communicate why that power imbalance is real to them. Let’s say you’re a grown woman with a net worth and a large and supportive network of friends, and yet you feel disempowered by a relationship wherein they are obviously the more powerful one, like, say, a cool teenager lives on your block and the teen can ruin your entire week with a withering stare. The problem is that a lot of the injustices that conservatives feel that they are victims to are patently ridiculous, but conservatives are either not perceptive enough to understand that a middle aged white male millionaire who feels victimized by college students who don’t want to read books containing the n-word might require some additional explanation or are too lazy to do bother with that explaining. And that’s why so many conservatives confuse being angry and loud with being funny.
In order for conservatives to be funny, they would have to be self-aware yet thick-skinned, opinionated yet open-minded, irreverent yet perceptive. It’s hard but it’s not impossible—South Park does it all the time. It would, however, require traits that the modern self-identified “conservative” has deliberately eradicated from their personality.
Until then, we have more knee-slappers like “I’ve decided to ‘identify’ as Chinese” and “people call each other racist on CNN” repeated ad nauseum to an audience that just wants this to be over. The team behind Gutfeld!—or any wannabe right-wing John Oliver or Jimmy Kimmel—has all these examples of how not to be funny at their disposal. And yet, from the catastrophes of the past they learned nothing. Instead, they doubled down on everything tedious about the genre for which they hope to be standard bearers. A refusal to learn anything in the face of overwhelming evidence—maybe that is the most conservative joke of all.