Nobody Likes a Preachy Clown: The Perils of “Comedy for Conservatives”
Next fall, Telco Productions plans to distribute a show called The Flipside, which “turns political satire on its head, offering a fresh new perspective on what is happening in America.” That’s just according to the bland one-sheet meant to drum up business, though. If you actually watch the preview material, you learn that the show is designed to be a conservative-friendly, right-leaning answer to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. It’s also states that host Michael Loftus “throws political correctness out the window,” as if it were an intruder or wild animal threatening the living room. You can watch a five-minute sizzle reel — and I use that term very loosely, even charitably — or an entire episode at Telco’s website, but I can save you valuable time and tell you right now that the show isn’t funny. For a comedy show, this is a problem.
It’s not like this is a new experiment. Fox News aired The ½ Hour News Hour, from 24 co-creator Joel Surnow, in 2007. Surnow pitched the series as “The Daily Show for conservatives,” but those conservatives didn’t show up to watch. Fox News canceled it after 15 episodes. Like Surnow, The Flipside invokes Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert a lot in its attempt to explain itself. The assumption is that Stewart and Colbert are agents of a specific political entity — or at the very least, dedicated to spreading a certain message — and that a political comedy should be created to give voice to the “other side.”
The problem, for starters, is that this is totally the wrong way to think about comedy in general and Stewart/Colbert in specific. Comedy’s highest goal is to be funny, not to prove a point. It’s not that Stewart’s and Colbert’s jokes don’t fit in and play well with progressives; it’s that they’re trying to do other things first. Colbert’s target isn’t specific politicians or even parties, but the grandiose pomposity of on-air hosts like Bill O’Reilly and the way they manufacture rage and turn it into a reliable consumer product. He’s attacking our own self-indulgence, and our capability for anointing as prophets those who can bloviate the loudest. Stewart, too, isn’t just knocking idiots on the right, but incompetents on the left. Many’s the time when Stewart will lay into Democrats or left-leaning initiatives, only to be greeted by muted claps from the audience as they wrestle with their natural desire to laugh and the feeling that they shouldn’t have to laugh at somebody they support. “Not so funny when it’s your guy, is it?” is usually how Stewart’s refrain goes, as he deflates the light tension and moves right ahead with skewering the system. Because that’s what he does, and what Colbert does, and what all great comics and satirists do: they revel in the absurdity of the system we’ve created for ourselves, alternately laughing and crying at the way we keep ourselves in chains. Here are Stewart and Colbert, talking to Maureen Dowd a few years ago:
When you came to lunch at the “Times,” Jon, you said the lesson of the Oscars and the White House Correspondents Dinner was that you guys should not be talking to “the Establishment.”
STEWART: It’s not that we shouldn’t be talking. It’s that we shouldn’t care.
COLBERT: We can’t care.
STEWART: What people in Washington don’t understand is that we’re not running for re-election. We don’t have to parse every word for fear that it appears in our opponent’s commercial and suddenly renders us impotent.
COLBERT: We claim no respectability. There’s no status I would not surrender for a joke. So we don’t have to defend anything.
STEWART: They believe everything has consequence in real-world terms. And what we as comedians understand is, you bomb one night, you go on the next night and you do a little better.
I don’t understand why you always say, “I’m just a comedian,” because from Shakespeare to Jonathan Swift, humor is the best way to get through to people.
COLBERT: Peter Cook was once asked if he thought that satire had a political effect. He said, “Absolutely. The greatest satire of the twentieth century was the Weimar cabaret, and they stopped Hitler in his tracks.” It doesn’t mean that what we do is worthless. It’s hard to do, and people like it, and it’s great. But it doesn’t mean that it has an effect politically.
STEWART: Or that it has an agenda of social change. We are not warriors in anyone’s army. And that is not trying to be self-deprecating. I’m proud of what we do. I really like these two shows. I like making ‘em. I like watching them. I’m really proud of them. But I understand their place. I don’t view us as people who lead social movements.
Shows like The Flipside don’t get that, though. Their goal is not to be funny, or to skewer a system, but to aim at specific targets as they build content around a political ideology. This is many things — all of which have buzzy and unsettling terms like “branding” and “message-building” — but it’s not comedy. And this should not be news to the crew or intended viewers of The Flipside.
Political shows that drape themselves in comedy are going to be limited at the outset. Only someone who leans strongly to the left could enjoy, let along regularly watch, Real Time With Bill Maher. Maher’s messaging is his comedy, and watching someone smugly accuse those who disagree with him of being intellectually disabled gets old really fast. You don’t watch to laugh, or to be entertained. You watch to listen to somebody punch somebody else. Ditto the recently canceled Totally Biased With Kamau Bell. Bell’s a hilarious guy, and quite a few of his bits have real bite. (The discussion about faith between John Fugelsang and Jamie Kilstein is surprisingly welcoming.) But bits like the man-on-the-street “Anything to Say to a White Guy?” wear thin after a while. You start to realize that Bell’s goal isn’t comedy, but some form of education, like auditing a humanities course while half-asleep. Even Dave Chappelle knew to mix up the racial insight with broader humor. The closest Stewart and Colbert have come to real-world instruction was itself a spoof: the Rally to Restory Sanity and/or Fear in 2010 that mocked the treacly rallies spearheaded by people like Glenn Beck.
The reason shows like The ½ Hour News Hour and The Flipside will always feel small and cheap is because that’s all the want to be. Somebody like Jon Stewart is aiming for everybody. He (and his writing and production staff) want every joke to work for every viewer. You shouldn’t have to pass a voting history test to be able to enjoy a 22-minute show that parodies the news media and American culture. Plus, while politically oriented, so much of Stewart’s and Colbert’s series hinge on playfulness, crowd interaction, and experimentation. Perfect example: the three-way crossover in 2008 that saw Stewart, Colbert, and Conan O’Brien gleefully messing with audience expectations in a running gag about which one of them was to blame for Mike Huckabee’s modest successes. Topical, political, but most of all funny. Comedy is inherently anti-establishment, exploratory, and aggressive in its desire to question everything. It punctures, but never lectures. The folks at The Flipside don’t seem to understand that you’ll never convince anybody of anything by just shouting at them. Entertain them, and you can lead them to new places. But preach to them, and you’ll only ever succeed in winning those who’ve already converted.