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February 16, 2007

Comedy...Or ComeDIE?!?

By now most of you troublemakers have seen the promo clip for Fox's new show The 1/2 Hour News Hour. If you haven't: yes, it is just as excruciatingly unfunny as you suspect.

But why do conservatives generally have such trouble creating—or even comprehending—teh funny? An insightful discussion of this appears in Life and How to Survive It by John Cleese and Robin Skynner.

CLEESE: Laughter increases the cohesion within a group. Think how politicians make an audience feel good by making jokes about opposing parties. [But] I always get bothered that all this nice cosy cohesion in a group is usually bought at the expense of out-groups. Because there's another kind of laughter which in recent years I've come to value far more. And that's the laughter that says, "Yes, that's funny, and it's funny because I recognize that this behavior is something I share, something that we all share because it's intrinsic to being human. It's how people are." Now that is definitely the best kind of laughter.

SKYNNER: Do you remember what conclusion we came to about mental health at the end of the first chapter?

CLEESE: You mean that the least healthy people are paranoid and need other people to blame and hate, but the most healthy people are "affiliative."

SKYNNER: Yes. Well I'm suggesting that humor, like all other aspects of human behavior, can be looked at in the same way. That is, any given piece of humor or laughter can be placed at some point on the spectrum between most paranoid and most affiliative. For example, take the nastiest kind of racial jokes. They'll be ways in which one group expresses its hostility toward another, so these jokes belong down the most paranoid end of the spectrum. Whereas the jokes you describe in which people acknowledge they are laughing at failures which are common to all human beings, part of the human condition, would be right up at the healthiest end of the spectrum.

CLEESE: Then there's not really an out-group at all—the humor is saying: "Isn't it hilarious that this is what all we human beings are really like, despite our pretensions."

I remember Jonathan Miller saying that true humor produces great intimacy. Now I see why. Because the best humor emphasizes the similarities between people, not the differences.

SKYNNER: That's humor's greatest value, I believe. Not just for the pleasure and sense of well-being it brings us, but the way it can remind us day after day of the limitations we all have simply because we're human beings—and of how easily we forget that!

In other words, the best comedy is directly antithetical to the core values of the human instinct we call conservatism.

I think that's about all there is to say about this.

Posted at February 16, 2007 07:59 AM | TrackBack

Very illuminating. I think there's an even simpler explanation for why this "1/2-Hour News Hour" thing is not funny -- the agenda gets in the way, because the agenda came first in the development process. "The Daily Show" sets out to be a funny fake news show, and in the process it ends up with a liberal bent most of the time. But this show is setting out to be anti-liberal, and hoping to be funny in the process, which is not a super recipe for entertainment success. It's hard to be funny when you're already resolved to be defensive. But I guess that's not that different from what Cleese and Skynner are saying, is it?

Posted by: Mollie at February 16, 2007 09:18 AM

The canned laughter is really, really bad.

Posted by: Anthony Paul Smith at February 16, 2007 09:19 AM

That's a promo clip? Whoa. It seemed like a desperately childish effort to defang the snake that already bit you and left you writhing in agony.

Posted by: Aunt Deb at February 16, 2007 10:06 AM

Hmm, I dunno, Ben Stein's funny, and he's conservative. There are also a number of good centre-to-right comedians and comedy writers. Douglas TenNapel is one of the finest and funniest graphic novelists working today, and he once commented that George Bush was a "superhero".

Is it just the wrong people? I think that I can write better Obama jokes from the right if you put me to it.

Posted by: En Ming Hee at February 16, 2007 10:24 AM

Ben Stein is not a comedian, he's called in as a professional straight man whenever he's on something that's supposed to be funny. He's not funny in and of himself.

Posted by: Gordon at February 16, 2007 12:53 PM

When someone calls Bush a "superhero" you don't laugh with them though. You laugh at them.

Posted by: darrelplant at February 16, 2007 12:57 PM

I agree with this post, although I'm not a comedy expert like SOME of the people around here. However, I'd like to ask - does the Fox target audience think the promo clip is funny? It's really not surprising that we don't think it is....

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at February 16, 2007 02:53 PM

Yeah. It sucks. But, to be fair, teh funny is subjective. Every comedian has to find his or her audience. Paula Poundstone used to be hot among fat lesbians who watch kiddie shows on Public TV, for example. And, while Emo Phillips does well with college coffee house types, he would bomb with FOX viewers.

Posted by: Lloyd at February 16, 2007 05:04 PM

Another, really major, difference between this and The Daily Show is that magazine -- Jon Stewart would be saying a bunch of funny things while the magazine graphic was displayed, sporting a few funny article titles on the cover, and *not mentioned them*. These guys, though, feel the need to show each section up close and read the headline aloud, suggesting (to me) contempt for the viewer's intelligence.

Plus the timing and audience response gave me the feeling of watching someone bomb terribly. But hey, TDS was kind of crap for a few years (Remember Craig Kilborn?). Still, I doubt these guys will ever be funny, as it's all about the politics (the Marion Barry thing was a little bit funny, but way more of a cheap shot).

Posted by: That Guy at February 16, 2007 05:37 PM

I finally saw the Prairie Home Companion movie - and in case you haven't seen it, here's the most repeated joke in it -

One penguin says to the other, "You look like you're wearing a tuxedo."
The other replies, "How do you know I'm not?"

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at February 17, 2007 05:41 PM

There's nothing wrong with mean, exclusionary humor, it's just that you can't exercise it from a position of absolute power.

A conservative comedy show could work if they didn't control everything (slim Dem majority in the congress doesn't count as long as the right defines the discourse).

This thing just sucks, though. It's comedy by non-comedians, and most comedians can barely do comedy, as 85% of Comedy Central specials can attest. People say the Fox thing's not funny because the agenda comes first, but that implies there's a horse behind the cart.

Posted by: clarke at February 18, 2007 07:17 PM

In Living Color used to have some bits that could be considered conservative humor - the Damon Wayans wino character who was always using the wrong words, like "Excuse me while I expose my colon" in court.

The band the Offspring has some songs that could be considered conservative humor that work.

Posted by: Jon H at February 22, 2007 02:09 PM