The Serious Business of Funny Stuff

February 19th, 2007

Thalia weeps while Melpomene is still no doubt staring glazedly at the screen, giggling uncomfortably.  I must rant while this is all fresh in my mind.

I just had the instructional if less than pleasureable experience of watching The Half Hour News Hour on Fox News.  It’s supposed to be comedy, but about the only thing funny about it was the unintended irony of it actually addressing news-worthy subjects, such as global warming and candidates for the 2008 presidential race, contrasting rather sharply with the “straight” news item that followed, more breathless coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith, who died, like, a week ago.  This is more coverage than they did for the death of Gerald Ford or for that matter, Saddam Hussein.

For those uninitiated, THHNH was created by Joel Surnow, who also created 24, about my favorite suspense spy thriller show.   THHNH is Fox News’ answer to Comedy Central’s The Daily Show & The Colbert Report.  It’s supposed to be right wing comedy, but only comes off, at best, as embarrassingly lame playground humor.  This is not because there isn’t anything funny on the left, but because there are certain rules of comedy that must be respected if it is to have any hope of success, and for Thalia’s sake, I learned these on the playground.  And while I have a rather liberal bias myself, I’m more offended by bad right wing comedy than the idea of right wing comedy period.

So lo, I call upon Thalia, Muse of Comedy, to help me to best iterate the Rules of Comedy and the various infractions thereof, as evidenced by the first painful episode of THHNH:

I. Thou shalt not laugh at thy own jokes (This be a lesser sin if they be funny, but a mortal sin if they be not)

Perhaps the gravest sin of THHNH is the laugh track.  It’s bad, the laughs are obviously recycled from a tape, but worst of all, they follow lame jokes.  If a joke doesn’t fly or otherwise dies, you can recover by simply skipping on to the next one, but if you insist that it was supposed to be a joke by laughing at yourself–or having your canned laughter laugh for you–then your audience can’t simply ignore it.

II. Jests be as birds–smile gaily when they fly, look grave when they fall flat, then move on to the next.

It’s acceptable for comedians to smile and nod after delivering a punchline and pause for laughter, but if no one smiles, laughs, cheers or otherwise signals their appreciation, simply move on.  Really.  Honestly.

THHNH is obviously hobbled by not having a live studio audience; the actors have nothing to play against except each other and their own tin ears.

Maybe this will improve.  Somehow I doubt it.

III. The Joke of the Day is best fresh from the Marketplace, not day-old, week-old, month-old or worse.  This be because the News of the Day oft be a wittier jester than thee.

Let’s see, example from THHNH: joke about Britney Spears shaving her crotch.  A throwaway gag, hardly lingered over, but far less funny than the simple fact that yesterday Britney Spears shaved her head.

This could be followed by gags about Sinead O’Connor (the last female singer who did such a thing), jokes about K-Fed’s reaction (ex-husbands are always funny), or just random bald jokes made safe because of the simple fact that Britney Spears is a woman who shaved her head by choice, not a guy who went bald.  The news is its own amusement.

IV. Whether low and base or high and refined, a jest must relate to its subject.

The best example of this from THHNH: There was a long and extended (and generally tiresome) bit of business about Barrack Obama having a (completely fictional) magazine devoted to him and his life, with this as the knee-slapper: It’s called B.O. magazine!

The trouble with this is that the relation of the gag is tenuous at best and is a pretty thin thread to hang the rest of the segment upon, especially since Senator Obama isn’t noted for any body odor.  Worse, the joke could have been used effectively if used as part of a gag about “What sort of parents name their child ‘Barrack Hussein Obama’?” with a back and forth answering that “Barrack” is a fairly ordinary name in some parts of the world (Barruch in Hebrew) and that the parents had no way of looking into the future and knowing that “Hussein” and “Obama” might one day have unpleasant associations, with the final zinger: “What sort of parent sends their child to elementary school with the initials ‘B.O.’?” and a response about “Well, fortunately for Senator Obama, he attended elementary school in Indonesia” followed by a bit of business about the lengths parents have to go to to protection their children after unfortunate naming choices.

V.  Do not tackle the Unspeakable Taboo unless guarded by the Aegis of Truth and armed with the Sword of Hilarity!

Okay, case in point: THHNH had a mostly forgettable and boring running gag about environmentalist actor Ed Begley coming to the studio in his electric car, having it run out of juice, refueling it with human waste (I’m not making this up), having it run out of “gas,” then getting picked up as a homeless person and thrown in prison where rival gangs were fighting over him.  “As a center for prison basketball?” (Begley is notably tall)  No, for something else….

Yes, a long running gag is finally ended by a prison rape joke.  And it’s unforgiveable because, instead of having any degree of truth or even poetic justice, it’s just a sadistic fantasy.  And this is the last gag of the whole stinking show.

VI. Thou Shalt Not Open with Thy Strongest Joke or Thy Claim to Fame and follow with something banal

The best bit in the whole show was the opening act, the already leaked skit with Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter as President and VP in 2009.  I’d actually thought it was rather lame one the whole (though Limbaugh did deliver a good line about being upset that Pelosi had his phone number), but really, that was it?  Two famous right wing personalities as guest stars followed by four comics I’ve not only never heard of, but who had considerably less flair and stage presense than Limbaugh?

Good gods.

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