There are funny conservatives — a point so self-evident it seems ridiculous to have to write it out. There are even some great right-leaning professional comedians, especially of the conservative-libertarian bent. So it's a little puzzling that there's no conservative version of The Daily Show. There have been attempts to create one — the most prominent being Fox News' Red Eye (airing in the coveted 3 a.m. slot) and short-lived 1/2 Hour News Hour.
But arguably the funniest conservative on TV in recent years was Jack Donaghy, the fictional 30 Rock character played by noted liberal Alec Baldwin. Or maybe "Stephen Colbert," the buffoonish arch-conservative pundit played by Stephen Colbert. Actual conservative comedian Michael Loftus wants to change that. In the fall, he and fellow conservative Jason Mattera, a radio host and author, plan to launch a syndicated political satire program called The Flipside. It is already being compared to The Daily Show.
In the teaser clip (watch below), Loftus makes some good points: There are a lot of conservatives in the U.S., and they like to laugh, so there's probably a market for a right-leaning version of Comedy Central's offerings. Even if audiences in liberal Los Angeles don't laugh at his conservative jokes, he says, people always sneak up to him afterward to tell him they love his brand of humor. Presumably, these people will be able to laugh freely in their own homes.
But the jokes just don't land. The audience is laughing, and there is a glimmer of potential. But "the punch lines could use some tuning," The Atlantic's Sean McElwee notes, and a bit about Hillary Clinton in the full pilot (watch here) includes "a jab about her attractiveness [that] stuck me as gauche."
Now, the jokes may well get better before this fall, and it's worth remembering that The Daily Show was very different when it launched in 1996, with host Craig Kilborn focusing on pop culture more than politics.
Some commentators look at the failure to launch a successful conservative alternative to The Daily Show and conclude that conservatives simply aren't funny. Looking at the humorless right-wing criticism of President Obama's appearance on Between Two Ferns, Dean Obeidallah at The Daily Beast hypothesizes that their ideology stands in the way:
My theory is that comedy inherently challenges the status quo and the right generally tries to preserve that... Comedian Frank Coniff, however, best known as "TV's Frank" from Mystery Science Theater, said: "The best comedy is always on the side of the underdog, and conservatives are on the side the powerful." [The Daily Beast]
That's actually a pretty popular belief. In his preview of The Flipside, for example, John Iadarola makes a similar point, with the added theory that the show won't work because the conservative hosts will never make fun of conservative politicians once they're in power:
I actually don't think there's any reason that a conservative satire show can't take off. Not only are there obviously a lot of conservatives who watch TV and like to laugh, but liberalism and progressive politicians have much to be mocked for — as demonstrated by Stewart occasionally and South Park quite regularly. But good comedy, while often subversive, pointed, vulgar, mocking, is rarely angry. Anger isn't funny. The hosts of The Flipside seem angry. And they're trying too hard.
Back at The Atlantic, McElwee gets close to the mark here:
Marc Maron told me that he moved away from his more overtly liberal jokes, because "when you’re doing ideological comedy, from a point of view that pre-exists you, it’s very tricky not to carry water for someone else’s agenda."... The first great conservative comedy show will put humor before ideology. [The Atlantic]
If you are trying to be conservative first and funny second, the humor is secondary to the ideology. Think of the difference between "Christian rock" and a group like U2 whose members are fairly overtly Christian. They put the music first, religion as a subtext, and you can tell the difference.
The same is true for comedy. The slightly iconoclastic Christian pastor and author Rob Bell tells a story about a young woman who came up to him after a church service and confided that she wanted to be a standup comic. "You've got to make a promise to me right now," Bell said he told her, "please don't be a 'Christian' comedian." Be as funny as you can, he counseled, and that will be how you serve God best.
If The Flipside wants to succeed, Loftus and his writers should spend the next few months working on their jokes, testing them on non-conservative audiences, and maybe trying to make their set slightly less self-consciously "hip."
Barring that, they should hope Fox News picks them up and puts them on after Megyn Kelly.