Could Glenn Beck Be The Next Jon Stewart?
At a recent tour stop in Albany, Glenn Beck made a few announcements that roused the press. Chief among them: he planned sell his Connecticut mansion and leave New York City.
But he also made another, more surprising statement. "I'm going to make sure," Beck told the sold-out crowd, "that Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart don't occupy the space of comedy alone."
Despite his reigning status as resident media melodramatist, Beck has always had an interest in the comedy form. In 2008 he traveled the country with "Unelectable," traipsing around the stage sporting a neon-orange hunting jacket and holding a toy rifle, mocking the liberal view of right-wingers. In 2009, he followed suit with his "Common Sense Comedy Tour," which was simulcast across the country in 440 theaters.
But taking one's act on the road, amidst fans, is different than becoming the conservative version of Stewart or Colbert. Thus far, no successful news comedy show aimed specifically at right-wingers has succeeded. The most prominent failure of recent years was Fox News' "Half Hour News Hour," which "24" producer Joel Surnow attempted to launch in 2007. Two separate publications deemed it "slow torture," and it lasted only 15 episodes before being yanked by producers.
On the "Half Hour News Hour," jokes were delivered to elicit chuckles of acknowledgment, rather than genuine laughs. The attractive hosts simply read off one-liners, "Weekend Update" style, without any real sense of timing or point of view. An example joke: "Barack Obama admitted to doing cocaine in high school. This news sent his approval rating among Democrats PLUMMETING to an all-time low of 99.9 percent." Cue canned laugh track.
Another bit featured a new Barack Obama magazine in the vein of O: The Oprah Magazine aptly named, "B.O.".
Uninspired, Catskills-style political zingers don't tend to fly, no matter the audience. What conservatives haven't picked up on is that "The Daily Show" succeeds because it attempts to lampoon everyone in power -- knocking media elites and pundits from their soapboxes, while trapping politicians in elaborate hypocrisies. If Jon Stewart sat there lambasting everyone on the right side of the aisle with lame, predictable punchlines, viewers would tune out.
Right-leaning comedy shows have thus far positioned themselves as the right's "answer" to "The Daily Show" or "The Colbert Report" (see also the recent press for The Right Network's "Right 2 Laugh"), without realizing that pointing out the point of the joke, makes the joke no longer funny. "The Daily Show" would never market itself to liberals as "A Really Funny Show For Liberals And Liberals, Alone!"
So what are some models on which Beck could might succeed with a news comedy show? Stephen Colbert, whom Beck also named during his Albany appearance, has made a career taking on a blowhard characters, subversively touting a message under the guise of a Bill O'Reilly/Glenn Beck type host. "The Colbert Report" is based entirely around that persona and he milks it for all its worth (to the extent that some conservatives don't realize he's playing a character).
Perhaps Beck could play the Colbert card in reverse. What if he established a character -- perhaps an uber-liberal, Ira-Glass-ish type with skinny jeans, a scarf, and a blazer-over-a-hoodie -- and really stuck to it. His set could be housed in a Brooklyn loft with Tibetan prayer flags. He could have "Garden Burger Breaks" in which he expounded on the joys of dumpster-diving for leftovers behind Trader Joe's.
That's one way to go. Another direction would be to follow the Jeff Dunham model of the loud, offensive neo-con puppeteer. Dunham, who was recently listed by Forbes as one of the highest earning comedians in America, behind Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, has amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years with his no-holds-barred ventriloquist act. His 2009 Comedy Central program, "The Jeff Dunham Show," despite being lambasted by critics, boasted the highest-rated premiere in that channel's history.
Liberal humorist Joel Stein, who offered to write some material for Beck's "Common Sense" tour, noted that Beck had a noticeable penchant for self-deprecation, something most conservatives don't tend to display. "Making fun of yourself implies that you know your message is imperfect," Stein wrote on Time.com.
Beck already has a devoted following, so amassing viewers will not be much of an issue for him. Having a show that makes people laugh -- real, genuine laughs, not ones that come out of a can -- will be the tough part.