According to them, the biggest problem facing American culture today is an out-of-control left going around canceling people for telling the truth. As a result, comedians—whose job it is to tell the truth, in a way—live in a constant state of fear that if they say how they really feel, the woke mob will take their livelihood away.
This does both a disservice to comedians themselves and to the American joke-liking public, who are being sold an inferior product thanks to a noisy spoilsport minority. (I’m sure there are some details I’m missing here, because “tiny majority of fragile weaklings is successfully oppressing America’s tough and manly patriotic majority” doesn’t totally make sense, but for the purposes of this exploration of conservative comedy, let’s say that it does.)
Conservatives are aggrieved about the state of comedy. They are vexed. Put out. Perturbed. And there’s no better place for vexatious aggrievement than Fox News.
America’s most fair and balanced news source is throwing its red MAGA hat into the ring in the comedy world, promising viewers of its Fox Nation subscription service an array of comedic offerings that appeal to more conservative audiences. Stand up specials! Irreverent newsdocs! A new Saturday night panel show starring yet another guy in a suit named Jimmy! A nightly late night show hosted by Greg Gutfeld! A refreshing break from the milquetoast offerings of a neutered mainstream! Real comedy for real Americans.
Up until fairly recently, I was under the impression that “conservative comedy” was to comedy what “Christian rock” was to music—art held to a set of lower standards made by people who couldn’t hack it in the mainstream, for an audience utterly terrified of being challenged. But comedy is even more subjective than most art, and I, like many Fox News devotees, often find myself bewildered by the tastes of the youth. And so I took Fox News at its word, and decided to see what sort of comedy Fox News had to offer. I was ready to take the jokes.
The Fox Nation comedy vertical looked promising. There were a few photos of Roseanne Barr and some comedians I was unfamiliar with, and some light news doc fare that was packaged as harmless, easy fun.
On the Fox Nation Jokes On Us! landing page, I immediately recognized Dave Chappelle’s face, which took up the entire thumbnail for a show called, Who Is Dave Chappelle?
I clicked on it, looking forward to hearing what one of the most successful comedians in the world would have to say to Fox News. Oddly enough, there was no Dave Chappelle in Fox News’ Who Is Dave Chappelle? Instead, we had a bunch of Fox News personalities explaining how Dave Chappelle was one of the most important comedians in the world, and the woke mob was trying to cancel him. We did not learn why the woke mob was canceling him; we did not actually hear Dave Chappelle tell a single joke. All we heard of the actual Dave came from tiny snippets of archival footage that was owned by other outlets and fair use licensed.
We also got Fox News’ Jimmy Failla to chime with bon mots like, “If Spiderman was bit by a radioactive spider, Chappelle was bitten by a radioactive Richard Pryor” and “Sticks and stones clearly haven’t broken Dave Chappelle’s bones but some people are saying his words… hurt.” For some reason, we’d occasionally cut to Fox News’ personality Kennedy onstage at the Broadway Comedy Club doing a fake set about how Dave Chappelle is awesome before a crowd that looks suspiciously like a group of Fox News interns.
After watching a handful of middle-aged white people talk about Dave Chappelle for 28 minutes, I felt as though I was further from the answer to the question “Who is Dave Chappelle?” than I was when I started watching. I also felt a little ripped off. I started to suspect the intended audience for this video is people who had never heard of Dave Chappelle until he started saying weird things about trans women, and now want to defend him publicly without sounding hacky. Think right-wing lawmakers from flyover states and old men gearing up to argue with their college-aged nieces on Thanksgiving.
Disappointed but undaunted, I moved on. I tried to watch the Roseanne Barr special, as the very title of it—Cancel This!—promised that I was about to hear some real bowtie-spinning, monocle-dropping jokes as told from a perspective that, like her eponymous show, didn’t airbrush the lived experiences of the American middle class.
But Barr spent several minutes complaining about the time she took too much Ambien and sent a tweet that caused her to to get fired from her show’s hit revival. I didn’t find this material relatable or particularly edgy, but the audience hooted along with a familiarity that implied that they, too, knew all too well of the pratfalls of taking too much Ambien and having a multi-million dollar contract canceled. Classic. Barr also admitted in her special that the Fox News brass had only given her clearance to say the F word three times.
That gave me pause. I thought Fox News comedy was all about saying things that other comedians were unwilling to say, and yet they were policing what words their comics were allowed to say? That’s not very free speech-y of them. Come on, guys—I thought words didn’t hurt?
“The way [the joke] was delivered made it sound like electing a vegetable is somehow the solution to eating red meat. It is neither traditional nor expected for voters to eat their elected officials.”
I gave up on Barr when her bratty old lady act got tiresome (about 15 minutes in) and returned to Fox News comedy hoping for a fresh start.
I tried something called The Deplorables Tour, clips from a live half-comedy show/half-Trumpless Trump rally from 2020. The show opened with a black comic who told his audience that he’d do anything if he got paid enough, before doing three escalating frantic impersonations of monkeys and bringing it all home with this perplexing closer: “I support (Trump) because he puts America first. That’s why I support him.” If this was a callback to the “I’ll do anything for money” joke, then it was truly an achievement in meta-comedy. But I doubt that’s why the audience cheered so hard for it.
The next Deplorable to take the stage was a guy named Steve “Mudflap” McGraw who, refreshingly, told actual jokes with a setup and a punch line. He had some opinions about the air travel experience. He wasn’t exactly breaking new ground, but at least he had a point of view. Especially at the end, when his eyes glazed over and he yelled “KEEP AMERICA GREAT!” to raucous applause.
Up next was Tomi Lahren, who opened by announcing that she wasn’t a comedian and lived up to her word by not being funny. Following Tomi was Benny Johnson, a moist, pillow-shaped Twitter celebrity whose material borrowed heavily from jokes that had already been beaten to death on Twitter by 2020—an “I identify as a” joke, then something something Hunter Biden’s laptop. (Fitting, as Johnson was once fired for plagiarism and accused of it again at a later job.)
Next up was our closer, who ended his set by declaring to the audience that he had been ordained by God to spend a lot of time talking about Donald Trump on Facebook.
Maybe Dennis Miller’s The Infomercials That Sold Us would be where I found the sort of comedy I couldn’t find anywhere else. However, despite its home on Fox News’ “comedy” vertical, Infomercials boasted very little Dennis Miller and an awful lot of down-the-middle docu-histories of once-ubiquitous infomercials. I wanted to laugh—I tried to laugh. I was not expecting Billy Blanks’ backstory (not funny, but kind of inspiring!), or a quick rundown of Brooke Burke’s modeling career and eventual turn to successful infomercial spokesperson. (Her secret? She stands behind the products she sells!) Both Fyre Fest documentaries contained more humor than this show, and neither were classified by their respective streamers as “comedy.”
I moved onto A History of the World in Six Glasses, thinking it would be Fox News’ answer to Drunk History, but it was just a bunch of guys who were on TV 25-40 years ago making gentle conversation about beverages over b-roll footage of people making or drinking said beverages. It’s not even original material—it’s based off of a book. I didn’t laugh much, but at least A History of the World in Six Glasses didn’t seem to be afflicted with the persecution complex that ran through most of the other Fox News comedy offerings. I would definitely fall asleep to this show on an airplane.
Fox News also boasts a show called Who Can Forget?, a nostalgia show about years past. From the jump, Who Can Forget? is an unfortunate title for a nostalgia show aired on a network with an average viewer over the age of 65 (yes, chances are, many of them can and do forget), but it also features the confusing presence of Fox News personalities giving recaps of pop cultural events that had nothing to do with them. If you want to see three white political pundits over the age of 50 reflect on Taylor Swift’s cultural impact in 2023, this is the show for you. And, bonus jump scare: Kellyanne Conway is involved in this. Yes, she tries to make jokes. No, they don’t make sense. (“Swiftonomics… that’s [mumbles] than Bidenomics.”)
By this point, I was hours deep into my quest for the courageous jokes that you can’t find anywhere else that I was starting to think that Fox News’s definition of brash, confrontational comedy wasn’t actually unbridled free speech. There were no jokes about sex or religion, no jokes about fear or death or moral gray areas. Nobody except Roseanne Barr was even allowed to swear! It was a Summer Bible School teen movie night. It was right wing “clapter” comedy—the sort of navel-gazing audience-complimenting stuff that serves to comfort the comfortable and disturb the disturbed.
Perhaps Jimmy Failla could save me. Failla’s star seems to be rising at Fox News. He helms a hit radio show, frequently appears on shows about comedy to explain comedy, has done a stand up special for the network, and is the newly-minted host of Fox News Saturday Night. Maybe he was going to single handedly breathe new life into the dying medium of the late night comedy format.
The summary of Failla’s stand up special, released in early January, reads: “Buckle up and join comedian and Fox radio host Jimmy Failla for an hour of good old-fashioned jokes where you can let loose and just not give a damn because, well, ‘They’re Just Jokes.’ Dig it?”
“Old-fashioned” is usually not a way to describe jokes that are also “good,” but in the interest of fairness, I gave it a shot.
Like our old friend Mudflap, Failla seemed to understand how setups and punchlines worked, bringing most of his jokes home for a landing, even though several of them burst into flame on the runway. It was tough to not take a red pen to the whole act.
Take this goofy one liner from the special: “Democrats are so obsessed with not eating red meat that they elected a vegetable in Pennsylvania.” Truly, an unforced error. “Democrats are so obsessed with eliminating red meat, they elected a vegetable” makes a lot more sense, if you’re making a “John Fetterman had a stroke” joke. The way it was delivered made it sound like electing a vegetable is somehow the solution to eating red meat. It is neither traditional nor expected for voters to eat their elected officials.
At one point, Failla sang a whimsical song about trans kids that went, “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off my balls will go… it’s from the new Disney film, Snow White and the Seven Inches…”
I believe that as a progressive, I was supposed to be offended by that joke, but I kept bumping on its nonsensicality. What is “seven inches” referring to here? A child’s penis? A child’s scrotum? Again, poorly erected.
Failla also keeps his language tame, with the exception of “faggot” and “retard,” words he used to make fun of children named “Grayson” and people who believe in defunding the police, respectively. He also has a fairly long run of Caitlin Jenner jokes that ripped off the entire premise of the classic South Park episode, Stunning and Brave, but the audience laughs like they’re hearing it for the first time, possibly because they are.
Failla’s comedy style can best be described as “groancore”—the caliber of joke that would be at home in a best man speech at a second wedding, or a retirement party. Why would the self-anointed home of real comedy feature something so unchallenging? But hey—sometimes, that style lends itself well to late night hosting. So I didn’t go into Fox News Saturday Night with Jimmy Failla with my expectations completely deflated.
I wasn’t shocked, excited, offended, or even that distracted by Saturday Night. It was a series of wacky self-deprecating host sketches and in-jokes about other Fox News personalities, with gentle celebrity interviews and Dana Perino making an appearance wearing what appeared to be a blazer from Spirit Halloween’s Business Casual collection. It assumed a level of familiarity with the extended Fox News universe that most people who occasionally leave their homes simply don’t have. It was like watching Avengers: Endgame without watching any other Marvel movies first.
Fox News Saturday Night with Jimmy Failla will undoubtedly gain viewership from people speaking “Jimmy Fallon” unclearly into their remote control voice assistants. Beyond that, it’s unclear what his show offers beyond the feeling of companionship while sitting on one’s couch alone on a Saturday night.
Fox News hasn’t built a comedy libertarian paradise. They’ve built something small, focused, and serious. They’ve built a comedy bunker where frightened Americans can huddle together and blame the world for leaving them behind, a place where people who don’t hang out with liberals make fun of a version of liberal who lives in their imaginations.
It’s a playground for jokes that have already made the rounds on Twitter dozens of times, where “old fashioned” never means “tired” or “tediously overdone,” it just means “classic.” It’s a yearning for a world that does not progress.
It’s a place where Dave Chappelle has a standing invitation to swing by whenever he wants. If he ever returns their calls.