Can conservatives be funny? A new riff on The Daily Show on Glenn Beck’s online network is trying to find out. McKay Coppins talks to Beck and the show’s host about the pitfalls of partisan comedy.
If you want to piss off Brian Sack, tell him his new political comedy series, The B.S. of A., is a conservative version of The Daily Show.
“It’s so frustrating!” he growls when the comparison comes up, clenching his fists in mock fury before launching into a well-rehearsed diatribe on all the differences between his show, which debuted last week on Glenn Beck’s online network GBTV, and Jon Stewart’s late-night mainstay. The format is more diverse! The concept is different! The targets are more widespread! What’s more, Sack isn’t even a Republican! “I’m not a person that would be hosting a conservative Daily Show,” he insists. “And I don’t even think a fully conservative-perspective Daily Show would be particularly funny.”
The distinctions are fair, but the fact remains that Sack and his team are attempting something that no one has ever pulled off: adopting The Daily Show formula to produce red state–friendly comedy. And for Beck’s fledgling network, a lot is riding on his guys getting it right.
Beck tells The Daily Beast that he greenlighted the comedy show because it was clear GBTV’s lineup needed to lighten up. “You know I’m not the cheeriest sometimes,” says Beck, who is notorious for his gloomy apocalyptic rants. “I wanted to add some laughs to the network to show it had some range to it, that it’s not just me.”
GBTV, which launched with 230,000 paid subscribers last summer, promises to eventually offer a wide range of programming for the conservative audience, including late-night talk shows, an animated series, and scripted dramas. As the first major entertainment series to be developed on the network, The B.S. of A will be a key element to the brand-broadening strategy.
Beck says he had ceded complete creative control of the show to Sack and his team, but he does have some goals for the project, the first of which being that it turns out “better than Saturday Night Live.”
“As much as everybody in the comedy business wants to say they’re fair and they have no sacred cows, I beg to differ with them,” Beck says. “They may think they’re that way but they generally lean left.” For him, the model of equal-opportunity mockery is The Simpsons. Beck says the Fox cartoon “will say something that really hacks me off, but they’ll follow that joke in the same episode and hit the other side just as hard.” This is the philosophy he hopes The B.S. of A. will take: “If it deserves to be poked at, poke.” No sacred cows.
Early efforts to introduce comedy to the network were rough going. Initially, Beck had Sack come on at the end of his own two-hour program and do 10 minutes of Leno-style standup to close out the show. But according to Sack, “It was painful and hard because the audience is not primed for comedy after 110 minutes of Glenn Beck ... They’re sitting there in various stages of shock, denial, acceptance, disbelief, and anger. So I stroll out and start telling monologue jokes and they’re like, ‘What is this? Why are you insulting my candidate?’”
Beck quickly realized the format wasn’t working, so he told Sack to hire a small staff and get to work developing their own show. Before long, he and showrunner Jack Helmuth were moving into a small windowless office in midtown Manhattan and covering the walls with photoshopped pictures of conservative columnist and GBTV contributor S. E. Cupp. You know, just for kicks.
“She walked by here and looked in, and there was a beautiful color photo of her,” says Helmuth.
“I don’t think she’s been back in the office since,” Sack adds.
Both devout libertarians, the show runners pay tribute to Beck’s hands-off management style.
Helmuth admits with a mischievous grin, “She’s not difficult to look at.”
Though they haven’t known each other long, Sack and Helmuth have quickly developed a friendship and comedic rapport—Sack’s wife refers to them as “the losers”—and they treat every question as a competition to come up with the best punch line. But when they’re asked how GBTV compares with previous workplaces, they immediately shift to earnest mode as they sing their employer’s praises. Both devout libertarians, the duo pays tribute to Beck’s hands-off management style with an almost religious fervor.
“Of all the places I’ve worked in television since 1995 ... he is by far the nicest, most inspiring boss I’ve ever had,” Helmuth says. “I want it to be good for him. You wanna hug him.”
Sack interjects: “You’re very huggy.”
“I am,” responds Helmuth, “but he’s the one who started it yesterday.”
“What are you doing?” Sack demands. “Stop hugging the boss!”
Helmuth: “I just put on some really nice cologne ...”
Apparently their capacity for earnestness has reached its limit.
Of course, The B.S. of A. isn’t the first attempt to bring political satire to a conservative TV audience. In 2007, Fox News tried developing a Daily Show knockoff created by 24 producer Joel Surnow. But critics savaged it for its all-too-predictable assaults on obvious conservative targets. As the Chicago Tribune wrote at the time, “Is anyone of any political persuasion still supposed to find Dennis Kucinich jokes funny?” The show was cancelled the same year, and eventually replaced with its current offering, Red Eye, a quasi-comedic chat show that competes with the networks' late-night shows.
Sack and company acknowledge the pitfalls of partisan comedy on both sides of the aisle. The notion of a Republican comedy show is fundamentally flawed, Sack says, because “there are some [conservative] issues that it’s really hard to draw humor out of.” And on the left, he sees Bill Maher as the prime example of why throwing red meat to one politically charged segment of the population doesn’t make great comedy. “I watch Bill Maher but the audience just turns me off because they’re so rabid,” he says. “No matter what he says, as long as he’s throwing a bone to the left, you know, ‘George Bush is stupid!’ Woo-hoo! It’s like, oh God, I get it and I agree, but shut up.”
So while there’s a clear rightward tilt to Sack’s show, they make a big deal out of plastering Beck’s “no sacred cows” mantra across the screen of each episode. And to their credit, they seem to be taking the slogan seriously so far.
The first two episodes have mingled predictable jokes about Occupy Wall Street—hippies don’t use soap!—with creative takedowns of the Republican presidential field. In one satisfyingly absurd segment, a correspondent reports from the “Isle of Skulls,” where GOP candidates engage in mortal combat to determine the nominee. Says the fake reporter: “Newt Gingrich was only defeated when Rick Perry debated him by summoning a demon who took the form of the one thing Gingrich cannot resist ... a woman who’s not his wife.”
Some in the audience grumbled uncomfortably at the line, but Sack seemed to find twisted joy in the awkwardness when he was asked about it later.
“When we hear a groan in the audience we know we did something right, because they get it.”