When The Daily Show started in 1996 (with Craig Kilborn at the desk) it’s hard to imagine that anyone would have predicted the impact the half-hour news/comedy program would have on the cultural landscape. Jon Stewart took the desk in 1999, just in time for the second Bush administration, and by the mid-2000’s Stewart had built a loyal following of liberal-leaning viewers. The success of The Daily Show, a snarky “news” program airing late at night on a basic cable comedy channel, is quite impressive. More impressive, is the ripple effect the show has had throughout television. The first Daily Show alum to spin off was Steven Colbert who comfortably slotted in right behind Stewart with The Colbert Report. It was a number of years later before the next graduating class of Daily Show correspondents started to get their own solo gigs, but when it happened it happened with a flurry. Colbert moved to the prestigious Late Night show on CBS. That opened a spot behind The Daily Show for the (now-defunct) Larry Wilmore Show. John Oliver picked up his wildly successful HBO gig Last Week Tonight. Then, Samantha Bee and her bold brand of feminist comedy found a home on TBS, of all places.
The Daily Show’s model of a main host along with many featured correspondents made it essentially a farm system for a certain kind of comedy. That brand was and is, through all its iterations, decidedly liberal. Throw into the mix an increasingly left-leaning Saturday Night Live and some of its products like Seth Meyers on Late Night, Real-Time with Bill Maher, and some of Funny-or-Die’s offerings and the comedy landscape is paradise for liberals seeking political-driven infotainment. The number of shows using the same general model and targeting the same audience must be closing in on saturation of the market. But the recent proliferation of left-leaning comedy once more begs the question: why is there no conservative Daily Show?
Possible answers to this question range from simple logistics to complex psychology. One popular theory is that there are simply no conservative comedians. While it’s clear that a vast majority of comedians and entertainers are liberal, the theory that there is no one who would step up to host a conservative infotainment show has a flaw. Money. A comedian that could successfully tap into the conservative audience could make a fortune (think Duck Dynasty money). If there was a clear path to success on a conservative Daily Show-type program there would be mid-level comedians with no strong political convictions lined up around the block to cash that check. Lack of personnel doesn’t seem to be a true limiting factor.
The more complex, and likely, explanation for why there is no conservative version of The Daily Show stems from how people with different political ideologies perceive and enjoy humor. Satire, the meat and potatoes of The Daily Show and its offspring, is essentially property of the left. It’s a type of humor that is enjoyed almost exclusively by liberals. A fascinating study by researchers at Ohio State shed some light on why that might be. A total of 322 people were shown clips of Steven Colbert doing his mock-conservative punditry on The Colbert Report. For the most part liberals, correctly if you understand what The Colbert Report was, identified what they saw as satire. Conservatives, on the other hand, were less likely understand they were watching satire and more likely to believe that Colbert truly supported the positions he espoused on The Colbert Report and that he genuinely disliked liberalism. In other words, they didn’t get the joke. Apparently, these conservatives perceived Colbert the same was as Bill O’Reilly (just with a really giggly studio audience).
So, if satire is the comedy of the left. What’s do conservatives in America enjoy for entertainment? Another interesting analysis broke down the most popular TV shows geographically with a particular emphasis on urban vs. rural preferences. In urban (democratic voting areas, typically) the most popular shows included The Daily Show, several other satirical shows like South Park and The Simpsons, and even a Netflix offering (Orange is the New Black). In rural (republican voting areas, typically) the list of the most popular shows includes mostly reality-TV shows, a few scripted dramas, and no satire except for American Dad. Though, as evidenced by the Colbert Report study, some conservative viewers of American Dad may not be picking up on some elements of the satire.
While there are 6 or 7 outlets for liberal-leaning infotainment there remains to be very little on the conservative end of the spectrum. And it might seem like the time for one to pop up has just passed, at least for a while. These types of shows thrive on taking down the powerful. The second Bush administration provided plenty of fodder for Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and even years after Bush left office Stewart was still railing on the financial collapse and the Iraq war that happened under W’s watch. If a conservative Daily Show equivalent was going to spring to life it seems likely that it would have happened during the last eight years, considering how popular a target Obama has been for the right. Yet, no such show emerged. There have been a few ill-fated attempts at right leaning infotainment, though none have been able to gather any momentum, possibly for reasons we outlined previously. But despite what would seem like odd timing (Republican control at all levels of the Federal government), a new show is starting on Fox News that might, once more, seek to provide the elusive politically conservative comedy narrative.
The show is called Watters’ World, and it is an expansion of a recurring segment on Bill O’Reilly’s The O’Reilly Factor that has existed for a number of years. Host Jesse Watters is now being given his own hour long time slot on Fox News and the proposed format of the show bears a fair amount of semblance to The Daily Show or perhaps Real-Time with Bill Maher. If you feel like you’ve heard of Watters’ World somewhere it might be because it drew sharp and wide-spread criticism this past fall for a piece on Asian American reactions to Donald Trump and the 2016 election. Jesse Watters brought his man-on-the-street interview style (well not his, Jay Leno’s) to Chinatown in New York and left with a segment that was so tone-deaf and mean-spirited that it’s shocking it was allowed to go to air:
The racial element of the Chinatown edition of Watters’ World drew attention to that particular clip, but Jesse Watters has made many other clips that are similarly problematic. Watters has no comedic background. He was a production assistant at Fox News and was known as “the funny guy” on the crew. His good-looks and loyalty to the conservative cause (he claimed his life goal was to “make a lot of money on Wall Street” but he was not good at math) checked both of the big boxes at Fox News and he eventually found himself in front of the camera. Shoving a microphone into the faces of people with no preparation to be on TV and asking them to answer questions or react to current events is a pretty sure-fire way to elicit some bizarre or embarrassing responses, particularly if you cast a wide enough net. These man-on-the-street interviews that were popularized by Jay Leno’s “Jay Walking” are now Watters’ preferred method of “comedy”, which is a pretty lazy format to rely on exclusively since the subjects are delivering all the laughs. Incredibly, Watters started conducting these types of interviews with no awareness that Leno had been doing it for decades prior to him. He may have even thought that he invented the genre. The Daily Show and other liberal leaning shows use this format on occasion too, but what sets Watters’ show apart from the others is that there doesn’t seem to be much of a point to them beyond delivering confirmation bias to his viewers. Take this clip for example, where Watters scours crowds of college students on spring break to hunt out cases that support the popular conservative theory that liberal professors have forced their political ideology on students:
In Watters’ World if you can talk to 200 drunk kids and get 5 to say what you want to hear you’ve had a good day at the office. If those 5 happen to be young women that are mostly naked and can be ogled by your audience of older men, than that’s just gravy (Watters intentionally seeks this situation out by filming on beaches, at Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar promotions, and fantasy fests). Looking through the catalogue of Watters’ World it’s apparent that patronizing young women, and millennials in general, is a favorite move for the show and it’s one they go back to time and time again. In some cases, the married Watters even seems to be creepily flirting with them. Unlike The Daily Show, which might interview a Trump supporters at a Trump rally and ask them questions about Trump, Watters ambushes people as they are out trying to enjoy themselves and then asks them about detailed statistics on something like food stamps and gets incredulous when they don’t have the answers. The interviews kind of go all over and are spliced with 3-second clips from movies that effectively allow Watters to call people stupid without the words having to come out of his own mouth. Watters never seems to have much of a point that he’s trying to make with his interviews other than “the preexisting beliefs of me and my audience are right! These people are idiots!”. And with enough subjects and editing it’s a point that’s easy to make. While Leno was warm and sympathetic to his subjects when they would stumble (an effort to soften the humiliation), Watters is smug and snarky, doggedly pursuing more and more confirmation bias from a subject after drawing first blood. It’s uncomfortable to watch unless you align tightly with the conservative world-view, and it’s hard to imagine how selectively edited clips of this nature could do anything productive for political dialogue. It remains to be seen how much of his new hour long show is comprised of these kinds of interviews, but it’s the gimmick that got him to where he is, so it’s hard to imagine him getting away from it completely.
Unlike most other conservative infotainment, Watters’ World seems to have a legitimate chance at succeeding. After all, it’s already been road tested with the O’Reilly audience. Yet it’s hard to see the show delivering anything other than divisiveness. Through most of its run, The Daily Show has been the comfort blanket of underdog liberals living first in Bush’s America and later under the crippling gridlock of a Republican controlled legislature (not to mention Republican control in most states). Certainly, Donald Trump’s administration will be very good for Trevor Noah’s job security. But Jesse Watters’ new show comes along at this exact same time. Meaning that if he wants to ridicule the left, he’s essentially kicking a dog when it’s down. Jokes at the expense of the people who are out of power have the potential to appeal to only die-hard partisans, those intent on seeing liberals both dethroned and degraded. That is, if they get that it’s a joke at all.