The Right to Laugh 24's Joel Surnow on his conservative news satire and Jack Bauer's torture tactics
Why should liberals have all the laughs? On Feb. 18, Fox News Channel is looking to get a few younger viewers into its tent with The 1/2 Hour News Hour
at 10 pm/ET. It's a satirical news program akin to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
, but will aim more of its shots at the left side of the political spectrum. It repeats on Feb. 25 and a second episode airs on Mar. 4, before FNC decides whether to make a weekly series. The show was developed by Joel Surnow
, cocreator and executive producer of 24
and a self-described "right-wing nut job." The Biz talked to him and his fellow 24
executive producer Manny Coto
about their new project and the recent heat over Jack Bauer's torture methods.
TVGuide.com: Why do you think there needs to be a conservative version of The Daily Show?
Joel Surnow: One of the things you always look to in the TV-content business is what's not out there. One of the things that's definitely not out there is a satirical voice that skews to the right as opposed to the left. You can turn on any comedy satire show on TV and you're going to hear 10 Bush jokes, 10 Cheney jokes, but you'll never hear a Hillary Clinton joke or a global-warming send-up. It's just not out there. Let's face it, people are funny on both sides of the aisle. I really felt that something was missing [on TV] that radio has gotten, that publishing has gotten. There is a huge appetite for people who want to see some other targets, as opposed to the same old [white, male Republicans].
TVGuide.com: Doesn't that have a lot to do with the fact that those are the people in power?
Manny Coto: Maybe so. But I'll tell you, when Bill Clinton was in power and Newt Gingrich was out of power, it seemed to me there were a lot of people making fun on Newt Gingrich, until of course the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
TVGuide.com: Clinton got roughed up pretty good on Saturday Night Live every week.
Surnow: True enough. But that was a guy who stepped in it himself. There are just a lot of sacred, cultural, iconic things that don't get touched.
TVGuide.com: Some people might say that Bush has stepped in it himself, too.
Surnow: Bush deserved to get skewered. We're not saying he's not fair game.
Coto: The point is, he's getting skewered well enough by everyone else. And we're not saying he shouldn't be.... We just want to see a television version of the humor in [conservative] talk radio. Even if we agreed with the assertion that conservative and left-wing humor is fairly balanced on the playing field, that still is not a reason for not doing the show. This would just be a show that skews right. If there are people out there who want to see something like this, they can see it.
TVGuide.com: But what struck me when I watched the show was that the bits that were funny weren't necessarily political. There's a fake commercial for a magazine about Barack Obama that wasn't making fun of him — but the hype surrounding him.
Surnow: It's not a mean-spirited show — I think the one thing we target more than anything else is hysteria. The hysteria over global warming. The hysteria over Barack Obama. College kids' hysteria over Che Guevera T-shirts. This is funny. This is irrational behavior that has lodged itself in our culture, and no one stops to go, "Wait a minute this is kind of absurd."
TVGuide.com: Is concern over global warming really hysteria?
Surnow: No, not concern, but absolute hysteria is. We point out that 30 years ago, the big concern was global cooling, and the population explosion. If you read books and magazines published back in the '70s and '80s, we're not supposed to be here right now. The Earth Day manifesto in 1976 said we weren't going to make it to 2000.
TVGuide.com: But one reason global cooling stopped was because the Clean Air Act was passed. We did something about it.
Surnow: We're not pro-pollution. I grew up in L.A.
Coto: If the global warming hysteria is about stopping pollution, then make it about stopping pollution.
TVGuide.com: Why did you end up doing this for Fox News Channel? It seems like it could have worked on an entertainment channel like FX or the Fox network.
Surnow: We went in and pitched a version of this show [to Fox]. Fox entertainment president Peter Liguori gave us the money to make a 10-minute presentation. We made it. They turned it down. We looked at it and said, "You know, there is really something here. Where could we go with this?" Everywhere we thought about going didn't really seem to be a fit. Fox News chairman Roger Ailes is a friend of ours, and we just sent it to Roger and said, "What do you think we could do with this?" He said, "I like it. I think it's got a lot of promise. Let's do two episodes, and I'll put it on. Let's try it."
TVGuide.com: Joel, do you ever feel like an outcast in Hollywood because of your conservative views?
Surnow: I don't complain about my status in Hollywood at all. I'm treated very fairly. That may be because I have a hit show.
TVGuide.com: Is it also because you've kept your views to yourself?
Surnow: It never became an issue until The 1/2 Hour News Hour came out, where we knew we were going to be "exposed" because the show does come from somewhat of a partisan place.
Coto: I actually don't have a hit show, and I've never held back on my views and never had any problems with it — I've just had a lot of spirited and fun discussions.
TVGuide.com: A New Yorker story said the producers of 24 recently had a visit from Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan from West Point, who expressed concerns about some of the torture methods used by Jack Bauer and the effect that has on cadets who watch. Joel, the story said you weren't at the meeting, but is the depiction of torture something you're thinking about more?
Surnow: First of all, let me clarify. It was very unfairly skewed the way it was written in the New Yorker about how I missed the meeting. We have a show to run, and whenever we have visitors — these were visitors of [producer] Howard Gordon — some of us go to those meetings and some of us continue to work on the show. [New Yorker writer] Jane Mayer made it sound like I was concocting right-wing conspiracies with Roger Ailes. We do talk about it. But again, we believe that unlike her assertion — that cadets in Baghdad are watching 24 and getting riled up and going in and torturing and interrogating people — our assertion would be more that cadets in Baghdad may be seeing their buddies beheaded or killed or innocent people being killed and get riled up, not an hour of television.... Our show lives in its own world, and I don't really know what answer people want to hear. I just don't believe that adult behavior is changed by watching a TV show. Then it gets to the premise we start with. If that's the standard that 24 is going to be held to, we should be looking at every other television show and asking questions — how did this particular show affect adult behavior? Will promiscuous behavior by teenagers cause more AIDS deaths because [the] TV shows teenagers having sex? At least be intellectually honest and apply it to every show.