Monday, January 01, 2007

Costa Del Bill

I admit it – I’m a big fan of Fox News Channel. Honestly, I am. If I get a chance to watch TV news I’ll almost always tune them in. And I’m not alone – they have the highest rated news shows on cable TV. And why are they so successful? Simple – they’re entertaining. They’re fun to watch. Like a circus. Or a freak show.

Now, the trick to watching Fox News is to not take it too seriously. After all, if you want real news read The New York Times. But if you want a good laugh Fox News Channel is probably the most entertaining network on TV, aside from Comedy Central. And it doesn’t surprise me at all that the best shows on the two networks (The O’Reilly Factor and Hannity & Colmes on Fox; The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central) have developed a strange symbiosis – echoing and mocking each other.

I admit that Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity can be annoying to watch but whenever they start to irritate me I play this sort of game with them. When they start to fulminate about immigration or Hillary Clinton or the French or whatever the outrage du jour is, I begin to picture them not as sitting behind the desk in some fancy, state-of-the-art TV studio but rather sitting on the beat-up old sofa in the basement of their Mom’s house (where they live). Instead of a nice suit, a baseball cap (Mets, probably) and a ratty T-shirt (with maybe a mustard stain on it) and crappy Bermuda shorts and so on. You get the picture. And what’s amazing about this "transformation" is that it really fits these guys. It’s a match. You can try this game on other TV news broadcasters, too, but it doesn’t always work. For instance, if you do it to Jim Lehrer of The Newshour with Jim Lehrer it’s just not believable. You start to think “Wow, he’s so smart. Why is he still living in his Mom’s basement?” And don’t even think of trying it on people like George Will or Bill Kristol or Fareed Zakaria.

Personally I find O’Reilly far more entertaining that Hannity. The latter is little more than a partisan hack dutifully reciting RNC talking points, but O’Reilly is a genuine showman – even his divaesque behavior is engaging. To put it in terms of offensive ethnic stereotypes: O’Reilly is the classic Irishman with the gift of gab, whereas Hannity is the classic Irishman happy carrying water for The Big House.

Now the best part of O’Reilly’s show is the end, which always follows a certain pattern. First, he reads the mail and comments on it. Then he plugs the latest O’Reilly-themed crap you can buy on his website. Finally, he looks into the camera, smiles, and addresses the viewer directly, “Thank you for watching The Factor and, remember, the spin stops here...(big smile)….because we’re looking out for you.” Looking out for me? That is so creepy. I don’t want you looking out for me. I’ll look out for myself, thank you very much. He really should drop that last line. It blows his whole normal-guy-from-Long-Island act. There are few things less inspiring of trust than some slimy, grinning political propagandist saying he’s “looking out for you.”

But after watching O’Reilly for years, it’s become clear to me that a certain sliminess is an integral, and even appealing, part of his persona. In fact, now that I think of it there is only one other person whom O’Reilly resembles with that winning combination of charm, cleverness and sleaze - Lex Luthor, as played by Gene Hackman in the Superman movies. Think about it. They’re both unctuous, devious, ego-centric, somewhat seedy and up to no good. They’re both warm to the idea of bombing the west coast. Heck, they even look similar (sort-of):

(So if O’Reilly is Lex Luthor, then John Gibson would have to be Otis. And Miss Teschmacher would have to be Ann Coulter…or Michelle Malkin…or Laura Ingraham…)

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