The real laughs on CNN don’t come from D.L. Hughley

FUNNY MAN: D.L. Hughley, middle, has joined CNN, but other personalities draw laughs too, albeit unintentionally.
(David S. Holloway / CNN)

As if Coopie, Wolfie, Dobbsie and CNN’s other kazoos weren’t funny enough, “the most trusted name in news” now has comedian D.L. Hughley holding down an hour of interviews and sketches before a laugh track-like studio audience on Saturday nights.

Hughley (an African American) on Barack Obama’s fundraising chops: “Wow, a brother with that kind of money! He don’t even have a shoe deal.”

Saturday nights are different on the Fox News Channel too, where former Baptist minister, Arkansas governor and GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee -- hoping perhaps to keep a high profile with an eye toward 2012 -- now heads a talk show titled “Huckabee.”

Although Huckabee leans way, way right, his civility with guests is out of step with a Fox network that revels in disemboweling its foes on the left. He wraps himself in the kind of earnestness that has helped make him a formidable political figure, turning the other cheek enough times to give you motion sickness.

On one “Huckabee” installment, guests blew in from the left. In strode activist actor Richard Dreyfuss, so laden with gravitas you worried about him giving himself a hernia. Huckabee’s interview with Bill Maher (promoting his irreverent movie, “Religulous”) produced an amiable debate about faith rare for the fire pits of 24-hour news. There was also a friendly taped chat with “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels and the show’s head writer, Seth Meyers.

Very, uh, slow. And very un-Foxy.

It’s a funny thing ...

When you think about it, though, “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News” is perfect for CNN, where burlesque dominates, catchy news slogans such as “keepin’ ‘em honest” and “diggin’ deeper” spew from Anderson Cooper, and that great kidder Lou Dobbs delivers stormy sermons right out of “Network.” With a straight face yet.

There’s much to choose from, so good people can disagree about this: But to me it was never funnier this election season than when squiggling, color-coded graph lines appeared beneath the candidates throughout coverage of the presidential debates, showing undecided voters’ second-by-second responses to what Obama and John McCain were saying. What a stunning gag. And what a rip-roaring hoot when CNN pretended to make sense of this irrelevant techno nonsense, as if it really enlightened anyone. I mean, who is thinking up this stuff? How soon before “Saturday Night Live” has them writing for Tina Fey?

And by the way, was it not also CNN, in a nod to Trekkies, that ventured where no news network had gone before on election night, giving the planet its first hologram reporter? Although in Chicago, Jessica Yellen suddenly materialized on CNN’s New York set, joining Wolf Blitzer and briefly upstaging the funniest political team on television.

Wolfie, stonily, to the beamed-down Yellen: “All right, Jessica. You were a terrific hologram. Thank you very much.”

In my house, we stood and applauded.

And getting back to Coopie: Did you know that he is now available in bookstores as a bookmark? Yes, that’s right, a full-body paper cutout of this guy, in all his self-important glory. A friend of mine picked up a book at a store recently and found him slipped inside. I’m betting a Coopie action figure comes next, in a bush jacket and pith helmet.

And you’re telling me this isn’t funny?

Trying to compete

In fact, CNN’s cutups have set the comedy bar so high that even a pro like Hughley has difficulty making much of an impression. “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News” is merely advertised as funny; the rest of CNN actually is.

As CNN’s only acknowledged comedy, Hughley’s two-week-old show is designed to rope in young viewers like those drawn to the political satire of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” and to the jokes of MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher.” It’s a goofy plan given the difficulty of imagining youthful viewers blowing off Saturday nights to take in Hughley or even bothering to TiVo him.

Conventional monologues and comedy scraps mixed in with legit interviews? When I watched, most of it was rather lame. Hughley is likable enough and may get funnier, but that isn’t really the point.

Is the line separating news and entertainment not blurry enough? Cablers are already somersaulting in HD to attract and keep viewing throngs that flocked to them for election stuff in 2008, and light fare such as Leno, Letterman and ABC’s “The View” have become must-stops for political candidates and their surrogates. Now here comes CNN wiping the line away entirely by having some of its actual correspondents go for yuks in “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News.”

In one episode, Hughley juxtaposed faux interviews with a legit interview of Al Sharpton, followed by a truly awful sketch with CNN correspondent Erica Hill, whose main gig usually involves split-screen shtick with Cooper on his evening newscast. Then came another legit interview with a computer science guru leading to a news break and an excerpt of CNN anchor Don Lemon’s legit (I think) interview with Princeton’s Cornel West that bordered on comedic.

Next, on to another Hughley monologue, leading to his legit interview with Bertha Lewis, who heads the voter registration group ACORN. That was followed by another comedy bit with Hughley interviewing an actor playing Osama bin Laden, who was interrupted by CNN “truth squad” correspondent Josh Levs’ announcement that it was not really Bin Laden. Then came a legit interview about polls leading to this clever factoid: “The difference between the U.S. and Canadian election [sic] is that in America, the winner is determined by electoral votes, but Canada is ruled by a military strongman.”

The show ended (we applauded that too), and anchorman Lemon immediately introduced a story about “election anxiety,” with me thinking these guys and Coopie’s crowd deserved to be Frisbeed out to space on their satellite dishes.

Former Times television critic Howard Rosenberg is the author, with Charles S. Feldman, of “No Time to Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-Hour News Cycle.” He can be reached at howardrosenberg@notimeto