Ed Helms first came to prominence as a correspondent for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, part of the same crew that included Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, and Steve Carell. So it feels a bit like a homecoming to see him back on Comedy Central, wearing a blazer and reporting on news stories while delivering topical humor. Of course, there’s one key difference between the kind of satire he did for The Daily Show and his new comedy special: All the stories here are 100 percent bullshit.
The Fake News With Ted Nelms is a cross between a spoof of CNN’s The Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer and your average TV news magazine, a wholly fictional joke-delivery system that more than makes up in quantity what it occasionally lacks in quality. It most resembles The Onion’s old Onion News Network series, an opportunity to mock the conventions of cable news broadcasting combined with deliberately ridiculous non sequiturs and Zucker brothers-style wackiness. Helms’ deadpan delivery has always been a good fit for satirizing news, and this new special is no different: He plays the role of lunatic who thinks he’s the straight man with committed zeal, holding court over a rotating cast of on-the-scene correspondents, in-studio guests, and utterly silly stand-alone jokes. (Sample: Helms introduces a segment called “The Dog News,” then simply says, “No! No! Down! No!” Cut, print, on to the next gag.)
The best jokes in this tightly written hour of comedy (overseen by head writer Elliott Kalan of The Daily Show and MST3K: The Return) slowly build from a simple premise, twisting and expanding to add layers and new angles, before collapsing under the total weight of all the silliness. One of the major through-lines of Nelms’ “Breaking News” segments is the arrival of Hurricane Randy, a looming weather disaster that is accompanied by a wailing guitar riff each time they say its name, a bit that slowly gets funnier each time it happens. Nelms steadily edges his remote correspondent closer and closer to the center of the storm, with predictable results, and the storm itself slowly gets worse, until becoming an all-too-common political epithet from 2017. The absurdity gets more entertaining the further Helms and his writers push it.
Another bit that starts dumb and slowly becomes a gonzo and entertaining bit is the news that Donald Trump is stuck in a well, which goes from a parody of crisis reporting to a lovingly rendered CGI investigation of what it looks like in the well, complete with the corpses of founding fathers. This and other bits take advantage of the opportunity to find real public statements from elected officials and insert them as answers to the special’s nonsensical queries, an easy laugh that nonetheless works more often than not.
What really makes the whole enterprise feel like a nonstop barrage of jokes is the chyrons and scrolling news feed along the bottom of the screen. The chyrons vary wildly from commenting on whatever’s happening onscreen to oddball asides, often gaining laughs through mere description. (When Nelms vomits while watching footage of a giraffe being born, the chyron simply reads, “NELMS WET HEAVING.”) In contrast, the news scroll just ignores what’s happening on The Fake News altogether, preferring to do things like recount the story of Peter Rabbit in its entirety or a tale of Thor in battle. Soon, it has devolved into ludicrous horoscopes, recipes, and even the minutes from juridical decisions.
From fake advertisements for generic morning shows (“Mike And Tom… And Her”) to phony political ads, it’s a wide-ranging parody geared seemingly toward short attention spans, but with subsequent callback jokes that reward close attention. Not everything succeeds: A remote bit in which Playing House’s Lennon Parham interviews Helms as a creep collecting women’s used panties for “disaster relief” falls flat, as does a report on North Korea testing its “fart bombs.” But it’s hard to fault a few lame gags when there’s such a steady onslaught of jokes flying so quickly across the screen. It’s a winning (if more genially entertaining than hard-edged) combination of elements, anchored by Helms’ sure-footed presence. Give this special a try—after all, as The Fake News With Ted Nelms reminds us, there’s only one source you should really be getting all your information from… and then it cuts to a montage of everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Trump, saying the same thing: “the fake news.”