In Hollywood, the Joke's On the Media

Jon Stewart (search), Will Ferrell (search), Jimmy Fallon (search): It seems like everybody's poking fun at the media these days.

TV news is the butt of the joke in Ferrell's upcoming movie "Anchorman," as it is every weeknight on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and every weekend on "Saturday Night Live." But just what is everybody laughing about?

Comedians say it's simple: The tallest poppy is the one that gets cut down.

"The news has this trusted kind of position. There's nothing more fun than making fun of what's sacred," said Adam McKay, who directed "Anchorman" and co-wrote it with Ferrell. "TV news takes itself kind of seriously too. The anchors are on TV so they're TV stars, but at the same time they're not."

In "Anchorman," which opens July 9, funnyman Ferrell plays Ron Burgundy, an anchorman who has the stereotypical unmoving hair, the non-regional voice with the "news" cadence and, most importantly, the grandiose tone and manner.

But here's the catch: All he does is read off the teleprompter.

Comic writer Joe Garden said it's what some people see as an inflated sense of self among news anchors that puts them in the comic's bull's eye.

“Movies like 'Anchorman' and 'Bruce Almighty' (the hit 2003 movie starring Jim Carrey as a frustrated local anchor), I think they [allude to] local anchors who carry an air of weirdly unjust pomposity," said Garden, who writes for the satirical newspaper "The Onion." "They have found their celebrity niche reading off a teleprompter." 

But Fox News anchor Gregg Jarrett said the notion that people of his profession merely recite other people's words or read off a screen is antiquated and false.

"I think that it may date back to the wonderful caricature that was Ted Baxter (on the 'Mary Tyler Moore' show) — the bubble-headed, good-looking anchor with the booming voice. But if I'm on the air for an hour there's breaking news every time, and a lot of that time I have to speak extemporaneously on many, many topics," he said. "The majority of what I do is interview guests using my own research."

Jarrett also takes issue with the idea that anchors are literally "anchored" to their desks.

"Any good modern-day anchor spends a lot of time out in the field. I spent five weeks in Iraq several months ago with no bath, no shower and no teleprompter," he said.

But it's not just the anchors themselves who get giggles — Garden said the tone of the news provides the other punch line, as it implies that what's being reported is unquestionable fact.

"On 'The Daily Show,' the humor is not so much about the stories themselves but they way they are presented," he said. "It has an ivory tower aspect, the voice of somebody presented as an authority figure."

Robert Thompson, professor of media and pop culture at Syracuse University, said news jokes have a long history.

"The classic examples are Ted Baxter on 'Mary Tyler Moore' and the movie 'Broadcast News' ... but it [news humor] actually fails a lot more than it succeeds," he said, referring to the many media-based sitcoms that have gone bust.

Thompson agreed that the root of the joke is what Garden called "the snobs vs. the slobs," or a backlash against what is seen as a self-consciously important structure.

“Comedy is most effective when skewering those in power, knocking down pretense. Anchors are just short of politicians as far as being most visible in positions of authority," he said. "Cronkite actually said 'and that’s the way it is.'"

Eben Anderson, a 25-year-old New York City resident, said there is also humor to be found in the strangeness of "objective" reporting and the necessity of awkward segues in delivering the news.

"It's gotten so over-the-top in what they can say with a straight face, without any opinion whatsoever," he said. "The absurdity of going from 50 dead in an earthquake to up next Laci Peterson’s diary or why you should look out for snakes."

But McKay said the essence of the joke is actually quite simple.

"Ultimately it's just about the hair," he said.