Politico sends one of its intrepid explorers to the very edge of civilization, where he meets two even more intrepid explorers who have in fact pressed beyond the edge and into the darkness beyond—whence they have returned (alive!) to tell their tales of wonderment from the world of the political right.
One wonderment in particular has excited the curiosity of Politico: the returning explorers claim the barbarians of the right have discovered comedy.
Liberals Should Be Worried About the Conservative Comedy Scene
Ian Ward, Politico.com, May 13
Politico’s Ian Ward is well prepared to debrief the explorers, the professors Matt Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx. He himself has apparently been studying rumors of conservative humor from afar, with an emphasis on their obvious implausibility:
The various explanations for the right’s comedic deficiencies all circle the same basic thesis: that there is some sort of intrinsic contradiction between conservatism and comedy. As the academic Amber Day put it her book Satire and Dissent, “The nature of conservatism does not meet the conditions necessary for political satire to flourish. … [Conservatism] originates from a place that repudiates humor.”
Well said! Amber Day is clearly everything we have come to expect from America’s academics.
There’s another long-standing thesis that Ward doesn’t mention but is well represented in this August 2016 excerpt from Vanity Fair:
But the thing that makes Obama such an effective statesmen—his even-keeled cool—also makes him a hard person to mock. That’s why you need someone like The Rock Obama or Keegan-Michael Key’s anger translator Luther to add a memorable spin. And truth be told, while Pharoah’s uncanny impressions of Jay-Z, Eddie Murphy, and Dr. Ben Carson will be missed, his Obama—though accurate—may not be. We’ve had eight years of an almost lampoon-proof president. Something tells me that won’t be the case come January.
It’s not just the case that conservatism is inherently incapable of humor: it’s also that so many of the people and causes of the left are so unmockable.
As SNL writer Jim Downey observed of Obama: “It’s like being a rock climber looking up at a thousand-foot-high face of solid obsidian, polished and oiled. There’s not a single thing to grab onto — certainly not a flaw or hook that you can caricature.”
Alas, not everyone on the left is as impregnably perfect as Barack Obama, peace be upon him. Some of them have imperfections—but to paraphrase Henry Higgins:
One leftist in a million may shout a bit.
Now and then there’s one with slight defects;
One, perhaps, whose truthfulness you doubt a bit.
But by and large we are a marvelous lot!
Having assured his readers of his willingness to approach the intrepid explorers Sienliewicz and Marx with an open mind (by asking “but is it true?” of the hypothesis already quoted), Ward begins his interview with the question all reasonable people have been wondering for years:
I suspect that some readers will share my first reaction to a book about conservative comedy, which is, “There is conservative comedy?”
It’s worth remembering that Ian Ward is a contributing editor for Politico, one of the American left’s pre-eminent political publications. If he himself was surprised to learn of the existence of conservative comedy, imagine how violently this finding must up-end worldview of ordinary Americans.
Ward’s as hard-nosed a reporter as he is an explorer, so he makes it clear he won’t accept theories or abstractions: he wants examples. He wants names named. If these guys are gonna come out of the heart of darkness claiming that the savages therein have actually evolved to the point of being able to produce comedy, there has to be actual proof. Otherwise what’s to distinguish such a claim from theories about UFOs, Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness Monster?
“Could you sketch the landscape of conservative comedy and identify some of its major figures?” he asks.
Matt Sienkiewicz: It took quite a while for the conservative comedy world to find that what we call “the big box store,” the tentpole, the thing that announced that conservative comedy was part of the American landscape—and Greg Gutfeld was ultimately the answer to that. Then older-school, right-wing comedians, people like Dennis Miller, or Tim Allen. They’re less overtly political, and they’re more conservative in cultural feel—people like Bill Burr, for example, who want to play off a kind of grumpy old man conservativism as part of their comedy.
And then there are newer and sometimes very popular and very powerful offshoots [in] the world of podcasting, which has a very large libertarian zone to it. We compare it to the kind of drunken bar district of the conservative comedy complex: You’ve got a character like Joe Rogan, whose own ideology is a little bit murky, but who certainly gives space and voice to very right-leaning and very libertarian-oriented comedians. And [there’s] the world of religious or religious-inflected comedy — so the Babylon Bee, which started off entirely as a conservative Christian outlet, and we talk about the ways in which Ben Shapiro tries to pull comedy into his politics to differentiate his brand from the old school National Review kind of conservativism. And then we talk about the really ugly stuff [on] the far right. We’re talking about people who sort of think “Nazi” is a good term for themselves.
Got that? Conservative comedy wasn’t part of the American landscape until Greg Gutfeld premiered on Fox. That makes him like the Benjamin Franklin of conservative American comedy.
Ward keeps pressing the explorers:
When liberals do come across instances of conservative political humor, the most common response is, “That’s not funny.” That kind of humor isn’t eliciting a lot of laughs from liberal audiences. But what are those liberal audiences missing about conservative comedy when they dismiss it offhand?
When conservatives come across liberal political humor and don’t think it’s funny, it’s because they’re too stupid or bigoted to understand it. But that obviously can’t be why liberals don’t think conservative humor is funny, so Ward’s question cuts right to the heart of things.
Nick Marx: Because we’re scholars, we first noticed a tendency among our brethren over the last 20 years or so to celebrate Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert or Samantha Bee—the sort of progressive wing of political satire. [Academics] are getting advancement through their careers by saying, “This stuff is good comedy. The other stuff that doesn’t align with my political affiliations isn’t comedy—it’s something else, it’s outrage programming.” And this is being echoed in popular discourse through articles in major daily newspapers and magazine articles with headlines like, “Why don’t conservatives like to laugh?” or “Searching for the conservative Jon Stewart.”
Hold on… this is beginning to sound heretical.
The explorers explain to Ward that based on their findings they believe there really is such a thing as conservative comedy, and that it’s actually seeping out of the dark wilderness into civilization, and is therefore worth keeping an eye on. They point out that Greg Gutfeld’s late night show on Fox is routinely outperforming every other late night comedy show.
Ward: What are liberals signaling about their worldview when they call this sort of established conservative humor “not funny?”
Sienkiewicz: When you don’t like something, and maybe you don’t find it personally funny—or maybe you do, but you feel bad about that—there are different ways to respond. One is to simply say, “That’s not funny” as a way to dismiss it or a way to castigate yourself for laughing at something that you think is immoral. But more often, [liberals] are saying, “You shouldn’t find it funny”—that there is a moral problem or maybe a political problem with finding it funny.
And on the one hand, we can sort of understand that impulse. On the other hand, is that really what “funny” means? And if there’s this whole suite of people who have a different political and moral compass, that’s not going to apply at all.
Well, obviously: but do those people even really count as people? I mean, if you can laugh at South Park, do you even have a soul? And if you don’t have a soul, who cares what makes you laugh?
Hyenas make laughing sounds, but they’re not actually laughing. Isn’t it probably like that with conservatives?
Ward seems to anticipates our line of questioning, because his next question cuts right to the soullessness of the American right:
Ward: What impact did Trump have on right-wing comedy?
The question we were all waiting for, right?
Marx begins by talking about how Trump’s background as an entertainer served him well politically: he had good timing, he could work a crowd, he knew how to go off-script and feed off his audience with impromptu humor.
But liberals being unwilling to acknowledge conservative comedy because it tends to punch down is something Trump is the sort of exemplar of. Going after a disabled reporter, going after migrants trying to cross into the United States — over and over again, he took as his targets and often as his punchline folks who are in positions of social, cultural and economic marginalization. And so we see a lot of that means-spiritedness across much of right-wing comedy. The casual dabbling in racism, the free license to go after folks who would maybe be a little more protected by mainstream centrist and liberal comedy institutions—that I think is a tone set most prominently by Trump.
And this is where I have to drop my own shtick.
Trump “going after a disabled reporter”—the very first example this scholar gives of how Trump punched down in his humor—is something that never happened. It’s a colossal lie. In fact, it’s the very lie that persuaded Brandon Straka to abandon the Democratic party he’d supported all his life and launch the “Walkaway” movement.
Trump “going after migrants trying to cross into the United States” very pointedly omits the operative word: illegally.
Trump lashing out at “marginalized groups” is part of the leftist catechism, but only because the “marginalization” of those groups is itself largely a leftwing trope.
The only instance of Trump casually “dabbling in racism” that I can think of was his repeatedly stated belief that the federal judge Gonzalo Curiel “hated him” because he was Mexican. That was ugly. But certainly no uglier than Joe Biden saying you couldn’t really be black if you didn’t vote for him, or saying that American blacks all think alike. Or Obama referring to his own grandmother as a “typical white woman.” By all means, let’s call that kind of stuff out—but let’s drop this crap about Trump having pioneered the use of ugly racial phrasings in political discourse.
And as for “the free license to go after folks who would maybe be a little more protected by mainstream centrist and liberal comedy institutions”—what “folks” does Marx have in mind, and how and why are they “protected”?
You know who needs to be protected from comedy?
You know why?
Because fuck you: it’s comedy, get over yourself.
Here’s some brilliant comedy from the brilliant comedy team of Key & Peele making that very point.
If you didn’t laugh at that skit, you have no soul.
The reason “conservative” comedy is surging right now—and I’ve talked about this before on this very blog—is that it takes no prisoners. Humorists on the right don’t pull their punches because they’re not trying to protect anyone, they’re trying to be funny. Humorists on the left are struggling to be funny because they’re so afraid of offending anyone except the barbarians on the right that that’s all they’re left with. It’s the only group of people they allow themselves to make fun of…. and sooner or later every one-trick pony get tiresome.
By today’s leftist standards, for example, this bit from Monty Python’s Life of Brian isn’t funny: it’s “punching down” at “marginalized groups.”
So maybe it’s not the Dread Tyrant Trump that’s fueling conservative humor. Maybe it’s not Greg Gutfeld’s dominance of late night television that brought conservative comedy into the American landscape.
Maybe Americans just want to laugh and conservatives are the only ones willing to let them.
Weirdly enough, that appears to be Sienkiewicz’s conclusion as well:
I think that if there’s even the perception of being able to be adventurous and laugh and not get worried about what happens to you because you laugh — if that is perceived to be a strength on the right, then it’s by definition a deficiency on the left. And do I think that could swing elections local and national? I do.
We can only hope.