Few would disagree that we're in living in a golden age of political comedy — or at least that politics are more important to comedy today than ever before. When historians write about humor in the early twenty-first century, the names of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher will definitely be key players. And just as noteworthy will be the fact that a large majority of this humor has come at the expense of conservatives, and often to the benefit of liberals.
No matter if you’re on the left or right, pretty much everyone agrees that liberals dominate political satire and humorous commentary (at least in popularity), but few have answers about why this is. It’s certainly not that conservatives haven’t tried. From Fox News’ short-lived The Half-Hour News Hour, to “liberal media watchdog” series News Busted, or the recently launched The Flipside, attempts to roll out a conservative version of The Daily Show or Weekend Update have never been in short supply, but without fail every single one has been an unpopular disaster.
“The issue isn’t as simple as saying ‘conservative comedy doesn’t work,’ or ‘conservatives don’t find things funny,’” says Joel Warner, co-author of the upcoming book The Humor Code: A Global Look At What Makes Things Funny. “If anything, conservatives may even find things funnier than liberals.”
In his book, Warner cites a 2008 study by behavioral scientist Dan Ariely that presented the same jokes to both self-identified liberals and conservatives. The jokes spanned a range of seven categories, covering subjects like race, religion, golf, employment, marriage, family and Jack Handey's Deep Thoughts. Contradicting popular opinion, the study found that a significantly larger amount of conservatives found these jokes funny more often than liberals. So if the statistics prove that conservatives enjoy humor more than liberals, than why can’t they get it together to create a decent political satire show?
“Satire, by its very nature, is anti-establishment,” says Warner. “That’s what Daily Show, SNL and Colbert have always been. And in general, conservatism is not associated with anti-establishment. It’s about maintaining these tried-and-true ideals.”
Judging by the aesthetics of these shows, conservative entertainers are not only firmly rooted in the ideologies of the past, but the fashion as well. The intro to News Busted places their comedian before the iconic 1980s standup background of a brick wall. And in addition to The Flipside debut episode’s poor lighting and awkward camera choices, the set itself is covered in hubcaps, neon lights and street signs, embodying the interior design look of a Bennigans restaurant and Zack Morris’s bedroom. Their theme song is the 1997 Foo Fighters hit “Monkey Wrench,” and their co-host Jason Mattera is pretty much the fashion doppleganger of Blink 182’s Mark Hoppus.
As a comedy critic who (if anything) leans somewhat to the right politically, even I have to admit that every one of these shows is a disaster of poorly crafted jokes and a complete lack of insightful commentary. When Mattera runs a clip of Harrison Ford’s recent rainforest awareness ad (which attempts to use chest-waxing as a metaphor for deforestation), there is an opportunity for some top-shelf skewering of an admittedly ridiculous moment in pop culture. Instead, he chooses to make fun of the fact that Ford is wearing an earring.
This is followed up by pointing out the hypocrisy of Ford’s environmentalism while simultaneously admitting that he owns seven aircraft and often flies long distances for a cheeseburger. Again, a terrific chance for some provocative jokes about the insincerity of a Hollywood liberal. Instead, the show cuts to a scene of Jason Mattera attempting a 60 Minutes-style ambush of Harrison Ford getting into his car, where Ford says nothing and Mattera repeats his grievances over and over. It was the same stunt that got Mattera’s camera smashed by Chris Rock in 2012, and basically implies nothing other than liberals are rude for not answering his questions.
Similarly, News Busted relies heavily on what I’m almost certain is canned laughter, and offers up punchline-free jokes that basically repeat the sentiment “liberals are stupid,” but rarely offers up any explanation why. Bill Maher has been guilty of this sin on occasion, but for the most part his take-down of Republicans usually delivers a thoughtful provocation where, even if you disagree, you’re at least challenged intellectually.
So why is it that a political group that has so clearly dominated cable news failed to deliver a comedy show that embodies their very popular opinions?
“If you look at the history, American standup was founded by these liberal rabble-rousers like Lenny Bruce doing their thing in folk clubs,” says Joel Warner. “And all of American comedy today has been born out of the world of standup, and if it started with liberals then it makes sense that that takes top billing. It’s the same with how everyone says country music is conservative, even though there’s nothing inherently conservative about a kind of music. But since a lot of people who founded it were conservative, it’s seen that way. But you're starting to see that change today with bands like The Dixie Chicks or Taylor Swift, and I think it’s only a matter of time before you see the same with comedy.”
As far as standup is concerned, this has already happened with comedians like Adam Carolla, Larry The Cable Guy, and Dennis Miller drawing large audiences with jokes founded in liberal bashing. (Not to mention the very lucrative career option of performing “clean comedy” in churches and corporate parties.) Even the Obama-hating Nick DiPaolo has enjoyed success with his right-leaning jokes, appearing on both Louie and WTF.
Flipping the anti-establishment argument on its head, comedian Stephen Kruiser argued in a 2012 Breitbart.com editorial that “there is no safer, don’t-rock-the-boat approach to not only comedy, but any career in the entertainment industry, than to be liberal. Getting onstage to do ‘Sarah Palin is stupid!’ jokes (most of which aren’t actually jokes) isn’t quite the Lenny Bruce-channeling experience those doing it might think.”
Assuming Kruiser is right, and to be a liberal comedian is to be a mainstream sell-out, then social science would suggest that a pro-Republican comedy TV show would be as punk rock as The Sex Pistols “God Save The Queen.” And yet, every attempt at delivering such a program ends up being viewed even by conservatives as mostly unwatchable. (Despite featuring appearances by Anne Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, The Half-Hour News Hour was cancelled after only 13 episodes.) It’s possible that the reason for this can be found in the way every single one of these short-lived programs is described, even by the creators themselves, as a “conservative version of The Daily Show or Weekend Update.”
Similar to alcohol-free beer or soy burgers, the attempt to brand yourself as a polar alternative to the product you're ideologically opposed to is rarely accepted in America. In trying to convince young people that the rock and roll lifestyle is destructive and immoral, the Christian music industry has spent the last few decades following mainstream trends in rock music and constructing Jesus-flavored alternatives of their secular rivals. It’s become a lucrative business, but has garnered very little respect from critics or mainstream audiences. Meanwhile, the reggae genre is one of the most highly regarded of the last forty years. These bands will prosthelytize no less about the Rastafarian religion as Christian rock bands do about Jesus, but they’re more highly regarded and listened to because they’ve delivered an original sound.
It could be that conservative comedy is suffering from this same conundrum. It’s no secret that the GOP has a lagging popularity amongst young people, so it makes sense that they would want to tap in to a political medium that millennials are wildly attracted to. Though in trying to be “The Republican Daily Show” they appear as hypocrites every time they make fun of someone like Jon Stewart for being wrong-headed and ridiculous — because they ultimately, and by their own admission, want to be him.
Josiah Hesse is an entertainment and pop culture journalist in Denver, Colorado whose work has appeared in Westword, Out Front Colorado, and comedy blogs LaughSpin, Splitsider and The Spit Take. Follow him on twitter at @JosiahMHesse