Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The Right Wing Is Laughing at You
Charting a phenomenon
Are conservatives funny? Your average SNL-viewing, Trevor Noah-stanning liberal would say no way, never. Most in conventional media—online, print, whatever you’d pick—seem to agree. Some time ago, a consensus emerged that the right-wing, broadly, doesn’t know how to laugh. They bully the marginalized or are nothing more than a bunch of knotted up, humorless scolds. Audiences vote with their wallets. “Anyone who believes in free markets, as American conservatives profess to, should understand that few markets are as ruthless as show business,” Frank Rich wrote in 2014. “It is the customers, not some shadowy conspiratorial gatekeepers, who give comedians the hook—or catapult them into the capitalist nirvana of the one percent.”
This age of terror and mass death doesn’t necessarily offer many opportunities to laugh, anyway. A pandemic killed a million people in the United States, Donald Trump could be president again, and Russia continues its slaughter in Ukraine. Those who most closely track these events—the journalists, pundits, and rabid news-consumers—are deadly serious people. Sometimes it’s hard to blame them. If American democracy is teetering on the abyss, the laughs are hard to find. Or, if they’re there at all, they must be directed at the know-nothings making a mess of things.
Yet it would be ignorant, as Matt Sienkiewicz, an associate professor and chair of the Boston College communication department, and Nick Marx, an associate professor of film and media studies at Colorado State University, write in That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work For Them, to pretend left-liberals have a monopoly on humor. The supposition is outdated, a vestige of the Jon Stewart years, when irony-soaked twenty-somethings on the coasts tuned in nightly to hear one silver-haired man’s wisecracks at George W. Bush’s expense. That was the resistance then, and it would come to define the culture for years to come. Stewart’s understudy, Stephen Colbert, shot to greater fame when he shed his persona as a hard-right blowhard mocking the right—the Colbert Report went down easy with the Daily Show—and became a tame liberal joke-teller with The Late Show. Take a tour around the mainstream comedy landscape today and it’s easy to think, amid so much national turmoil, liberalism at least has the upper hand there. Good comedy, like Ted Lasso, in this oft-repeated vein, never punches down, and it’s here where the self-satisfied declare they have nothing more to learn from conservatives who tell jokes.
That’s Not Funny is a much-needed rejoinder to that discourse. Not only is conservative comedy worth studying, Sienkiewicz and Marx argue, it is far more vibrant and influential than most liberals imagine. There is a right-wing comedy complex, in their parlance, that feeds fans to increasingly virulent ideas, winning hearts and minds as most in prestige media, smug in their belief that they’ve won history already, look away. “Dismissing right-wing comedy with any species of ‘that’s not funny’ means overlooking the growing influence of conservative comedians, and it encourages a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of contemporary politics and entertainment,” they write.
There are fun facts the authors dispense. Fox’s Greg Gutfeld, unknown to the average Upper West Side Democrat, can outdraw Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy Kimmel. Gutfeld, the host of his own late-night talk show on Fox News, is not nearly as famous, in part because he’s attracted less mainstream attention. Sienkiewicz and Marx frame him as something of a gateway drug for conservative comedy, or the first stop on a journey through a complex that ends in far more unsavory locales. Gutfeld’s brand of humor is more center-right, with less of the darkness and rage of the podcasts and shows the authors focus on later in the book. Gutfeld, they contend, “represents the most successful face of a rapidly developing, wide-ranging comedy business structure. At the same time, liberals’ psychological complex occludes the right’s comedy complex from view. Liberals simply cannot, will not, see it.”
From there, the academics take us on tour through the rest of the complex. Tim Allen is the dean of what they term “paleocomedy,” which harkens back to an imagined era when men were men, social justice didn’t exist, and hierarchies were respected. “Paleocomedy is the cigar shop, tucked between the Men’s Wearhouse and the Nevada Bob’s golf outlet. A little retro, a little retrograde, not explicitly exclusionary, but clearly aimed at the polo and khakis dad demo.” They spend worthwhile time on Dennis Miller, erstwhile hero of the left, who is rightly assessed for what he is—a heterodox voice who only earned a reputation as a liberal through the “transitive property” of appearing on SNL. For those who paid closer attention, it was never a terrible surprise that Miller would become a Bush booster and fellow paleocomedian with Allen and his ilk, waxing nostalgic about muscle cars.
Adjacent to the paleocomedians are the religious satirists. The Babylon Bee is the Christian Onion, and maybe more successful at this point, if web traffic and relevancy to a particular subculture is the measure. The Onion probably peaked with Stewart in the 2000s, when liberal humor thrived as insurgency. The Bee, unlike other conservative satirists, has been willing to gently mock Trump, questioning his knowledge of Christian doctrine. Others, like the former abstinence advocate-turned-YouTube star Steven Crowder, are far less benign. Crowder’s YouTube channel was demonetized twice for the use of racist and homophobic slurs. Crowder is of the “own the libs” variety of right-wing comedians, of which there are many, hustling around town for unsuspecting college students to troll. Though Jewish, Ben Shapiro operates in a similar vein, mocking the leftward turn on social issues a large chunk of America’s youth has taken.
From there, Sienkiewicz and Marx tour the libertarian podcasts, lingering on Joe Rogan and the darker underbelly of the world he inhabits. There is Legion of Skanks, Rogan-adjacent but more regressive and crude. Anti-Semitism and misogyny are foregrounded for laughs. Both, particularly Legion of Skanks, make cynical pleas for free speech when their most incendiary bits are “intentional and driven by the commercial imperatives of the podcasting industry.” They belong to the “same discursive network of sexual domination and humiliation by many American men in positions of power, be they leaders of college athletic programs, major broadcast networks, or the United States of America.” More on that soon.
The authors end at the pits, the noxious basement of the right-wing comedy complex. Notably, this is the stuff the average MSNBC Democrat is more aware of, though it commands a far smaller audience than the likes of Gutfeld or Allen’s Last Man Standing. The alt-right has gotten plenty of time in the limelight. Some, like Sam Hyde’s Million Dollar Extreme, merely strongly hint at anti-Semitism, while others, like The Daily Shoah, dispense with any pretext. Nick Fuentes, a literal white nationalist, chases yuks through bashing immigrants and denying the Holocaust. Sienkiewicz and Marx connect dots; Gutfeld celebrates Gavin McInnis, founder of Vice and the Proud Boys, for his alt-hipster cool. The Proud Boys, according to research the authors cite from the Southern Poverty Law Center, drive significant web traffic to the website of The Daily Shoah. Another racist and anti-Semitic web show, Murdoch Murdoch, “plays off of liberal biases” when “liberals were happy to associate provocative art, and particularly experimental comedy, with progressive ideology.” Indeed, subversion on its own doesn’t have a single political doctrine.
Sienkiewicz and Marx believe Gutfeld will one day have to start trawling the basement for viewers. The Fox News demographic, they acidly note, tilts toward the “nearly dead.” It is hard to believe, they argue, he will turn away those “Murdoch Murdoch fans who stroll back to his big box store … If trolling and its penchant for depravity sells, it will, eventually…be on all shelves.”
One reality of the comedy milieu today is how fragmented and siloed it has become, following the trajectory of all other media. The twentieth century entertainment hegemons cared about uniting vast, disparate groups of people around single products. Mass entertainment, occasionally derided in its heyday, now looks relatively halcyon, with the far-right, the far-left, the middle-of-the-roaders, and everyone else coming together in the evening for All in the Family, Happy Days, or M*A*S*H. Part of this was a lack of options—cable television didn’t exist and home computers still belonged to the realm of science fiction. Entertainment itself was not so personalized, so custom-tailored to sensibilities. It was understood that whatever you were watching, by economic imperative, had to be enjoyed by millions.
Chasing broader sensibilities led to plenty of middlebrow, forgettable television shows that were passively watched by an enormous number of Americans. TV ratings of the 1970s and 80s are unimaginable today. Entertainers and showrunners were forced to care about people entirely unlikely themselves because they would be marketing to conservative and liberal America alike. The Reagan voter had to like your show as much as the Carter voter. One could not afford to silo.
The rise of cable television and the internet permanently disrupted this order. News and entertainment, as Neil Postman warned in the 1980s, forever merged, with Fox News gobbling up red America and CNN, for the left and middle, birthing perma-emergencies with news that ran at all hours of the day and night. Politics naturally and unnaturally polarized; the parties would inevitably sort because racist southern Democrats would only stay so long in a party of coastal, big city liberals. Rockefeller Republicans, with their belief in large and activist governments, would have to find new political homes as well. It was unnatural, too, because media diets of the left and right changed so dramatically in a short period of time. Consensus nightly news of the Big Three would give way to the world we inhabit now. Jon Stewart’s 2004 battle with Tucker Carlson on CNN’s Crossfire was one harbinger of what was to come. Stewart accused Carlson and his mindless punditry of hurting America. Liberal views believed Stewart had eviscerated Carlson enough to end his career altogether. Eighteen years on, Carlson is the most powerful television host in America, with audiences polarized far more than they ever were in Stewart’s time.
Entertainment has slowly but surely followed this route, with the gradual demise of mass amusement that doesn’t fit into the matrices of Marvel/DC or Star Wars. (Two of the three, of course, are Disney properties.) Comedians themselves cannot command the culture like they did in the last century. Sienkiewicz and Marx chose to focus on a particular nexus of right-wing comedians, talk show hosts, and podcasters, but missed an opportunity to dissect dominant right-tinged comedy of the past. For a brief time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Andrew Dice Clay was the most popular comedian in America, selling out Madison Square Garden on consecutive nights. Born Andrew Clay Silverstein in Brooklyn, he was reborn as the “Diceman,” a deliberately swaggering and sordid greaser, the personification of what would be later be labeled, with great ease, toxic masculinity. “Jack and Jill went up the hill, both with a buck and a quarter,” went one joke, told to raucous thousands inside the Garden. “Jill came down with $2.50. Owww! That fucking whore!”
The Times, somewhat histrionically, likened the 1990 MSG shows to Nazi rallies, with their propensity for working-class white men lustily cheering whatever slur came next out of the Diceman’s mouth. An appearance on SNL led to a boycott from cast member Nora Dunn. Sinead O’Connor cancelled her musical guest spot shortly after. His reign atop the comedy world was short-lived as the 1990s gave way to a different aesthetic. Unlike Eddie Murphy, who once told blatantly homophobic jokes about AIDS, Clay did not reinvent himself as a family-friendly superstar. As an actor, he would find success, much later on, in Blue Jasmine and A Star is Born.
At question, in the early years of Clay’s dominance, was whether the persona had wholly swallowed up the nicer Jewish boy from Brooklyn inside—and what it meant that so many people, for a moment in time, flocked to such performative vulgarity. Jay Ruttenberg, in his meditation on the Diceman’s legacy, wonders whether the character was forever “over-reaching” like a “piteous Superman, zooming through the sky in his vein attempt to fit in.” The ultimate shock of his act was that “such a vast audience accepted him at face value. Oh, well. At least he never set his sights on the presidency. Because this certainly wouldn’t be the last time a macho grotesque would slither out of New York, an obvious joke to all but the lowliest yokel, only to be embraced by the masses.”
But many of Trump’s most ardent and lowly fans find him funny. At any campaign rally, the laughs are there. Sienkiewicz and Marx don’t dwell too much on the humor of Trump; a deconstruction might have been worthy. What makes Trump difficult, particularly for liberals, is the admission that such a vile, dangerous person can be funny. He attempted to steal an election and incited a violent riot at the Capitol. His presidency brought misery to millions. Unlike the Diceman, there is no character to play—or if there was one, it very long ago subsumed the self-referential human being that might have lived there.
Some of Trump’s humor—or maybe much of it, depending on your mien—is unintentional. I still laugh as “Tiny Dancer,” a Trump rally staple, plays in the background of Trump’s reaction to the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the way he strains to gather his thoughts by holding both hands flat and away from his body, as if he’s attempting to ward off a threatening mutt. This moment was a dark pivot point in American history, when Trump was able to appoint Amy Coney Barrett, who would vote to doom Roe v. Wade, to the Supreme Court. That’s not funny, indeed. Yet the clip routinely invites chuckles.
Trump doesn’t self-deprecate. His humor is braggadocious and combative, wholly outward, like an insult comic of the old times. We all remember “low energy Jeb” and “little Marco” and the declarations of being a “very stable genius.” Older tweets occasionally resurface, like Trump’s rage over Barney Frank’s “nipples protruding” and his desire to wish the “haters and losers” best wishes, nonsensically, on September 11. The absurdity is what entices.
That’s Not Funny acknowledges that liberals, in the Trump era, fell behind by chasing self-affirming entertainment that made easy, tired fodder of the right, opening up space for conservative subversives. Some even complained that Trump had ruined comedy entirely, that America, under incipient fascism, had transitioned to a post-humor world. Sarcasm, two Daily Show writers told the Times in 2020, was dead. The hundreds of millions of Americans who still want to laugh every day—life is nasty, brutish, and short sans levity—would disagree. Resistance-style politics, infecting all kinds of art over the last five years, has a habit of dulling whatever it gets into, swapping imagination for propaganda. SNL could be very funny in the Trump years; it also felt, at times, like DNC agitprop.
One aspect of the aforementioned Rogan’s success that is hard for many conventional left-of-center journalists, academics, and commentators to grasp is that he is, along with a select number of popular podcasters, offering a perspective that is not readily available in the most prominent media outlets of America. Online publications have also, with few exceptions, grown ideologically indistinguishable. It is challenging to delineate the ideological differences among publications like the New Republic, HuffPo, Slate, Vice, or even the New Yorker. Op-ed pages feature few out-socialists—the sort who may have backed both Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns—or Trump supporters, when Trump won 74 million votes less than two years ago. This brand of left-liberalism—at the vanguard of all social concerns, more often than not deferential to the Democratic Party—covers an educated and affluent slice of the electorate, ignoring large numbers of people who don’t identity with such political prerogatives.
The argument for free speech, or speech that is not overly regulated by public and private interests, has shifted almost wholly from the domain of the left to the right. This is a development that would have shocked the hugely popular comedians of the twentieth century who are no longer alive, including George Carlin. Carlin, a lifelong progressive, was arrested in 1972 for a performance of “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” and managed, quite adeptly, to champion causes of the left while defending almost all forms of speech. Carlin remains in the canon today, but his defense of speech is lost as liberals gravitate toward the ideology of safetyism—that aggressive restrictions must be placed on harmful speech, online and off, in this dangerous age. The hope is that if enough guardrails are put in place, ugly words and ideas will simply vanish or be so marginalized that the republic, never much enlightened, will return to some prelapsarian age of comity. Somehow, comedy could also flourish in such a space. Modern liberalism has many ways of deluding itself.
Now, Carlin’s celebration of free-speech is right-coded, which would have been a laughable proposition in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s. If Democrats today rush to his clips promoting abortion rights, Republicans can proclaim Carlin didn’t want speech policed. The ACLU, at one time, didn’t words policed either. It was Republicans inveighing against the destructive qualities of whatever art form managed to captivate the youth in a particular decade, whether it was rap, rock n’ roll, or foul-mouthed cinema. Carlin now thrives on TikTok, where his most famous bits have grown popular again. How much his newest fans understand the context of his jokes remains to be seen.
None of this means, though, left comedy is moribund. New comedians will always emerge to challenge audiences and manage, like Carlin, to inject their political views into bits that still draw laughs. Sienkiewicz and Marx are hopeful that liberals will take some lessons from their enemies on the right. Cross-pollination can be healthy; if titans like Gutfeld can feed relative minnows in alternative spaces, so can successful left-leaning comedians. “If we liberals focus our energy on fusing our disparate comedic practices, guiding them back toward mainstream cultural discourse, and downplaying intramural disagreements the way the right does, what power might we wield then?” Power, as long as it’s funny.