It is almost a cliché that political humor is owned by the left. One can’t help but be bowled over by the number of liberal-leaning comedians sucking up oxygen on the airwaves. For a long while it was people like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and the satirists at Saturday Night Live (SNL). Now it continues with late night stars Colbert, Trevor Noah, and Seth Meyers backed by their impressive staffs, SNL with impersonators such as Alec Baldwin (Donald Trump) and Melissa McCarthy (Sean Spicer), and start-up artists like John Oliver and Samantha Bee offering in-depth coverage of current issues. If one is politically blue and digs comedy, there is a a lot of choice on the dial.
In contrast, there seems to be a relative deficit of conservative comic artists on TV today, or at least ones whose names are familiar. Although the right can claim several talented comedians, they simply do not have the audience appeal or renown of their liberal counterparts. Dennis Miller, who has appeared frequently on Bill O’Reilly’s show, is one of the better ones. But he is the exception who more or less proves the rule.
So what’s going on here? Alison Dagnes, author of a recent book on political humor entitled A Conservative Walks into a Bar, considers several possible reasons for the phenomenon.
To begin with, there is the question of occupational bias, raised by many conservative comedians themselves. The claim is that they are excluded because liberals dominate the comedy power structure in TV and Hollywood. While there may be something to this, it does not explain why conservative comics who do make it to TV, whether on cable or the major networks, have much more trouble developing audiences than liberal comedians. The imbalance may, indeed, have more to do with factors such as the untraditional nature of the job and the process of self-selection. Let’s face it, comedy is an art form that is usually not financially rewarding in the same way as a career in, say, business or finance, where conservatives dominate. Like anthropology and social work, comedy just seems to draw more liberals than conservatives.
But perhaps more to the point, comedy tends to reflect a worldview that is less natural for conservatives, one that broadly relativistic and critical. In particular, it does not feel constrained to respect many of the traditional verities considered out of bounds by conservatives. When it takes on political subjects and turns to satire, the comic spirit becomes iconoclastic, showing a tendency to challenge taboos and sacred cows. Comedy in the conservative vein finds itself at a disadvantage since, by taking certain things about the established order as above reproach, it has lesser flexibility and smaller reach. Sometimes, in struggling to maintain ideological consistency, it borders on preachiness, that true enemy of the comic muse.
Various recent attempts by conservatives to launch humor programs on TV, no doubt hoping to challenge the dominance of comedians like Jon Stewart, only demonstrate some of these problems. One such attempt, a show called “The Flip Side” launched in 2015, tries to work comedy around traditional conservative themes. But with clumsy presentation and stale subject matter more reflective of the Reagan era, it gives the impression of being poorly conceived and inadequately financed.
More famously, Roger Ailes, launched an earlier experimental program called “The Half-Hour News Hour.” Seeking to inject comedy with a conservative slant into issues like climate change, gun control, and the like, the program often comes across as heavy-handed. One of the episodes features a liberal gun-control advocate being questioned by a couple of interviewers. The advocate gives three examples of where he is annoyed by people with guns, one a lady in a park, the second a homeowner, the third a bank employee. It soon becomes obvious that the interviewee is a thief who has found guns to be a troublesome barrier to committing his crimes in each of the cases. The humor, someone’s idea of heavy irony, could well be mistaken for ideological propaganda.
Not surprisingly, Ailes’ Half-Hour News Hour turned out to be less than successful. With abysmal ratings, the program lasted only 13 episodes. It demonstrates what happens when a promoter with a tin-ear for humor and less than full commitment tries something out of his depth.
The above examples underscore the principle that for comedy to succeed it has to be funny before all else. The comedian’s political commitment to one sider or the other should be distinctly secondary to that first axiom. The success of a Jon Stewart or a Stephen Colbert bears this out. Ever conscious of the spirit of the times, these artists feel no need to remind audiences of their liberal credentials, being perfectly comfortable making jokes about Obama, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and the like, even if they may find it more natural pillorying Bush and Trump. Conservative humorists, on the other hand, apparently more wedded to ideological consistency, generally do not share the same flexibility.
Liberals should not necessarily take comfort from the right’s lackluster performance on the comic front. There is a downside to having opponents who prefer ideology to laughter. I agree with Peter Weber at The Week who maintains that humor is a universal good that makes all of us better people. It allows individuals on both sides of the aisle to deal with defeat, put aside fear, and avoid turning to hate. By putting some of the grim aspects of politics into perspective, it takes the edge out of political animosity. For these reasons, one should hope that conservatives learn to be better comedians.