13 March 2014

Conservatism is not funny -- or is it?

A curious item on the Atlantic Monthly website asks why there isn't a right-wing counterpart to Comedy Central's Daily Show. The lack of a counterweight to John Stewart's perceived liberal bias seems strange to some observers given the popularity of Fox News and Republican talk radio. Fox News does have a comedy program, but it's relegated to 3:00 a.m., while an earlier attempt at comedy commentary failed miserably. But it's not as if Republicans don't enjoy making fun of Democrats and liberals, so what's the real problem? Author Sean McElwee quotes one comic's unconvincing explanation that comedy subverts authority and celebrates rule-breakers. Don't today's Republicans and Libertarians do the same thing? But the comic may be right to specify that comedy responds best to a certain kind of authority that isn't synonymous with "government." Maybe the problem is that comedy is inherently anti-authoritarian while Republicanism, despite its denials, is inherently authoritarian? McElwee himself steers away from cultural or ideological explanations, suggesting instead that Fox News is simply too cheap to give its comedy show the budget necessary to make it credible competition for Comedy Central's political shows. He also suggests that conservative humor is unlikely to flourish in the urban centers where stand-up comedians hone their skills and get noticed, but that didn't stop a cohort of comparatively rustic (though not necessarily conservative) comics (e.g. Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy) from getting famous (if not respected) in recent years.

The query begs a separate question: what would authentic "conservative" comedy look like? It can't simply be a matter of satirizing liberalism, because liberalism is self-critical and self-satirizing. As McElwee notes, Daily Show makes fun of Democrats frequently, while Bill Maher recently mocked Rachel Maddow's obsessive coverage of Chris Christie's scandals. To become conservative comedy, such mockery would have somehow to become mockery of liberalism itself. But how does that get beyond the "you're stupid" level where most "liberal comedy" presumably resides? Such comedy is obviously partisan but not necessarily conservative. To succeed, conservative comedy would have to be recognizably conservative (or Republican, to be fair to other conservatives), and also appeal to those people who consider themselves conservatives or Republicans, and go in directions self-critical liberals won't. While Republicans and Libertarians do see themselves as defying authority and speaking truth to power, in order to define a "conservative" style of comedy they'd probably have to aim low rather than high. To the extent that a contempt for society's "losers" drives much of what passes for conservatism in the U.S., conservative comedy, to be recognized at such, must make fun of the poor. You can't get more specific than that without getting in trouble, but you could probably get away with mocking poor people in general while the outraged reactions of liberals would only prove your edginess. The model should be things like the Darwin Awards. Their mockery of stupidity may seem apolitical but while it's one thing for liberal comedians to mock Republicans as stupid, it's something very different to mock someone as too stupid to live. Liberals won't go there, but I assume that Republicans and (perhaps even more so) Libertarians will. Self-styled conservative opinionators may think that the essence of their movement has to do with high principles of limited government and free enterprise, but where's the humor in that. The ideology of the base is probably much simpler: the smart and strong survive; the rest had better swim or sink -- and whatever they do, it'll be funny to watch.

Meanwhile, comedy arguably is less anti-authoritarian now than it has often seemed. Anti-authoritarian comedy was often a question of manners,the highlight often being some trampling of etiquette, through ignorance (the Three Stooges) or by deliberate assault (the Marx Bros.). In our post-etiquette age the equivalent of the "stuffiness" so often skewered and punctured by clowns is the perceived "uptight" attitude of anyone who doesn't share your amusement at certain things and find your amusement disgusting. Comedians presume they're doing something right when people react in an uptight way, regardless of the social or cultural position the reactionaries occupy. Remember the stereotype of the humorless, politically-correct liberal. In the past the "puritan" played a similar role, and for some he still does. Conservative comedy may have to risk offending both, but the real challenge to any flourishing of the genre will more likely not come from those who won't let you laugh, but from those who refuse to be laughed at. Play at your own risk.


Anonymous said...

I do believe the answer is quite simple: Conservatives simply aren't funny.

hobbyfan said...

Comedy? On Fox News? Some will say some of the primary programs on that channel are laugh worthy, but why bury a comedy program at 3 in the morning?

As an old teacher of mine oft said, stupidity runs rampant.

Anonymous said...

It would indeed be fascinating to observe how progressives would respond to a conservative counterpart to Comedy Central. But it's difficult to imagine the creation of such a program. Republicans really have no desire to deliberately offend anyone although they certainly offend unintentionally. Progressives get an enormous kick out of offending anyone who has a different viewpoint.

Samuel Wilson said...

Anon June 10: This sounds like the "satire" defense to me and it's unpersuasive. I think both sides are equally quick and equally happy to call each other stupid and equally adept at ad hominem argument. And too many people on both sides strive to shock and provoke each other as if they were counting coup on the internet. As far as progressives are concerned, I suspect that many of them do get some kind of kick out of being offended, which inflates the ratings for Fox News and right-wing radio.