You would have thought that President Obama had nominated Eric Holder to succeed John Roberts as chief justice, not that Les Moonves had named a successor to David Letterman. When Stephen Colbert was promoted to the Late Show throne last month, Rush Limbaugh called in the dogs: “CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America,” he said, by hiring a partisan who would bring about “a redefinition of what is comedy.” The vitriol on the right became so thick that a couple of less excitable conservative columnists were moved to defend Colbert by observing that he is a churchgoing, Sunday-school-teaching Catholic suburbanite raised as one of 11 children in super-red Charleston, South Carolina. Subtext: Count your blessings that CBS isn’t force-feeding the heartland a neurotic urban Jew with suspect family values.
Those pillorying Colbert didn’t seem to grasp the concept that he would have to retire his parodistic right-wing blowhard comic persona once he moved from Comedy Central’s Colbert Report to a broadcast-network franchise that competes with the Jimmys Fallon and Kimmel. Not that it mattered: The outrage at Colbert was really just the latest flare-up of a larger, long-term complaint. It’s an article of faith on the right that conservative comedians, like conservative entertainment-industry workers in general, are either blacklisted by Hollywood’s liberal mafia or are in daily danger of being so, thus giving the left a near monopoly on comedy as practiced in the vast cultural swing district of American television. Only a few weeks before the Colbert kerfuffle, the Times had lent front-page gravity to the Friends of Abe, an association of Hollywood conservatives too fearful to disclose its members’ names lest they face “possible job discrimination.”
The right, like the left, has a habit of overplaying the victim card. Given that there are many out A-list Republicans in Hollywood, from Rupert Murdoch to Clint Eastwood to David Mamet to Adam Sandler, it would seem that all the paranoia about left-wing McCarthyism is unfounded. If anything, the history of networks’ canceling liberal comics, whether the Smothers Brothers in 1969 (CBS) or Bill Maher in 2002 (ABC), is more pronounced. Still, the hysteria of the anti-Colbert claque made me look at the right’s case again.
And at first glance, there is something to it. Conservative comedy is hard to find on television once you get past the most often cited specimen, Dennis Miller. But is this shortfall the fault of a left-wing conspiracy to banish brilliant dissident talent from pop culture’s center stage? As a conservative Christian stand-up, Brad Stine, has argued, people think “the left is funnier than the right” solely because the right hasn’t been “given the same options.” Or are conservative comedians languishing in obscurity because they just don’t have the comic chops to compete with Colbert, Jon Stewart, and their many brethren? What do conservatives find funny, anyway? Is the very notion of a conservative comedian an oxymoron, given that comedy by definition is often the revenge of underdogs against the privileged? If the powerful pick on the less powerful, or worse, the powerless, are the jokes doomed to come off as bratty, if not just plain mean?
As I began wading through conservative grievances about comedy, what I learned first was that some on the right, for all their disdain for mainstream culture, are so eager to be part of it that they will claim showbiz luminaries as fellow travelers when they are not. Jim Downey, the longtime writer behind the cold-open political sketches at Saturday Night Live, is routinely labeled a conservative when, by his own account, his politics are all over the map (as his output attests); he voted for Obama in 2008. Jon Lovitz, the former SNL regular, has been applauded by the right for calling the president a “fucking asshole” after taking exception to some of the president’s populist pronouncements—but Lovitz is a Democrat who also voted for Obama. Another SNL alum, Victoria Jackson, is an outspoken, hard-line tea-partier, but her television career ended long ago.
The most persistent conservative effort to appropriate mainstream humor has been centered on South Park, the now-classic animated series about foulmouthed kids in small-town Colorado. Early on, Trey Parker, who co-created the show with Matt Stone, said, “We avoid extremes, but we hate liberals more than conservatives, and we hate them.” This formulation was enough to give the less-hated conservatives hope that they had found soul mates in the hostile heart of Comedy Central, especially since Parker and Stone ridiculed Al Gore, Rosie O’Donnell, and Michael Moore, who was portrayed as a suicide bomber in their 2004 movie Team America: World Police.
When Andrew Sullivan coined the term “South Park Republicans” and a Manhattan Institute think-tanker wrote a book heralding “South Park conservatives,” the morality-monger William Bennett and the theologian Michael Novak leaped on the potty-mouthed Parker-Stone bandwagon in solidarity with the right’s newfound cachet with Hip Youth. It was an outbreak of reactionary chic to match the late-1960s radical chic lampooned by Tom Wolfe. What they’d neglected to notice was the plague-on-all-your-houses lunacy central to Parker and Stone’s brilliance. Since then, the show has continued to go after liberal targets, including the disastrous Obamacare rollout, but it is unsparing toward the right as well. “Whatever side Glenn Beck is on,” Stone has said, “we’re not on it.” After Obama trounced Romney among young voters by a 60 to 36 percent margin in 2012, the right-wing site the Daily Caller officially pronounced South Park Republicans “extinct.”