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Can Conservatives Be Funny?


It’s as if the clock stopped with the Vietnam War. Gutfeld claims that in our cool culture—defined by the national preference for Obama over the Vietnam hero John McCain—“we’ve abandoned veterans’ parades for divestment sit-ins.” (Really?) “Forget Lee Marvin,” he writes, lamenting the passing of old-school macho. “It’s now a callow lad in a PETA shirt who makes impressionable women swoon.” (Where are these women? Where are these lads in PETA shirts? And haven’t most Americans except film buffs forgotten Marvin, who died in 1987?) Gutfeld is bothered that The Social Network was a hit and that Twitter is a cooler corporation to young people than oil companies. He posits that “in movies, it’s the crazies who are cool and the decent folk who are demonic.” In an American movie culture where the top-grossing movies are animated fables like Frozen and red-white-and-blue comic-book franchises like Captain America, it would seem the opposite is true.

If there’s one universal rule of comedy, it is, as Gutfeld himself has said, that “it’s hard to be funny without being truthful.” But when he jokes that politically correct Americans are relabeling Fort Hood terrorism “workplace violence” and that they would rather use the term “unlicensed pharmacists” than “drug dealers,” he seems to lack any firsthand knowledge of conversation as practiced on the ground in ­present-day America. His examples of p.c. speech sound instead like the typically outrageous anomalies unearthed by Fox News. He needs to get out of the studio and meet some young people.

One of Gutfeld’s more provocative riffs of relatively recent vintage was his proposal to open an Islam-friendly gay bar (prospectively named JiHunk or Turban Cowboy) next door to the so-called ground-zero mosque; it wasn’t a laugh riot, but his point about liberal double standards of “tolerance” did have a basis in reality. The bit was a twofer because it hit a pair of prime conservative targets at once—elitist liberal hypocrites (Prius drivers, nanny-state bureaucrats, health nazis, climate-change scolds) and Muslims. Islam, routinely conflated with both jihad and Obama, has been the most reliable staple of right-wing comedy since 9/11. “Muslims will want to go to the moon when the Jews set up Israel there” is one of Miller’s better lines on the subject. The stand-up Nick DiPaolo cracked that Obama stuffed the stimulus bill with pork because “he’s trying to prove he’s not a Muslim.”

The gifted ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, as commercially successful a conservative comedian as there is (and one of the most successful touring comedians in the country, period), is best known for Achmed the Dead Terrorist, a puppet given to one-liners like “Where are all the virgins that bin Laden promised me?” Achmed can be funny, not least because he is a goofy, not hectoring, comic creation. And Dunham has a worthy comic nemesis in terrorism, much as Mel Brooks found in Hitler. The trouble with this material is its inevitable shelf life as 9/11 and its ensuing wars keep receding into the rearview mirror of American memory. There’s a reason why the playwright George S. Kaufman long ago said that “satire is what closes on Saturday night.”

Much of Dunham’s other material, typical of conservative comics, is paradoxically both timely and nostalgic: It pushes up against verbal taboos when taking on minority groups. And so Dunham has a puppet named José Jalapeño—almost indistinguishable from José Jiménez, an Ed Sullivan Show ethnic comic stereotype popularized by the comedian Bill Dana in the pre–politically correct early 1960s. (ventriloquist Señor Wences.) Dunham puts similar sentiments in the mouths of a crotchety old-man puppet named Walter and another alter ego called Peanut; they can complain about “Indians,” instead of Native Americans, revive old-time ­Chinese-waiter pidgin English, and lament about how “Merry Christmas!” has devolved into “Happy holidays!”

But it’s telling that while conservative comics pick on undocumented immigrant Hispanics and other minorities who don’t have the standing to fight back, they rarely have the guts to make a direct, as opposed to an encoded, joke about those Jews held guilty of ruining Christmas. When ­African-Americans turn up—mainly the president—the gags are usually tamer than, say, Limbaugh’s tirades about women. What the jokes more often express is bewilderment about—and resistance to—the speed of America’s demographic turnover. In Not Cool, Gutfeld writes that “the haters of the old white male forget that it was a hardy group of old white men who created this country.” What bugs Gutfeld now, as it does Dunham’s grumpy old Walter and many present-day American conservatives, is that this country insists on perpetually re-­creating itself, progressively whittling down old white men’s monopoly on power.


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