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Can Conservatives Be Funny?

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In this sense, a lot of conservative comedy both expresses and panders to today’s Republican base, older white men who see America changing and feel impotent about thwarting it. The title of a CD by the comic Jeff “Big Daddy” Wayne, It’s OK to Be a White Male, kind of says it all. Among the most popular conservative comics are four middle-aged men, most famously Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy, who have toured under the rubric the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. It is not quite right to say that they are to contemporary comedy what country music is to contemporary music—they really are what Grand Ole Opry–generation country-western is to contemporary music. Though Foxworthy endorsed and appeared with Romney in 2012, much of his and his peers’ humor is not political at all, but the stuff of daily domestic life, the foibles of marriage and kids and aging, much as stand-up used to be before Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor, among others, upended the form. Like the Kings of Comedy (the band of black comedians that inspired the Blue Collar Comedy Tour) and the long-touring Catskills on Broadway (an earlier revue featuring classic Borscht Belt Jewish comics), these old-timers have a sustaining audience. But it’s a declining regional niche, not a mass market.

Sometimes conservative comics do surface in bigger “liberal” venues. The Blue Collar guys have appeared on Comedy Central, as has Dunham, whose Christmas special set a ratings record for the network. Nick DiPaolo has appeared frequently on Louie, and in season one he and Louis C.K. erupted into name-calling and fisticuffs over their political differences. (They are friends offscreen.) In his act, DiPaolo’s Obama jokes are nothing if not innocuous: “This guy makes Bryant Gumbel look like Flavor Flav.” When he complains to Louis C.K. that the “white guy doesn’t have a voice in this country anymore,” you have to wonder if the real problem is that the voices of white guys like DiPaolo won’t pay the bills. The core audience for conservative humor—like that of Fox News (median age 68)—is not exactly a lucrative demographic for television advertisers, whatever its value in winning red-state elections or cable-news ratings wars. The median age for Stewart and Colbert on Comedy Central is 43 and 42, respectively, and you have to wonder if it might be younger still were they liberated (as Colbert soon will be) from their satirical addiction to the elderly Fox News brand.

This fall, another stand-up, Michael Loftus, is planning to take a fresh shot at a conservative-comedy news show—a syndicated half-hour titled The Flipside. The pilot has been posted online, and in it, as well as in his regular act, Loftus comes off as genial and smart, if not in possession of a rapier wit. (Sample one-liner: “Jay Z complaining about income inequality is like Honey Boo Boo saying television just ain’t what it used to be.”) His interview guest on the pilot is Larry Elder, a black conservative most recently famous for having defended both Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy. There’s a joke there somewhere, but not one likely to turn up on The Flipside.

No doubt Loftus and his writers have studied the defunct 1/2-Hour News Hour as a primer in what not to do, but they also might look at one bit that actually scored—an Oval Office sketch with Ann Coulter playing vice-president to Limbaugh’s potus. Dreadful as it sounds, Coulter is funny in it—not because she is a practiced performer (she fusses nervously with her hair) but because she mocks one of her own incendiary tirades from the Bush years. If you don’t stay tuned, she warns the viewers, “we’ll invade your countries, kill your leaders, and convert you to Christianity.”

It’s a revealing little victory that reminds you that conservative comics rarely make fun of their own camp as liberals so profitably do. In Colbert’s notorious 2006 monologue at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, his mockery of the Bush administration was matched by his skewering of the liberal press corps in the room. (Indeed, Colbert parodied me on another occasion.) Liberal comics also routinely invite conservatives to participate in their shtick. Could anyone imagine a comic of the right, like Gutfeld at Fox, mixing it up with liberals as frequently as Stewart and Colbert have with Gingrich, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, William Kristol, Jim DeMint, McCain, Bill O’Reilly, and countless others? Colbert went so far as to hold a mock public rally with Herman Cain. Comedy flowers when you stir in surprise and conflict.

The Chris Christie scandal showed the right’s timidity in confronting its own sacred cows. Bridgegate is no joke for conservatives. The best Dennis Miller could do was change the subject to (what else?) Benghazi: “Eventually Hillary Clinton will say the reason that there were no reinforcements at our consulate in Libya is because they were stuck in traffic on the George Washington Bridge.” By contrast, Jon Stewart was relentless in ridiculing a liberal fiasco, the Obamacare launch, and the administration’s hapless defense of it. His interview with Kathleen Sebelius inflicted more damage than any Fox News jeremiad.


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