Do Different Things Make Liberals and Conservatives Laugh?

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Photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images, Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Frank Rich’s great story in the most recent issue of New York seeks to investigate why “Conservative comedy is hard to find on television once you get past the most often cited specimen, Dennis Miller.” And it’s true — liberals do seem to have a stranglehold on the laughter biz.

It raises a couple of questions: Is conservative humor somehow different or more niche? If so, can that help explain why there are seemingly ten Jon Stewarts for every Jeff Foxworthy? The easy, popular explanation here is that since liberals are more creative and less cowed by authority, they’re simply more naturally gifted at bringing — and understanding — the funny. There is, in fact, a little bit of evidence that lends this idea credence, but overall things seem a bit more complicated than that, at least according to what’s been uncovered so far in a rather nascent field of research.

“Because research into differences between liberals and conservatives in humor is new, it is quite hard to consider just what exactly are the differences between them,” said Patrick Stewart, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas who authored Debatable Humor: Laughing Matters on the 2008 Presidential Primary Campaign, in an email. Part of the problem, he explained, is that “conservatives” does not constitute a monolithic group. There are social conservatives, business conservatives, tea-party conservatives — each of them is drawn to politics for different (albeit sometimes overlapping) reasons, and therefore they may well approach humor from different perspectives.

“What we do know from research by Kevin Smith, John Hibbing, John Alford, and colleagues at U of Nebraska,” he said, is that it’s usually easier to trigger anxiety and disgust in conservatives. Since the successful transmission of humor, those who study it agree, requires the target to be in a playful mood, that could mean that conservatives aren’t quite the ideal audience for a comedy club. It’s hard to stretch this too far, of course — even if big-name liberal comedians greatly outnumber big-name conservative ones, there are plenty of right-leaners who can get or take a joke.

Whether or not liberals are more humor-attuned than conservatives, the two groups appear to often laugh about different things. Caleb Warren and Peter McGraw’s Benign Violation Theory, currently a very hot academic account of humor (which is itself not a very funny phrase), can help explain this. It posits that things make us laugh because, as the theory’s website puts it, “(1) a situation is a violation, (2) the situation is benign, and (3) both perceptions occur simultaneously.” If this is right, then “because the two sides have different moral values, what is a benign violation to one side might seem a malignant violation to the other,” said Peter Ditto, a UC-Irvine political psychologist, in an email.

Stewart sounded a similar note in his email:

Anecdotally, it seems that the candidates of the different political parties use different types of humor. Specifically, with Republicans ridicule appears to be a more important tool for drawing boundaries (you laugh with people in your group against people outside your group). Likewise, there appears to be greater encryption of humorous comments to help draw boundaries separating the in-group from the out-group based upon understanding key concepts (Tom Flamson, an anthropologist at the University of Utah does some great work on this – albeit with tribes in Brazil!). Of course, saying this is solely a Republican trait would be a gross overstatement – but it might speak to underlying emotion-based tendencies to need to separate in-groups from out-groups.

This fits in neatly with Moral Foundations Theory (which I summarized in my recent article on how to win a political argument), which posits that conservatives draw more of their sense of morality from in-group, out-ground concerns.

Overall, it would of course be nice if we could make sweeping statements about the differences between liberal and conservative senses of humor. We can’t, yet; despite these intriguing nuggets of early research, there’s still a lot we don’t know.

While I wait for more research to be published, I’m going to watch a Louis C.K. clip targeted at neurotic liberals like myself.