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.”
It was in 2007, as the pipe dream of a South Park comic alliance faded on the right and Obama began his rise, that no less a Hollywood powerhouse than Joel Surnow, the unapologetically conservative (and decidedly unblacklisted) co-creator of 24, devised a comedy show to fill the vacuum. With a pair of SNL-style news anchors and a set and graphics emulating The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, his effort was titled The 1/2-Hour News Hour and aired by Fox News. “You can turn on any show and see Bush being bashed,” Surnow said. “There really is nothing out there for those who want satire that tilts right.”
The mirthless result was canceled after 15 episodes. (Those who wish to verify its low laugh quotient can find samples of The 1/2-Hour News Hour, like all examples of conservative comedy in this article, online.) It remains the worst-rated program ever at Metacritic, the review-aggregating website. Conservatives piled on, too, with Right Wing News deeming it perhaps “the least edgy show made since Leave It to Beaver.” The tired satirical targets included the ACLU, Dennis Kucinich, and, unaccountably, the environmental activism of the second-tier celebrity Ed Begley Jr. A Hillary Clinton administration was imagined as a potential enclave for “a diverse, multigenerational, multiethnic group of angry lesbians.” A parody Obama magazine was sophomorically titled BO. David Frum, writing for National Review, said The 1/2-Hour News Hour might well be mistaken for “some not very clever left-wing blogger’s mean-spirited parody of a right-of-center comedy show.”
Since then, Fox News has continued to dabble in comedy, a somewhat jarring calling for a news channel. Its two regular cutups are Miller and Greg Gutfeld, hyperarticulate middle-aged white dudes with somewhat similar personas: They’re congenitally pissed off. As someone who found the quick-witted Miller a delight in his early SNL incarnation, I find him less amusing now, but not so much because of his much-discussed and much-exaggerated post-9/11 move rightward. Miller was never a lockstep liberal. In 1995, he told USA Today that on most issues he would choose Newt Gingrich over Bill Clinton “in a second.” Though he portrayed Ronald Reagan as doddering in an HBO stand-up special a year later, he nonetheless compared him favorably to Clinton, whom he loathed for his disingenuousness. Then and now Miller has described himself as libertarian, and he was and is socially progressive. In his 2010 HBO special The Big Speech, he gets the same right-wing Orange County audience that applauds his war-on-terror bellicosity to cheer his unabashed endorsement of gay marriage.
Which is to say Miller is no hypocrite. The real problem—and this is also the case with David Mamet’s right-wing ruminations—is that his tone has become preachy. He too often seems a pundit first and a comic second. The ranting monologues Miller contributes to The O’Reilly Factor are in the same stylistic vein as Lewis Black’s comparable segments for The Daily Show, but they lack the saving comic grace of Black’s implicit self-mockery. Miller takes himself too seriously to levitate into the comically absurd. As he tells his audience early on in The Big Speech, “We’ve got a country to save.” Well, fine, save the country, save the whales, save whatever, but let’s have some jokes. His Nancy Pelosi insults—calling her “Cruella Demented” and “batshit crazy”—are so generic they could be hurled at any despised liberal. Miller’s mix-and-match cultural name-dropping is now untethered. He describes Pelosi at an Obamacare forum as sounding “like Professor Irwin Corey explaining the infield-fly rule in Farsi while under the influence of an amyl-nitrate ampoule.” If only! As was also true of Miller’s liberal former SNL colleague Al Franken in his ill-fated Air America talk-radio phase, a political mission is not necessarily compatible with humor. Miller might serve his cause better by following Franken’s example and getting out of comedy altogether to run for office—as some in conservative California salons have long encouraged him to do.
Unlike Miller, who drops into Fox News for the occasional cameo, Greg Gutfeld is a signature personality on two daily Fox News shows that emulate the now ubiquitous Kaffeeklatsch panel format of The View: The giggly The Five (in late afternoon) and the fiercer Red Eye (scheduled by Roger Ailes in the stunt time slot of 3 a.m.). Gutfeld is more of a wisecrack artist than a comedian and, like Miller and other comics on the right, is careful to label himself a libertarian, so damaged is the conservative brand. But if you listen to Gutfeld on Fox or read his recent best-selling manifesto, Not Cool, he seems much more of a standard-issue conservative and, in keeping with that, older than he actually is (49). His targets are the usual shopworn suspects, some of whom are so far removed from the main arena of 21st-century liberalism that comic complaints about them are deadly on arrival: Rachel Carson, Yoko Ono, Hurricane Carter, Howard Zinn, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Oliver Stone, and even Dan Quayle’s old fictional bête noire, Murphy Brown. In Not Cool, Sean Penn gets 18 references, and even Robert Redford merits nine. Like much of the right, Gutfeld can’t stop fighting battles from the 1960s that are increasingly baffling to post-boomer audiences.
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. (
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.
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.
The conservative-comic response to Obamacare was revealing in its toothlessness. Larry the Cable Guy came up with a few retro one-liners (“The Bronze Plan is what color your fingers are going to look like after you give yourself a prostate exam”), but his more sophisticated peers were too angry to accept the huge comic gift that this big-government calamity had handed them. Miller’s lazy pro forma insults were typified by the tweet “They just mistook the Obamacare rollout in Florida for yet another sinkhole.” Colbert’s line of attack—a horror-movie parody titled I Tried to Sign Up for Obamacare—was far tougher. Gutfeld not only declined to make jokes about Obamacare but humorlessly attacked the jokes others were making: “It’s only so we avoid the biggest joke of all, an ideology that denies universal truths about the human condition in order to control you.”
Anger is a mighty source of humor, but it takes talent to refine a crude gusher of rage into comic fuel. Eric Golub, a fringe comic so far right he actually glories in the label conservative, has figured this out. “To blame Hollywood liberalism—which does exist—is an excuse,” he told Politico last year. “Maybe some of the conservatives that are trying are just not that talented.” To see Golub’s point, sample the comic stylings of one vocal complainer about Hollywood’s suppression of non-liberal humor, Evan Sayet, a former Maher writer who turned right after 9/11. His stand-up may have killed at the Republican Jewish Coalition banquet in Santa Monica, but it’s not remotely ready for prime time except as a vanity presentation on public-access cable.
If Rupert Murdoch could find right-wing comics who are funny, you’d bet he’d make a home for them on the Fox network or FX, alongside his liberal staples Louie, Family Guy, and Glee, rather than ghettoize them on Fox News. Most liberal moguls would snap them up too. And if wealthy conservatives covet an entertainment platform of their own, they can build it. Glenn Beck, whose own stand-up-comedy tour was something less than a national sensation, is now starting a film division—symbolically enough, at an Irving, Texas, studio where such iconic liberal movies as Silkwood and JFK were shot. If David Koch can underwrite the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center, surely he can pony up for a television comedy studio alongside Comedy Central’s ten blocks down Tenth Avenue.
As no less an authority than Matt Stone of South Park has said about the entertainment industry, “They just want to make money, you know? And there’s something kind of beautiful about that.” Anyone who believes in free markets, as American conservatives profess to, should understand that few markets are as ruthless as show business. It is the customers, not some shadowy conspiratorial gatekeepers, who give comedians the hook—or catapult them into the capitalist nirvana of the one percent.