Why There’s Little Good Conservative Comedy

Oliver Morrison takes a look at the eternal question of why comedians are almost always liberal and attempts by conservatives to be funny almost always fall flat. As with our political leanings, it may come down largely to our underlying psychology, particularly how we handle ambiguity.

One explanation is simply that proportionately fewer people with broadly conservative sensibilities choose to become comedians. Just as liberals dominate academia, journalism, and other writing professions, there are nearly three times as many liberal- as conservative-minded people in the creative arts according to a recent study. Alison Dagnes, a professor of political science at Shippensburg University, argues that the same personality traits that shape political preferences also guide the choice of professions. These tendencies just get more pronounced in the case of comedy, which usually requires years of irregular income, late hours, and travel, as well as a certain tolerance for crudeness and heckling…

So if conservatives have yet to produce their own Jon Stewart, it could be the relatively small number of working conservative comedians, or their lack of power in the entertainment industry. Or it could be that shows like The Flipside are failing at least, in part, because they’re just not that funny. But what is it about political satire that makes it so hard for conservatives to get it right?…

So if liberals are such vulnerable targets for humor, why do relatively few conservative comedians seem to be taking aim at them?

One explanation is simply that proportionately fewer people with broadly conservative sensibilities choose to become comedians. Just as liberals dominate academia, journalism, and other writing professions, there are nearly three times as many liberal- as conservative-minded people in the creative arts according to a recent study. Alison Dagnes, a professor of political science at Shippensburg University, argues that the same personality traits that shape political preferences also guide the choice of professions. These tendencies just get more pronounced in the case of comedy, which usually requires years of irregular income, late hours, and travel, as well as a certain tolerance for crudeness and heckling…

So if conservatives have yet to produce their own Jon Stewart, it could be the relatively small number of working conservative comedians, or their lack of power in the entertainment industry. Or it could be that shows like The Flipside are failing at least, in part, because they’re just not that funny. But what is it about political satire that makes it so hard for conservatives to get it right?

Political humor, in particular, might have an inherently liberal bias. Alison Dagnes spent years looking into this question for her 2012 book A Conservative Walks Into a Bar. She spoke to dozens of working comedians who self-identified as liberals, and as many who identified as conservatives as she could find. One of the reasons she posits for a lack of conservative satire is that the genre has always been aimed at taking down the powerful, from the Revolutionary War through Vietnam and 9/11. “Conservatism supports institutions and satire aims to knock these institutions down a peg,” she wrote…

This struggle to thrive in a particular genre isn’t exclusive to conservatives and satire. At the end of the 1990s, when Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show, conservatives dominated one form of entertainment media: talk radio. Liberals have never managed to equal conservatives’ success in that arena. The Air America network—whose talent included Rachel Maddow, as well as Saturday Night Live alumnus and future Senator Al Franken—filed for bankruptcy at the beginning of 2010. Even MSNBC has never been able to attract as large an audience as Fox News, the televised version of conservative talk radio.

Could it be that American political satire is biased toward liberals in the same way that American political talk radio is biased toward conservatives? Dannagal Young, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Delaware, was looking into the lack of conservative comedians when she noticed studies that found liberals and conservatives seemed to have different aesthetic tastes. Conservatives seemed to prefer stories with clear-cut endings. Liberals, on the other hand, had more tolerance for a story like public radio’s Serial, which ends with some uncertainty and ambiguity.

Young began to wonder whether this might explain why liberals were attracted in greater numbers to TV shows that employ irony. Stephen Colbert, for example, may say that he’s looking forward to the sunny weather that global warming will bring, and the audience members know this isn’t what he really means. But they have to wonder: Is he making fun of the kind of conservative who would say something so egregious? Or is he making fun of arrogant liberals who think that conservatives hold such extreme views?

As Young noticed, this is a kind of ambiguity that liberals tend to find more satisfying and culturally familiar than conservatives do. In fact, a study out of Ohio State University found that a surprising number of conservatives who were shown Colbert clips were oblivious to the fact that he was joking.

In contrast, conservative talk radio humor tends to rely less on irony than straightforward indignation and hyperbole. When Rush Limbaugh took down Georgetown student and birth-control activist Sandra Fluke in 2012, he called her a “slut” in order to drive home his point about state-mandated birth control. After the liberal blogosphere erupted with derision, Limbaugh responded with more jokes, asking that Fluke post videos of her sex online so taxpayers could see what they were paying for. (After a few days, he offered a public apology, insisting that he “did not mean a personal attack” on Fluke.)

These examples formed the kernel of Young’s theory that liberals and conservatives look for and see different kinds of humor.

There’s also the simple fact that comedy, at least comedy that matters, is inherently subversive, while the psychology of conservatives includes a strong desire for institutional stability and submission to authority. And those things simply aren’t funny.

"Let me know when you feel like actually talking to me rather than shouting at ..."

Crokin: Trump Was Sending a Message ..."
"Your strawperson is so poorly made, it looks like a pile of straw.We noted repeatedly ..."

Catholic School to Punish Students for ..."
"Mhm, she endorsed Trumpy and appeared at his rally. She didnt get much for it."

Palin’s Pointless Appeal
"Here's the thing: You're saying the same thing hundreds of other men -- and it's ..."

How to Think Critically About the ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • daved

    Are there *any* good conservative comedians? I’ve seen performances by several politically conservative comedians and while their audiences laughed, I certainly found the jokes remarkably unfunny. I was never a huge Dennis Miller fan, but I thought he was OK when he was doing Weekend Update on SNL. Now he’s gone over to the dark side and is apparently making a good living at it, but what I’ve seen of his performances left me cold.

    Liberals can sometimes poke fun at themselves and have it work, too. In fact, if I recall correctly, the term “politically correct” was originally coined by liberals making fun of themselves and their tendency to get too serious.

  • Alverant

    I agree about the satire. It’s about “punching up” not “kicking down”. Most conservative “humor” targets those who are in the minority and unable to defend themselves so it winds up being an offensive caricature.

    There’s also how conservatives have used, “I was only kidding, liberals! Get a sense of humor!” as an excuse when they get caught saying something outrageous.

  • theguy

    What I’ve seen of conservatives on Twitter is that their sense of “humor” is merely cruel mockery of people who are suffering in some way (unemployed, poor, sick, etc). Decent people wouldn’t find that funny.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Comedy that can’t punch up isn’t comedy. Punching down isn’t funny. It’s mean. Mean isn’t funny. Frankly, it’s just mean. Limbaugh et al, are like court jesters who tell the King how great he is and blame all his woes on the serfs.

     

    …he called her a “slut” in order to drive home his point about state-mandated birth control.

    “State-mandated birth control”? I wondered why those Obamacare doctors broke down my door and tried to force a condom on to me. Thank goodness they were out of staples.

  • tbp1

    Historically, the better comic and satiric writers (i.e. the ones who are actually funny), as well as the standup comedians, have mostly been liberal. Aristophanes (pro-peace but anti-democracy), Evelyn Waugh, P. J. O’Rourke and Christopher Buckley are about the only exceptions I can think of. Plus, O’Rourke hasn’t been very funny in years and Buckley isn’t all that conservative (although far from liberal).

  • magistramarla

    I’ve found that conservatives are very literal-minded, and that they simply don’t get satire or irony.

    When I was teaching, some friends in the English department and I compared notes on our students fairly often.

    Very few of our students came to ninth grade already having an understanding of satire or irony in literature.

    Younger children tend to be quite literal-minded.

    Both the English teachers and I introduced both of these concepts to our ninth graders, and a few would begin to get it.

    Each year, we would re-introduce the concepts and more and more of them would understand.

    In Latin IV my students read some Plautus and Terrence. The English IV students would study satire in Shakespeare and would read works such as Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”.

    Some students remained stubbornly literal-minded. My colleagues and I predicted that those were the students who most likely would not succeed in college, where a creative and facile mind is needed.

    I’ve found that many of the conservatives that I know are much like those high school seniors. They simply can’t understand satire or irony, no matter how many times they see or hear it.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    tbp1 “Plus, O’Rourke hasn’t been very funny in years…”

    Now you’re just being ridiculous. P.J. O’Rourke hasn’t been funny at all in years. If you’re a comedian and the only laughter you hear is your own…

  • Michael Heath

    I think the unmentioned elephant in the room is honesty. Good comedy has some basis in truth.

    Conservative arguments are primarily premised on a dishonest set of assertions and a dishonest framing. When conservatives attempt to ridicule someone on the left their own underlying serious argument is based on lies. So they have no credible framing to pull off ridiculing their target. Instead they just come off as a lying bullying defaming bigot. That politically rallies the sheep in your tribe as we encounter on AM Radio and Fox News, but few beyond the sheep will find any humor in such criticism.

  • regexp

    while the psychology of conservatives includes a strong desire for institutional stability and submission to authority

    Colbert actually spoke about this in an interview he gave some years ago. He basically said the same thing in that a lot of humour is attacking authority and that goes against conservatives belief systems.

  • http://howlandbolton.com richardelguru

    “A Conservative Walks Into a Bar”

     

     

     

    Says “OUCH!!!!!1!

     

    “Why did that Commie, Muslim, bastard Obama put that iron bar there…”

  • Pierce R. Butler

    “Conservatism supports institutions …,” she [Alison Dagnes] wrote…

    … comedy that matters, is inherently subversive…

    So when the teabaggers reach the point of seriously threatening the Constitution, the judiciary, scientific institutions, and whatever else they want to overthrow, they will become funny??!?

  • my2cents

    Honestly most people that are into politics are usually to be liberal. Most of my friends who are conservative tend to be very uninformed and so they have no base knowledge of what political comedians tend to make fun of. If I make a joke about net neutrality, how can an audience member understand I’m being silly and satirical if he doesn’t even know what net neutrality is or has been fed some lie about what it is?

  • Sastra

    Yes, I remember watching this particular disaster and thinking atheists make bad targets. Humor has to have a true point, for one thing.

    Attacking religion is always “punching up” because you really can’t get any higher and elitist than God and the mandates of God. They’re undemonstrable and unquestionable on purpose.

  • Sastra

    Oops, forgot the link.

  • Chiroptera

    Also, I’ve noticed liberals tend to be more likely to laugh at themselves and make jokes that poke fun at their own beliefs and movements. I don’t see conservatives be this self-aware as often. To me, this lends more credibility to liberal comedians’ humor, while conservatives come across more as strident whiners.

  • themadtapper

    Aside from the arguments that conservative psychology doesn’t lend itself well to humor, I think too that the conservative psychology (at least American conservativism) simply doesn’t lend itself well to pursuing a career in it. American conservatives don’t see fine arts as “real work”. “Real work” to them is the 9-to-5, be it in the office, the fields, or the factory. Only unrealistic idealists or lazy hippies go into fine arts for a career, you see, while good down-to-earth “real Americans” go out and get their hands dirty toiling to support their family the way God intended.

  • grumpyoldfart

    Check out the comedy of conservative Brad Stine. It sounds more like a hellfire sermon to me. Most of the time the audience sits in shocked silence, but listen to the cheers when Stine wraps himself in the American flag.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SyKAr-gxxFE

  • Chiroptera

    Just as liberals dominate academia, journalism, and other writing professions….

    Huh, I always assumed that was because any honest, unbiased examination of the facts and reasoned analysis of those facts leads to the conclusions that liberals already believe. I just assume that an academic that can remain conservative probably really sucks at the whole research business.

    A few years ago, The Chronical for Higher Education had a series of articles wondering why liberals dominated in academia. To me, the answer was obvious: competent research backs up the liberals’ positions more often than the conservatives’.

  • MyPetSlug

    Some random thoughts on this:

    The best humor always has a grain of truth at its core and in my opinion the more universal the truth, the funnier it is. One thing I notice watching conservative “comedy” is that it has trouble framing their targets’ view accurately. This is true for political debates as well, but sometimes in that arena it’s actually a benefit. It can be a straw man your opponent must work to take down. In comedy, it’s just not funny when you’re not being honest about what you’re poking fun of.

    A lot of comedy is about poking fun of yourself. The silly things that “we” all do. And a lot of comedian will just flat out make fun of the way they look, act, or how neurotic or insecure they are personally. Again, this has broad appeal because we often share many of these fears or try to hide them in the same way. I don’t sense conservatives have the ability to honestly look inward and reveal their weaknesses. My sense is that conservatives are much more into conformity. They would much rather be in the large group laughing at others than be in the small one being laughed at.

  • LightningRose

    “Even MSNBC has never been able to attract as large an audience as Fox News…”

    I think this is in large part due to the fact that Faux News is usually part of the basic cable/satellite package and MSNBC is a premium channel.

  • busterggi

    Judging from the attempts at humor on conservative talk radio, conservatives love anything primitive that cause pain to others (anyone different than them). If you re-released Hostel or Human Centipede with a Benny Hill type soundtrack it would be a comedy hit in Red State ‘murika.

  • cjcolucci

    Conservative humor is usually mockery of liberals. Problem is, the liberals got there first and are better at it.

  • http://umlud.blogspot.com umlud

    Modusoperandi stated:

    Comedy that can’t punch up isn’t comedy. Punching down isn’t funny. It’s mean. Mean isn’t funny. Frankly, it’s just mean.

    But that doesn’t explain the types of “punching down” humor that was far more pervasive in generations past. For example, there was black-face entertainers. There was also the grand old time of pitching rotten vegetables at people locked in the stocks. There was merriment at hangings and other public executions (both official and unofficial). Etc. Etc. Even Punch and Judy shows (which are really friggin’ violent and continue to play off of rather ugly stereotypes as part of the humor). I doubt that one could chalk this all down to “tradition” and “judging people based on their time.” This undoubtedly (at least to me) was a form of entertainment that a certain type of person found rip-roaringly funny. And it certainly was punching down. And it was mean. And – for some – that meanness was funny.

    I propose that meanness is understood to be taboo, which (in my mind) points to why so many conservatives make up “politically correct” strawmen against whom they rail. (At least to me, the arguments against political correctness among conservatives seem to be more along the lines of taking glee in tearing down a politically correct strawman.)

    The entertainment value of “punching down” has become less and less permissible in modern-day society (except, perhaps when it’s support for the troops that provides a “punching down” by proxy). And it seems plausible that this sort of entertainment is what many literal-minded, conservative-leaning individuals find funny.

    … because the only other forms of humorous entertainment are farce and physical comedy. And I’m pretty sure that these aren’t the bastions of conservative humor. But that could just be me; after all, farcical sitcoms are highly popular – often with presumably conservative audiences, and the YouTube videos (and comments) showing people falling and hurting themselves (i.e., “FAIL” videos) often garner huge numbers of views (and rather snide/hateful/emotionless comments).

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    umlud “But that doesn’t explain the types of ‘punching down’ humor that was far more pervasive in generations past.”

    You know how everything was better in the past? People were better assholes back then, too. But then Mad Magazine ran a “‘Blackface’? More like ‘Blechface’.” cover, fueling rebellion among the youth and ruining this Great Nation.

  • brucegee1962

    It’s always bothered me that Jonathan Swift, the Father of Satire, was a Tory.

  • Scientismist

    Pierce R. Butler @ 7:

    So when the teabaggers reach the point of seriously threatening the Constitution, the judiciary, scientific institutions, and whatever else they want to overthrow, they will become funny??!?

    From a conservative point of view, they already are being funny.

    The very notion of free elections and representative democracy as outlined in the Constitution is hilarious, when you know that good government is best found through submission to the will of God. (Which, as Justice Scalia has written, was better understood when kings were selected through holy wars and trial by combat, where God’s will was more evident. Isn’t that an amusing thought?)

    And justice as a concern for the innocent is a joke. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? If you are executed while innocent, you just go to your Heavenly Father more quickly. (That’s Scalia again — both examples from his essay “God’s Justice and Ours”.)

    And the idea that scientists would be worried about something like ozone holes in the upper atmosphere is just silly, when you know that God has already taken care of that, and we have plenty of ozone available in the streets of our cities (as I heard Rush Limbaugh point out the last time I actually listened to him, about 20 years ago).

    Conservative humorists are trying to “punch up,” against liberals and scientists, against the democratic illusions of those who would believe in human Constitutional government, and against the scientistic hubris that would lead mere humans to think that they can chart a path to a better future themselves, by trying to understand God’s creation as mere natural systems, instead of letting go and letting God and the Republicans make the rich richer and the poor poorer as Heaven has always intended.

    The trouble with liberals and scientists (as I imagine Modus might put it) is that they lack an abiding faith in the infinite holy goodness of God and Capitalism, against which mere mortal and secular nonsense like democracy and science can be seen as the risible antics of ignorant children. Conservatives, who know better, find this quite amusing.

    Am I right, Modus? If anyone would understand conservative humor, I would expect it would be you.

    (PS — Before posting, I just now watched the conservative humor of Brad Stine, as linked by Sastra and Grumpyoldfart, and I think it fits with my theory. He is “punching up” against what he and his audience see as the self-inflated idea of human beings trying to exist without God: “Believing in God is a crutch? Yeah, well not believing in God is a coma.” — the only real laughs he gets in the clip.)

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Scientismist “Am I right, Modus? If anyone would understand conservative humor, I would expect it would be you.”

    I don’t know. All I hear are dogwhistles.

  • doublereed

    But another reason is that comedy has a surprisingly high demand for accuracy much of the time. If you say something factually wrong in your joke, it ruins the joke. And that’s true even if it isn’t political humor. Conservatives in America are a bunch of blatant, pathological liars.

    Does Adam Carolla count as a conservative comedian? He’s more like what I would imagine. Maybe he would be considered more libertarian like Penn Jilette.

  • Lady Mondegreen

    Evelyn Waugh, P. J. O’Rourke and Christopher Buckley are about the only exceptions I can think of.

    Florence King’s

    Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady

    is one of the funniest books I ever read.

    But it’s not about politics. And she’s not a movement conservative–though gawd knows she is conservative (IIRC she calls herself a monarchist, and I’m not at all sure that’s a joke.)

  • Rike

    Ed forgot to quote the end of the article:

    “Before the start of the show, Colbert took several questions from his liberal tribe, finally calling on me for the last question. “Who is your favorite conservative comedian?” I asked from the furthest row in the back. I wondered whether he’d be able to name anyone.

    He paused, and for a second of silence it seemed as if he might not have an answer. Then, just before galloping back to his desk to start the show, he responded with an impish smile and a twinkle in his eye: “Bill O’Reilly.” “

  • lorn

    A lot of goof points, particularly the literal nature of the conservative mind and the inability to apprehend irony and satire. The point about kicking down touches closer to the core of the matter. IMHO comedy requires a surprise, usually an unexpected twist, pun or turn of phrase that puts the proposition into a different light or inverts the meaning with the punch line.

    Conservative humor lacks surprises. In their jokes the person with the advantage keeps the advantage. The winners win and the losers lose. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the disadvantaged fall further behind. Their philosophy is built around that assumption. Not only that, but that that progression is predictable, inevitable, right and good. Surprises are disruptions of the proper order where wealth and power allows one to do as they will. While poverty, defined as a failure to align yourself with wealth and power, requires you to do what you must.

  • dingojack

    lorn – “A lot of goof points…” Ha ha, I see what you did there. :)

    Comedy is about the expected (anticipation) and the unexpected (surprise). And even, occasionally, the accidental (as seen above).

    Dingo

  • eric

    @1;

    Are there *any* good conservative comedians?

    Well he’s a comic actor and producer rather than a stand-up comedian, but Adam Sandler is conservative and puts conservative themes into many of his movies.

    Would Bill Cosby count? Probably not, but maybe so. While he has been openly and often critical of the GOP, his criticism seems to be of the “they aren’t the GOP I grew up with” type – i.e., complaining that they don’t represent true conservativism, rather than criticizing conservativism as a political philosophy. His cultural views tend to be very conservative in the non-political party sense.

  • dingojack

    eric – the question is “Are there any good conservative comedians?” Any examples?

    :) Dingo

  • Kermit Sansoo

    MyPetSlug says: One thing I notice watching conservative “comedy” is that it has trouble framing their targets’ view accurately.

    .

    Authoritarians are incapable of seeing themselves as others see them because they do not understand other kinds of people at all. They cannot understand another person’s point of view; they cannot put themselves in another’s shoes, even for a few minutes. They may think they can. While a thoughtful liberal might think “Wow. That would be a hard spot to be in, but I’m probably missing 90% of what it would be like simply because I didn’t have to put up with it.” The conservative would think “Huh. I’d have to man up, ignore any traces of so-called prejudice, work harder, and I’d be the same CEO that I am now.” We’ve all heard them claim that atheists hate God, or claim god doesn’t exist(1) just because they want to party. They have, in so many conversations that we’ve all had, seem to fail to understand the concept “The evidence points to no gods, so that seems most likely”. For them it is “But… but… the primary moral authority for my family, and later my tribe, said there was a god!”

    .

    They seem to think “People who annoy or frighten me must want that above all else, for I am the center of the universe.” Hence, liberals, Satanists, gays, and Muslims are working together to destroy the peace of mind of Tea Partiers.

    Since they don’t grasp in the slightest what’s going on in other people’s minds, they have little empathy, no understanding, can’t imagine how they are seen by others(4), and therefore cannot do irony, self-effacing humor. good-natured sterotype humor, or satire.

    .

    As many of you point out, their genuine laughter seems to be simply mocking the unfortunate. I remember seeing Osama bin Ladin laugh. It wasn’t an unguarded moment when he heard a joke; it was a video recorded shortly after 9/11, and he was describing the death and destruction.

    .

    .

    (1) I always say something like “As far as I can tell, there are no gods”, but their responses always indicate that what they heard was “I’m positive beyond all possibility of error that the one and only imaginable God doesn’t exist.”(2)

    (2) If I grab their shirt collar, look them in the eye, and say several times “As. Far. As. I. Can. Tell.” They respond with “Oh! So you admit that you don’t have any idea! Well, I happen to have the proof right here” and reach for their bible.(3)

    (3) Face palm.

    (4) Half of Ed’s posts are about people who think that constitutional rights apply only to them, and not others.

  • http://www.facebook.com/park.james.102 parkjames

    Tim Heidecker of Tim & Eric is a conservative, and I like Tim & Eric quite a bit, but that is literally the only person I could think of who is funny and conservative.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    So when the teabaggers reach the point of seriously threatening the Constitution, the judiciary, scientific institutions, and whatever else they want to overthrow, they will become funny??!?

    The folks at al Qaeda have already been laughing their asses off since 2001!

  • lorn

    dingojack @ 32:

    The joke was entirely an accident. I caught it after posting. Had there been a way to edit posts I would have corrected it. “Goof” implies I was making light of previous postings when, in fact, there were many good points. My own observation wouldn’t have occurred to me if the prior postings hadn’t gone most of the distance.

  • neonsequitur

    If being unintentionally funny counted as legitimate comedy for purposes of this discussion, conservatives would be miles ahead of liberals.

    Sadly, no.