Why There’s Little Good Conservative Comedy

Why There’s Little Good Conservative Comedy February 17, 2015

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.


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