Left- vs Right-Wing Comedy: Why so Left? Setting the Scene.

Left- vs Right-Wing Comedy: Why so Left? Setting the Scene. November 16, 2018

There undoubtedly appears to be a prevalence on TV and in the media in general of left-leaning comedy, and a dearth of right-wing, conservative comedy or even Christian comedy. The question, then, is why this is? The answer, to me, comes in three potential forms, and these may or may not be possible concurrently, working together to bring about this left lean.

  1. The media networks are controlling output to bring about a leftist, politically correct platform that shows a mainstream media bias.
  2. The comedy output reflects a general cultural shift to the left, and so is reacting to consumer demand.
  3. Comedy is naturally left-wing, or better comedy is left-leaning, arguably showing that punching up is funnier than punching down amongst other things.

I hope to show (over two posts) that, whilst 1) appears to be a common theme in commentary put out by those on the right, the reality is far more likely to be a combination of 2) and 3). Let it also be known that I am left-leaning myself, but I don’t want this article to be about putting forward a case that supports humour from my political persuasion being “right” merely because it makes me laugh and comes from my own political penchant. I am genuinely trying to explain a state of affairs as objectively as possible.

Defining Our Terms

First of all, we need to define our terms. I will be seeing right-wing and conservative in terms of political psychology: moving towards individualism through a desire for purity, tradition and celebration of the in-group over the out-group. This will include desiring a small government, low taxation and it is opposed to socialism or collectivism. As Wiki states:

Right-wing politics hold that certain social orders and hierarchies are inevitable, natural, normal or desirable, typically supporting this position on the basis of natural law, economics or tradition. Hierarchy and inequality may be viewed as natural results of traditional social differences or the competition in market economies. The term right-wing can generally refer to “the conservative or reactionary section of a political party or system”.

It is worth understanding the etymology of the terms, which helps understand why the right is associated with traditional hierarchic structures, not really advocating for change:

The political term right-wing was first used during the French Revolution, when liberal deputies of the Third Estate generally sat to the left of the president’s chair, a custom that began in the Estates General of 1789. The nobility, members of the Second Estate, generally sat to the right. In the successive legislative assemblies, monarchists who supported the Old Regime were commonly referred to as rightists because they sat on the right side. A major figure on the right was Joseph de Maistre, who argued for an authoritarian form of conservatism. Throughout the 19th century, the main line dividing Left and Right in France was between supporters of the republic (often secularists) and supporters of the monarchy (often Catholics).

The problem, as ever, is that such terms get used in many different contexts so that we get right-wing or conservative in describing the present American political scenario of an anti-immigration, protectionist administration interested in dictating social and moral norms that involve your own body or what might go on with sexual preference behind closed doors etc. On the other hand, the terms also seem to cover American libertarians who, if properly arguing their position, would argue diametrically against all of those things! So ther terms can mean different things to different people.

Right-wing, in its extreme form, can include fascistic ideologies, such as Nazism (not so funny), and deeply nationalist organisations and ideologies.

The left wing can be seen as being concerned more with fairness, lack of harm, openness to new experiences, and having concern for the out-group as a sort of extended in-group (we’re all humans, in this together…apart from the far right wing…). As wiki states:

Left-wing politics supports social equality and egalitarianism, often in opposition to social hierarchy. It typically involves a concern for those in society whom its adherents perceive as disadvantaged relative to others (prioritarianism) as well as a belief that there are unjustified inequalities that need to be reduced or abolished (by advocating for social justice). The term left-wing can also refer to “the radical, reforming, or socialist section of a political party or system”.

To continue the etymological aspect:

The political terms “Left” and “Right” were coined during the French Revolution (1789–1799), referring to the seating arrangement in the French Estates General: those who sat on the left generally opposed the monarchy and supported the revolution, including the creation of a republic and secularization, while those on the right were supportive of the traditional institutions of the Old Regime. Use of the term “Left” became more prominent after the restoration of the French monarchy in 1815 when it was applied to the “Independents”. The word “wing” was appended to Left and Right in the late 19th century usually with disparaging intent and “left-wing” was applied to those who were unorthodox in their religious or political views.

The left also has its extreme fringe. As far as comedy is concerned, I am not going to include written satire, as this is nuanced and comes often from both sides, historically. This will be more about TV and radio comedy (that does largely include satire, too).

Christian Comedy

I’ll first get this out of the way. Why is there not a mass of Christian comedy? The simple answer to this is that it does not have universal appeal. It appeals to Christians and not to non-Christians, so as a marketing strategy for major networks, the advice has always been to steer away from religion.

In previous decades, the advice has probably been to stay away from politics, too, but comedy, for reasons I will later discuss, has been subversive and has found a useful bedfellow in politics.

My previous writing colleague, Ed Clint at Incredulous on the Skeptic Ink Network, wrote a piece called “Is Religion the Death of Funny?” He starts out with:

Made in His photoshopped image
The lack of humor is stark considering how human the God featured in most major religions is in almost all other ways. The Abrahamic God (the God of the Christians, Muslims, and Jews) is obsessed with sex, calls himself “jealousy” Gin Blossoms-style, doles out civic rules and laws, and appeals to senses of authority, justice, purity, and vengeance. Like so many a man, God eventually knocks a chick up then gets out of town, leaving her to raise his kid. Maryment is okay, but merriment is not. God is never fun. He doesn’t dance, sing, or do anything for joy, assuming he didn’t go genocidal for the laughs. Conversely, humans universally love a good joke, and that isn’t new. The first recorded joke is from 1900 BCE.  Why are humans and God so very different in this one way? Another problem is that religion is often said to have inspired creative people, but isn’t comedy a pure form of creativity?

He continues later:

Bonfire of the Inanities
Fueling the great irony bonfire, atheists are often called joyless, angry and strident. How can the joyless people be largely responsible for, and responsive to, the lion’s share of the greatest comedians alive and in history? It isn’t just the professionals who are unchurched. The regular nonbelievers seem to possess a demographically superior sense of humor. All of this is in spite of the fact of getting the short end of the cultural stick of ages of oppression and marginalization. Atheists should be angry at the society that has excluded them from high office and moral regard, and they are. But they’re good humored, too.

This point leads precisely into notions of those political points I will later make (in the next piece). Pious religiosity is often traditional and hierarchical and involved, over the last thousand years, with power. Comedy, so often reactionary, taboo and rebellious, is not going to be supportive of this status quo.

Clint finishes:

What’s Funny? Damned… if you know.
Maybe not having dogma invites you to take everything, yourself included, less seriously. Maybe religion, with its desperate insecurity, its inviolable demand for unmerited reverence, has made itself into the ring leader of a flea circus. That is, comedy fuel nonpareil. Comedy often feeds on dignity, consumes it. The dignity of religion might be like the Wizard of Oz’s curtain; once it gets pulled back and everyone sees the man pulling the levers, they’re mighty reluctant to get on their knees again. Maybe my question gets the causality backward: good jokes might kill the reverence that is critical to sustaining religion, even without anyone realizing that is what has happened. Maybe people marginalized in a society use laughter as a coping mechanism, channeling their frustrations into jokes and laughter.

Maybe it’s all of those things. I don’t know. I do know God ain’t funny. The idea that there’s an ultrapowered spirit who can make galaxies but not giggles? Now that is funny.

I think when we often see religion as oppressive (against gays, sinners – who are often just people going about their daily business but having the “wrong” beliefs of behaviours – people of different religions and none, etc.) and so it is no wonder we don’t find mirth in such a scenario, at least not from the religionist’s point of view.

I think the lack of quality religious comedy is a mix of points 2) and 3) above, tailored to more religious than political contexts. When you are constrained by dogma and strict moral rules that are culturally seen as pretty controversial, it is hard to be funny unless that humour is self-deprecating.

Of course, there are Christian comedians, it’s just that they don’t put their faith centre stage.

As Relevant Magazine states in “Why Aren’t Christians Funny?“, written by an evangelical:

Much of evangelicalism has embraced a hostile relationship with the surrounding culture. A culture war requires a group of people to define itself through a conflict and identify a rival group whose very existence threatens its existence. The favor, of course, is returned, and hyperbolic insults fill the air.

Humor requires the ability to admit weakness and a willingness to laugh at it. A joke is funny because it exposes the silliness bound up in the act of being human. Self-deprecation makes for good comedy, but it’s akin to putting bullets in your opponent’s gun in a culture war. Weaknesses can’t be just hidden from one’s opponents; their very existence must be denied. Miroslav Volf wrote, in Exclusion and Embrace, that a people group must be convinced of its moral superiority to feel justified aggressing against another party. You can’t laugh at yourself until you cede the moral high ground.

~It seems thatr evangelicals just don’t have the comedy ethic:

Sociologist Max Weber coined the term “Protestant work ethic.” He theorized that while the Reformers removed good works as a prerequisite for salvation, those values never went away. Hard work and frugality became outward signs that a person had truly experienced salvation and was among the elect. Being industrious was as valued as having correct doctrine. As a result, evangelicals just aren’t culturally groomed to value the guy cracking wise in the back row.

Matthew Paul Turner, of [JesusNeedsNewPR.net](http://matthewpaulturner.net) acclaim, adds, “Many of us don’t know how to value humor as it relates to Christianity, the Church or [ourselves]. Mostly because many Christians don’t know what to do with something regarding faith that is simply funny. While most humor contains meaning or a deeper thread to its funny exterior, those deeper meanings often go over people’s heads. It’s not that Christians dislike jokes or humor within the context of something bigger like a sermon or story, but when something or somebody is just funny, many Christians struggle to understand the point.”…

Bryan Allain, author of Actually, Clams Are Miserable says, “To me, for something to be funny it has to be on the edge. Whether that is the edge of decency, the edge of expectations or the edge of sanity; if it’s right down the middle, it’s not going to make someone laugh. I think Christians struggle with creating humorous art because too often we don’t want to stray near the edges. Pushing the boundaries can open us up to judgment by those outside and inside Christianity, so instead of risking that for the joke, we play it safe and nobody cracks a smile.”

When people become obsessed with saving the world and witnessing, comedy just doesn’t easily fit, but perhaps they are missing a persuasive trick? There is definitely the urge to err on the side of caution for such Christians, as the article later says. And when something does get created, it has to pass through officious editing and censorship by whatever organisations are involved.

There are many parallels that exist between such religious comedy and right-wing, conservative comedy and why both might struggle to be as effective as the left-wing counterpart.

To finish this first part off, it seems that Christian comedy doesn’t have a universal appeal and the comedy itself would struggle to be cutting edge and risqué in light of the dogma, moral proclamations and possible layers of editing that exist.

The next piece will look more closely at the political aspects of comedy.

 

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Left- vs Right-Wing Comedy: Why so Left? Punching up and down

 


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