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

Left- vs Right-Wing Comedy: Why so Left? Punching up and down November 18, 2018

This is the second part in this brace of posts, the first part is here, where I set the scene and looked at Christian comedy.

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.

Geoff Norcott, a right-wing comedian in the UK, penned a piece for The Independent, called “This is what it’s like to be the only pro-Tory, pro-Brexit right-wing comedian doing the Edinburgh Fringe“. This goes to show the prevalence of left-wingers in the world of  (UK) comedy. What is interesting is that even he is tailoring his comedy to the left-wing audience. see the sort of way he puts it on the hugely liberal Mash Report:

Norcott states, of the option 1) above:

I’ve been regularly asked if being openly pro-Conservative means I get ostracised by other comics. It would be convenient to portray myself as a dressing-room pariah. A lonely Michael Gove in a Café Rouge, defiantly eating cheese and pickle sandwiches while the bohemians dined on olives and batons. But the truth is that numerous comics have been extremely supportive and even helpful in getting me press opportunities. Stand-ups are one group of lefties who make good on the whole open-minded thing (take note, Corbynistas).

I’ve also been asked if the urban metropolitan elite is deliberately stifling right-wing voices in comedy. “Elite” is an odd word for it. Most people working in TV and radio dream of being able to afford to live in an urban area, let alone maintain an all-powerful cultural Illuminati….

So if you’re a producer doing decent numbers with a steady diet of left-wing comics, is there enough incentive to risk an adverse reaction from your core audience?

Having done some small TV and radio appearances in promoting my current show, I already know such people exist. I had a steady stream of online virtue-signalling keyboard warriors willing to write off the idea that right-wing comedy could possibly be funny. One bloke presumed my comedy must entail mocking disabled people (despite my show covering the fact both my parents were disabled).

Of course, I am not claiming that the right cannot ever be funny. I am looking to explain why there is a greater preponderance of left-wing comedians and seemingly a greater appetite for it. Geoff Norcott is funny, but partly because he is unpicking the present status quo, those liberals who seem to have some kind of cultural power.

Targets

There are some types of humour that are funny without ever really being offensive – observational comedy, for example. But many other forms of humour take on a target – a human target. Either it is offensive or not. Is it acceptable to be offensive or not? One would hope, in a nicer society, we would try not to be offensive to each other. And out of this, political correctness is born. Certain people want the right, through freedom of speech, to offend, I guess. And here we have freedom of speech issues. And there are tough dilemmas: us liberal secularists might argue we should be able to mock religions, but not Jews, or gays. It’s potentially a quagmire.

The left/right paradigm here quite probably define who the targets might be. However, left/right politics takes on more than just not offending others; it is about economics and governments and other things that don’t always lend themselves to comedy.

That said, ideas of fairness and equality of opportunity play naturally into the human psyche and into ideas offered by the left (economically). The right often sees the free market as defining how things should be, but this is at the cost to the consumer in other ways (see negative externalities and so on). The left naturally sees this economic scenario as unfair or undesirable and comedians can feed off of this. Comedians are hardly going to espouse ideas of corporatism as it pertains to profiteering at the expense of the environment or workers’ rights.

How far do definitions go?

It is also worth asking how far definitions of left-and right-wing go; do they only refer to explicit politics as seen in Westminster and Washington, in party politics? Or does this include comedy about moral behaviour or sexual behaviour?

Society has, in some places and over time, come to accept homosexuality as a sexual behaviour and a way of life. In times past, such as with the civil rights movement in terms of blacks and whites, homosexuals were marginalised and oppressed (to the point of chemical castration, imprisonment or death, for example). So to use comedy that targets them is to be pretty harsh on a set of people who were only recently oppressed.

Punching up and punching down

Stewart Lee, left-wing comedian and commentator, stated in an oft-quoted piece “Where are all the right-wing stand-ups?“:

Ultimately, the left will lose. Big business will pollute the planet, capitalist culture will kill off the arts and humanities, schools will all be privatised, libraries will all close, social mobility will cease, the gulf between rich and poor will grow and everything beautiful will die. The left may note little human rights victories – gay marriage and the odd bit of better pay – but the machine is rolling inexorably forwards to crush it.

The African-American stand-up Chris Rock maintained that stand-up comedy should always be punching upwards. It’s a heroic little struggle. You can’t be a right-wing clown without some character caveat, some vulnerability, some obvious flaw. You’re on the right. You’ve already won. You have no tragedy. You’re punching down. You can be a right-wing comedy columnist, away from the public eye, a disembodied, authoritarian presence that doesn’t need to show doubt. Who could be on a stage, crowing about their victory and ridiculing those less fortunate than them without any sense of irony, shame or self-knowledge? That’s not a stand-up comedian. That’s just a cunt.

There are some who see limitations to the punching up and down scenario:

Being careful with our definition is no mere pedantic point because adherents of “punching up” like Trudeau seem to be conflating satire with mere ridicule. Indeed, Trudeau declared “[r]idiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny — it’s just mean.” And who would disagree? Everyone knows you shouldn’t put a stumbling block before the blind or kick someone when they’re down. But by definition, satire is not mere ridicule, and the “punching up” rule should not be confused with valid prohibitions against victimizing the most vulnerable members of society. The downtrodden don’t need rules to keep them safe from satire because satire, by its very definition, is self-limiting.

However, I do think the punching up analogy is broadly right (though every such analogy or claim has its limitations), and I would suggest that the social scenarios in the States and the UK mean that power is often held by privileged individuals who often receive their privilege without merit (think about Trump inheriting millions and the landed gentry of the British aristocracy). You might see the great comedy of Blackadder punching down with humour, as someone I argued with elsewhere stated of the humour we get from Blackadder’s harsh treatment of the clueless Baldrick. But that misses the entire point of Blackadder:

The genius of Blackadder (series 2-4) is in showing the middle-class hero of Edmund Blackadder as persecuting the lower-classed Baldrick, but understanding that Blackadder himself is always on the rough end of those above him and that those above him are always privileged numpties. It’s the above clip but where we implicitly understand the chain goes through Blackadder and up to the king, who is an idiot. The humour in persecuting Baldrick is both slapstick and in the incredibly sharp script created by huge left-winger Ben Elton. Blackadder is a very astute commentary on class and meritocracy (or the complete lack of it). Indeed, in series 1, with its flaws and before Elton came on board, Baldrick was the hero with all the great ideas, which they turned on its head. It’s no surprise that one of Blackadder’s episodes is called “Nob and Nobility”, and when you look at the subject matter in many of the episodes, class and power in historic society is predominantly what they concern themselves with.

If we return to ideas of conservative, right-wing politics as set out in the original post, then we can see traditionalism and purity as important aspects, as well as the in-group. If the in-group is pervasive and in powerful societal positions, then they will seek to maintain such a status quo. Comedy that attacks the out-group will actually seek to attack those, often, who are marginalised and less powerful. Of course, in somewhere like Venezuela and Soviet Russia, this might look different (with the extreme left being in control) to where we are now in the US and UK. Power is held, generally speaking, by those in privileged positions and with shed loads of money. Comedy, with its subversive and rebellious nature, will attack the haves, and celebrate the have-nots in their struggle to have. (Western) people who don’t understand this, I wager, don’t really have a grasp of the nature of our own Western societies.

Now, if a rampant left-wing government got in and held power for some time, you can guarantee that comedians would start to target said government. Perhaps there is something to be said about comedians not being left- or right-wing but being anti-establishment, anti-status quo, anti-authority, and it just so happens that, in our society, the establishment is generally those on the right or those of conservative persuasion.

Indeed, comedy during Labour’s reign in the UK under Blair and Brown would have been attacking the government, for sure. But this isn’t all. In that time, the Tories would still have been in for a rough ride because there is still the prevailing fact that privileged sorts are ripe for the picking. As Zoe Williams states:

Under Blair’s triangulated government – the third way of trying to be all things to all people – the prevalent comic response was to be precisely the opposite: as offensive as possible to everybody.

The Frankie Boyle/Ricky Gervais sensibility, where anything’s funny as long as you’re not supposed to say it, is explicitly “anti-political correctness”, but implicitly, it’s anti-political anything. What is political correctness, if it’s not the culmination of a trajectory that starts off talking about fairness and ends up saying you weren’t allowed to make jokes about disabled people?

I am more and more convinced that, in standup, as in newspapers, an attack on “PC” is actually a veiled attack on the left by people who don’t want to sound as if they’re coming from the right (without wishing to embark on that conversation so late in the day, the right has no place in comedy: possessive individualism isn’t funny).

There is a natural acceptance that punching up is okay, but taking the mick out of the unfortunate and the downtrodden is not okay, and this fits into leftist psychology in appealing to fairness and seeing a larger, more universal in-group.

I am not saying you can’t or shouldn’t punch down, per se, but that if you do, you are unlikely to find too much success, especially in a society whereby we have grown accustomed to the ideas of equality of opportunity and fairness. Left-wing comedy, at least in this particular manifestation of it, will naturally be funnier because you are making fun of those more fortunate than ourselves (assumed) and not those less fortunate.

Conservative ideas of meritocracy are the veneer they put upon unmeritocratic privilege (see “Conservative Contradiction: Meritocracy and Inheritance Tax“) and comedy zeroes on such ideas.

Perhaps causality for this left-wing comedic preference starts with education and schooling where ideas of fairness and “political correctness” are given much credence, and society thus shifts that way. And yes, there may be a case that many of these leftie comedians are themselves from a privileged elite. I am a result of a white middle-classed, privately educated privileged upbringing. It doesn’t mean I can’t campaign to equaise opportunity.

Conclusion

Well, from my ramblings, I think that comedians are anti-establishment as well as being leftist, and this best explains the prevalence of left-wing comedians, although there might be other things at play, such as perceptions from the mainstream media. I think left-wing comedy will always be, in modern society, more common than right-wing comedy. The days of Roy Chubby Brown are numbered, but there will always be people who find strongly right-wing comedy funny, and there will always be many people who agree with the nuanced right-wing comedy of people like Geoff Norcott funny. But, I maintain, comedy is inclined to the left. But I will also admit that the left/right dimension is often too simplistic.


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