Date: 2022-05-13 04:30:00
For the past three years, Matt Sienkiewicz, an associate professor of communication and international studies at Boston College, and Nick Marx, an associate professor of film and media studies at Colorado State University, have immersed themselves in the world of conservative comedy. The findings of their inquiry, which they detail in their new book, That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them, might come as a surprise to devotees of the Daily Show: Conservative humorists aren’t merely catching up to their liberal counterparts in terms of reach and popularity. They’ve already caught them — and, in some cases, surpassed them, even as the liberal mainstream has continued to write conservative comedy off as a contradiction in terms.
“[Liberals] are ceding ideological territory in the culture wars to the right via comedy,” Marx told me, noting that once-beloved liberal comedians like Stewart are struggling to find their footing in the treacherous landscape of post-Trump humor. “This thing that we thought we have owned for the last 20 years has been leaking, and the borders are slowly getting shifted.”
The growth of the conservative comedy industry isn’t just important in the context of the culture war. According to Sienkiewicz and Marx, conservatives are also using comedy to bring new voters into the conservative coalition and build ideological cohesion among existing right-leaning constituencies. In other words, the left’s unwavering belief in its comedic monopoly isn’t just wrong — it’s also bad political strategy.
“Our project was to kind of shake fellow liberals and academics by the shirt collar and say, ‘You’re missing this, you’re misdefining [comedy] on purpose, or you’re burying your head in the sand,’” Marx said. “This is a politically powerful, economically profitable thing that we might [want to] pay attention to.”
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Ian Ward: I suspect that some readers will share my first reaction to a book about conservative comedy, which is, “There is conservative comedy?” Could you sketch the landscape of conservative comedy and identify some of its major figures?
Matt Sienkiewicz: It took quite a while for the conservative comedy world to find that what we call “the big box store,” the tentpole, the thing that announced that conservative comedy was part of the American landscape — and [Fox’s] Greg Gutfeld was ultimately the answer to that. Then [there are] older-school, right-wing comedians, people like Dennis Miller, or Tim Allen. They’re less overtly political, and they’re more conservative in cultural feel — people like Bill Burr, for example, who want to play off a kind of grumpy old man conservativism as part of their comedy.
And then there are newer and sometimes very popular and very powerful offshoots [in] the world of podcasting, which has a very large libertarian zone to it. We compare it to the kind of drunken bar district of the conservative comedy complex: You’ve got a character like Joe Rogan, whose own ideology is a little bit murky, but who certainly gives space and voice to very right-leaning and very libertarian-oriented comedians. And [there’s] the world of religious or religious-inflected comedy — so the Babylon Bee, which started off entirely as a conservative Christian outlet, and we talk about the ways in which Ben Shapiro tries to pull comedy into his politics to differentiate his brand from the old school National Review kind of conservativism. And then we talk about the really ugly stuff [on] the far right. We’re talking about people who sort of think “Nazi” is a good term for themselves.
Ward: When liberals do come across instances of conservative political humor, the most common response is, “That’s not funny.” That kind of humor isn’t eliciting a lot of laughs from liberal audiences. But what are those liberal audiences missing about conservative comedy when they dismiss it offhand?
Nick Marx: This has a couple of aspects to it. Because we’re scholars, we first noticed a tendency among our brethren over the last 20 years or so to celebrate Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert or Samantha Bee — the sort of progressive wing of political satire. [Academics] are getting advancement through their careers by saying, “This stuff is good comedy. The other stuff that doesn’t align with my political affiliations isn’t comedy — it’s something else, it’s outrage programming.” And this is being echoed in popular discourse through articles in major daily newspapers and magazine articles with headlines like, “Why don’t conservatives like to laugh?” or “Searching for the conservative Jon Stewart.” It was almost a self-fulling [prophecy]: Because there was no proof of a successful right-wing Daily Show, that must mean that 40 percent of the country must not like comedy and must not like to laugh.
The most glaring example of this is the failure of the 2007 Fox News show, The ½ Hour News Hour, which briefly ran toward the end of the [George] W. Bush administration. It was a very clumsy rip-off of The Daily Show. It failed for a whole host of reasons, but scholars as recently as 2020 and 2021 were still citing it as evidence that conservatives can’t do comedy. So our project was to kind of shake fellow liberals and academics by the shirt collar and say, “You’re missing this, you’re misdefining [comedy] on purpose, or you’re burying your head in the sand. This is a politically powerful, economically profitable thing that we might [want to] pay attention to.”’
Ward: Could you give a sense of the scale of the reach of these programs? You mentioned, Greg Gutfeld — how big is his audience?
Marx: He landed with his week-nightly show with quite a splash just about a year ago. And as soon as he did, he was routinely beating competitors in the late-night talk show space — not only the ones on Comedy Central that you’d expect like The Daily Show, but also and sometimes often [Stephen] Colbert, James Corden, Jimmy Fallon. I’m looking at the most recent numbers from the fourth quarter of 2021, and at end of the year, he was routinely averaging more than 2 million viewers per day on his show. This is on par and indeed surpassing the broadcast network late-night shows.
Ward: What are liberals signaling about their worldview when they call this sort of established conservative humor “not funny?”
Sienkiewicz: When you don’t like something, and maybe you don’t find it personally funny — or maybe you do, but you feel bad about that — there are different ways to respond. One is to simply say, “That’s not funny” as a way to dismiss it or a way to castigate yourself for laughing at something that you think is immoral. But more often, [liberals] are saying, “You shouldn’t find it funny” — that there is a moral problem or maybe a political problem with finding it funny.
And on the one hand, we can sort of understand that impulse. On the other hand, is that really what “funny” means? And if there’s this whole suite of people who have a different political and moral compass, that’s not going to apply at all.
Ward: What impact did Trump have on right-wing comedy?
Marx: It is undeniable that [Trump’s] presence as a TV star and as the host of the hit reality TV show conditioned audiences to view him favorably and contributed to name recognition. And perhaps just as obviously, he had stage timing. He was a performer who knew how to work a live crowd. Sometimes that could veer overly into stand-up schtick: He would do crowd work. He would pinpoint journalists in the back and turn the crowd on them. He would joke, he could go off the cuff and go off the teleprompter quite often in his comedic speeches.
But liberals being unwilling to acknowledge conservative comedy because it tends to punch down is something Trump is the sort of exemplar of. Going after a disabled reporter, going after migrants trying to cross into the United States — over and over again, he took as his targets and often as his punchline folks who are in positions of social, cultural and economic marginalization. And so we see a lot of that means-spiritedness across much of right-wing comedy. The casual dabbling in racism, the free license to go after folks who would maybe be a little more protected by mainstream centrist and liberal comedy institutions — that I think is a tone set most prominently by Trump.
Ward: In many respects, right-wing comedy reflects the ideological diversity of the conservative coalition more broadly. You have free-market libertarians and traditional social conservatives together with paleoconservatives and right-wing, neo-fascist ultra-nationalists. How does conservative comedy help keep this coalition together?
Sienkiewicz: You’ll have the podcast of the Babylon Bee, which is this conservative Christian show, and they’ll bring on atheist libertarians. And you say, ‘What on earth are they going to agree about?’ Their worldviews are totally opposed. And mostly it is finding a common enemy. [The target] could be just the liberals, or it could be the Democrats, [or] empowered Democrats. It could be Joe Biden. It could be AOC — a very common target. As much as anything, it’s finding empowered people that they can both attack from their two angles.
That’s how they build their business models. They bring on guests from other parts of the right-wing comedy complex as guests on their shows — or sometimes the algorithms do that for them [through] recommendations attach[ing] one to the other — and through the chain of comedy, people can find their place in the coalition, regardless of where they enter.
Ward: What does the growth of the right-wing comedy complex indicate about the trajectory of the American right more broadly?
Sienkiewicz: The American right has found a means of adapting to new media environments and new cultural environments. They’ve embraced fully this Breitbartian notion of politics being downstream from culture, and whether or not it has succeeded fully, it shows that that product has been accepted. That is an approach that is going to define the American right: not just culture wars in terms of the old way of blaming rap music, but [in the sense of] making your own assertive culture that aims to flow into your politics over time. Even if it’s still small in comparison to the cultural influence of more liberal figures, the fact that [right-wing comedy] is growing and that it exists shows that the project can work.
Ward: One of the driving forces of the culture war on the right is the sense that liberals have a monopoly on all of the sites of cultural production: Liberals have Hollywood, liberals have comedy, liberals have the academy, liberals have publishing, liberals have art. And the ironic thing is that in the comedy space, at least, liberals seem to believe that, too — even though it’s not true.
Marx: [Liberals] are ceding ideological territory in the culture wars to the rights via comedy. This thing that we thought we have owned for the last 20 years has been leaking and the borders are slowly getting shifted the more that you get a Gutfeld encroaching into the late-night space or a figure like Rogan who is poaching [viewers]. But there’s this tendency [among liberals] to tell ourselves, “That’s not comedy.”
Ward: Today, you’re almost as likely to hear conservatives accuse liberal comedians of being overly preoccupied with speech norms and political correctness as you are to hear liberals accusing conservative humorists of being grouchy and retrograde. Are the tables turning in the sense that liberals comedians are now the ones having to defend themselves against accusations of un-funniness?
Sienkiewicz: Certainly in the discourse and in the way that we talk about it. Whether or not it’s true is another issue. … I think that there is a certain level of censoriousness and risk aversion in liberal spaces. It’s not like a Footloose, “you-can’t-dance” kind of banning of expression in some sort of literal religious way. But certainly we need to be aware of self-censorship and risk aversion in liberal spaces in a way that the right used to be very concerned with and seems much less so now.
Ward: Is there a lesson in the rise of conservative comedy for liberal humorists and for liberals more generally?
Marx: The right is very good at overcoming their intramural disagreements on partisan issues to unite behind a common enemy. The left coalition is a lot bigger and more diverse, so there are going to be a lot more sort of disagreements among that coalition. But I think there’s a lesson to be learned from the right that comedy can still be a binding agent, that it can be unifying. It needn’t be something that we use to draw boundaries among ourselves on the left.
Ward: Wasn’t Trump the common enemy for left-wing comedians?
Marx: I think the short answer to that is yes — that we spent the majority of our political energy just trying to get rid of Trump. At the level of the culture industries, though — the people who make movies, TV shows, comedy — I think there’s still a good bit of disparity among, say, far-left Chapo Traphouse types as contrasted with the more mainstream Stephen Colbert types, who are willing to have Kamala Harris on as presidential nominee and not give her the business in the way that somebody further on the socialist left might do it. I think various factions of the left would say, “The enemy is both Trump and these other leftists that I don’t like because they’re fake leftists, they’re corporate leftists.” I don’t see that same impulse [in right-wing comedy], to say, “The enemy is both the libs and this version of right-wing thought that I don’t agree with.”
The other aspect is that we’re urging cultural figures [on the left] to take seriously comedy’s transgressive and exploratory potential, and not to view it as something that is a policing mechanism — not to use it to point to something that somebody did wrong, but maybe to something that somebody’s doing that’s new and exciting and adventurous. I think we both feel like we [on the left] have downplayed that impulse of late in favor of making sure we’re doing the right things culturally — you know, “Because the Bad Orange Man was in office, we’re politically impotent for those four years, so let’s make sure we get culture right.” So we get The Good Place, and we get all of the correct people on TV making the correct jokes because that makes us feel better. I think we lose a little bit of that edginess that we’re now seeing so vibrantly, for better or for worse, on the right.
Ward: Is there a political benefit to making left-leaning comedy edgier?
Sienkiewicz: I do think there’s a tremendous thirst for edge and for things that are perceived as edgy. And I’m not a political scientist, so I’ll be a little careful, but I think that’s where a lot of the independent, younger, very powerful vote is. And whether or not it’s true doesn’t matter so much as the perception: If it is perceived that you are going to have more fun and be less subject to [scrutiny about] laughing at the correct things on the right than on the left, well, which party do you want to attend if you’re not deeply ideological?
There’s a careful line there. There are still ethical implications to truly hateful comments, and I’m not defending that. But yes, I think that if there’s even the perception of being able to be adventurous and laugh and not get worried about what happens to you because you laugh — if that is perceived to be a strength on the right, then it’s by definition a deficiency on the left. And do I think that could swing elections local and national? I do.