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The other day I came across an interesting (if thoroughly flawed) article in the the Huffington Post titled ‘Why Conservatives aren’t funny”. It sought to set out the familiar case that right-wing political concepts do not lend themselves to humour, or at any rate, that right-wing people themselves are not imbued with the gift of comedy to the extent that Left-wing people are.
“Why aren’t conservatives funny?…” Ellis Wiener asked “We’re compelled to ask this because, what with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and Real Time With Bill Maher spending most of their time making fun of “conservatives,” it seems like there’s a disproportionate amount of “liberal” humor on TV…”
A similar question was posed in The Atlantic (a largely neoconservative magazine). In an article entitled “Why There’s No Conservative Jon Stewart”, columnist Oliver Morrison wrote that “Liberal satirists are… having no trouble making light of liberal institutions and societies… Jon Stewart has had success poking fun at Obama’s policies…(and)…Alison Dagnes, a professor of political science at Shippensburg University, has found that the liberal Clinton was the butt of more jokes on late-night shows of the 1990s than either George W. Bush or Obama would later be…So if liberals are such vulnerable targets for humor, why do relatively few conservative comedians seem to be taking aim at them?”
While both articles go on to offer their own explanations for this disparity, neither fully convince me. I don’t believe, for example, that reactionary ideas are inherently more straight-faced (as one piece claims). For support of that disagreement look no further than Jeremy Clarkson or the fictional police officer Gene Hunt from the magnificent sci-fi drama series ‘Life on Mars’. Conservatives, that is to say traditionalists, that is to say the inflexible advocates of common sense, are notoriously amusing. Pointing out absurdity or naivety in others (which is a common occupation of necessity for right-wingers) makes the basis of some of the most conventional comic relationships; see Laurel and Hardy, the Honeymooners or The Day Today. Stephen Colbert’s eponymous alter-ago drew laughs for this very reason. People laugh at right-wing caricatures because more often than not they agree with them. They agree with them, but only feel comfortable doing so indirectly. That was the secret of Colbert’s success; the self-denial of a whole generation.
To make ‘liberal’ jokes work on the other hand requires extraneous charisma on the part of the joke-teller. Jon Stewart, whether one agrees with his positions and views or not, is a naturally charming and agreeable fellow. His political positions were often highly warped, but people of my generation and the one before it perceive in him a warm-hearted, intelligent and humane nature. He was – and still is – iconic of America’s reasonable coastal minority – those who view middle America with a coffee cupful of scorn and suspicion, aligning themselves more with the postmodern elites of Europe. People laugh at Stewart’s intelligence, the way he makes complicated things seem simple, counter-intuitive things seem intuitive. They do not laugh in recognition that what he is saying is true – that is, not in the way they laugh at Colbert, Clarkson or Hunt’s feigned personas.
By way of conclusion, liberal comics predominate because the majority of thinking people do not like to acknowledge certain basic realities. They would rather Fox News was making it all up, that terrorists aren’t really hiding behind lampposts or amassing in immigrant processing centres. Sartre had a term for this – mauvaise foi…