The Joke’s On the Right

An inordinate amount of attention has already been paid to the announcement of Jon Stewart’s departure from television’s “Daily Show,” and we have nothing to add to all the fawning that’s been going on. The smart fellows over at The Atlantic Monthly have seized the occasion to wonder why no conservatives have achieved such satirical prominence, however, and we can’t resist the opportunity for our own lofty rumination on the sorry state of political humor.
Our answer to The Atlantic’s rhetorical query, which they seem not to have considered, is that the people who have the opinion-making power to elevate a satirist to Stewart’s otherwise inexplicable prominence are disinclined to bring any conservative to such heights. Less convincing is the magazine’s theory that “proportionately fewer people with broadly conservative sensibilities choose to become comedians.” The article contends that an abundance of cable channels should surely offer entry to a worthy conservative comic, as if all those channels weren’t run by the same handful of big media companies and a half-hour on any one of them is worth having without expensive promotion on all the others and plenty of hype from the big print and internet media owned largely by the same companies, and it notes that liberals also predominate in academia, journalism, and other writing professions, as if there was no organized resistance to conservatism in any of those fields, but does not explain why “broadly conservative sensibilities” would be less likely to crack a joke. A comedy career requires “years of irregular income, late hours, and travel, as well as a certain tolerance for crudeness and heckling,” the article offers, but we can’t help noticing the same rigors have not conservatives from notable success almost everywhere else in the entrepreneurial world.
Our own broad experience of humanity and comedy and the indistinguishable difference between the two finds little correlation between political inclination and a sense of humor. We have known some conservatives who closely resembled the popular stereotype of a humorless right-winger, and like the article’s authors we have even known some who failed to realize that Stephen Colbert’s tiresome right-wing schtick was parody, but some of the very funniest people we have known derived their excellent humor from the unflinching postlapsarian realism that is the essence of Judeo-Christian-Hellenic-Burkean conservatism. We have shared many a heart laugh with left-wingers, some of whom make for surprisingly pleasant company, but we have also often encountered the living embodiments of the famous stereotype of “that’s not funny” feminists, those whose racial sensitivities are so refined they can’t laugh at “Blazing Saddles,” and plenty of low-information sorts who won’t recognize any joke unless it involves George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, or the term “tea bagger.”
Despite the ideological prejudices of academia, journalism, late night cable television comedy, and the rest of the writing professions, Evelyn Waugh and Robertson Davies and George Orwell and Kingsley Amis and Tom Wolfe still enjoy literary prominence despite their “broadly conservative sensibilities.” In Wolfe’s case his reputation was cemented before the critics noticed that between the lines of his pop art prose was neoclassical politics, and that his straightforward and factually true reportage was devastatingly arch satire, and in recent years the best of conservative humor that has filtered through the popular culture has been as sly. Those of us who like our humor as dry as the perfect martini find this an endearing trait of the better right-wing wags, and we offer it as proof that the highest humor is not incompatible with “broadly conservative sensibilities,” but we ruefully acknowledge it is it not to the public’s taste. Still, we not convinced by the liberals’ ideologically inconsistent and oh-so-smug argument that the market place has spoken. Stewart’s viewership in most markets is less than the equally vulgar left-wing agitprop on the “Family Guy” re-runs, his much-ballyhooed numbers in the much-coveted youthful demographic suggest the susceptibility of his niche audience, and the rest of his supposed influence seems to be his popularity with the more influential media. We’re left wondering if someone who could read tele-promptered jokes about Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or liberalism in general with the same smirking superficiality would do just as well.
Nor do we concur with The Atlantic Monthly’s pondering that “Political humor, in particular, might have an inherently liberal bias.” The article quotes the author of a book titled “A Conservative Walks Into a Bar,” which we have to admit is a pretty good title, as saying “Conservatism supports institutions and satire aims to knock these institutions down a peg.” As much as we like her book title, the woman is clearly delusional. The federal and state local governments and academia, journalism, late night television comedy and the rest of the writing professions, not to mention the public service unions and K-12 establishment and the group identity political organizations and what’s left of the music business, are by now combined as the most powerful institutions in the country, and conservative humor strives to take them all down more than a peg. The institutions of family, church, and individual liberty that conservatism seeks to conserve have all been knocked out of view by the past 100 years of institutionally-approved ridicule, yet a “Daily Show”-sized audience seems not to have noticed that the cutting-edge satire has become mere chest-thumping triumphalism. The audience is invited to share in the victory and membership in hipped crowd, and when accompanied by a knowing smirk that always gets a laugh.

They won’t come right out and say so, but the smart fellows at The Atlantic Monthly seem to believe that a conservative comedian is handicapped by the fact that there’s just nothing very funny about liberalism. They suggest that President Barack Obama, for instance, “is a more difficult target than his Republican predecessor: He was the first African-American president, which meant comedians had to tip-toe around anything with racial connotations, and his restrained personality has made him difficult to parody.” Had the authors known any humorists of “broadly conservative sensibilities,” they would have noticed that it’s impossible not to step into the carnival of white guilt that has sustained the president’s career, and that his “restrained personality” is prone to speaking with his chin aloft in front of styrofoam Greek columns and issuing alternately lofty and harshly partisan pronouncements on the way to the golf course. For those satirists so daringly iconoclastic as to proceed without tip-toeing around anything with racial connotations, the man is a gold mine rather than mine field. Don’t get us started on Hillary Clinton, as we’ve got material for two shows. We’ve got even more on the rest of the Democratic party’s presidential field, but none have the name recognition that would ensure audience understanding. If the cable channels aren’t interested, we suspect there’s something more than afoot than market forces.
We wish Jon Stewart well in his inevitable next endeavor, and are confident there will always be an audience for his knowing smirks, but we can’t help hoping that something a little more anti-establishment might come along in his wake.

— Bud Norman


A Less Than Optimal Campaign

What a sorry state of affairs for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign when he can’t even go on the Daily Show without feeding another bad news cycle.

In the latest of a series of missteps, the president appeared Thursday on Jon Stewart’s cable television comedy program and described the murder of four Americans during a Sept. 11 terror attack on the embassy in Libya as “not optimal.” The jarring understatement will likely be replayed on various other media, and repeatedly at the conservative outlets, which can’t be helpful to Obama’s cause.

The president’s many die-hard defenders will note that the questioner had introduced the term “optimal,” a slightly mitigating point, but it won’t spare him another day of damning headlines nor spare him the damage of the sound bite. Combined with the widely reported fact that Obama embarked on a fund-raising trip to Las Vegas in the immediate aftermath of the murders, the president’s description of the terror attack as a “bump in the road” during a later interview, and his many week’s of dissembling about the true nature of the incident, the latest statement is likely to bolster an ever more widely held impression that the president’s sympathy for the victims is, well, less than optimal.

Nor is the president in any position to complain that his critics are harping on a mere choice of words, having spent much of the day on harping on Mitt Romney’s brief mention during Tuesday’s debate of considering “binders full of women” while hiring workers during his term as Governor of Massachusetts. The president seemed to find this a most hilarious misstatement during Thursday’s stump speeching, as did several of the commentators at the friendlier cable news services, but after a day’s consideration we’re still unable to find exactly what’s wrong with Romney’s boast.

In a speech to a typically sycophantic crowd the president said that he doesn’t have to resort to binders to find qualified women to work for his administration, presumably because the resumes and background checks and other necessary paperwork are delivered on silver platters or some other such conveyance, but that only attests to Romney’s relative frugality. The tactic also provided unfriendly media such as this to remind readers that Obama’s White House has been described by a woman there as a “hostile workplace” and has a history of paying its women employees less than their male counterparts, and it’s unlikely that voters concerned with the dire state of the economy and the growing dangers of the international scene will agree that Romney’s admirable desire to find qualified women workers, through binders or any other means, are a more significant matter.

Let us hope that many voters will also be slightly irked by a reminder that Obama was appearing on the Daily Show. The appearance was in keeping with the president’s preference for presenting himself mainly on such lightweight programs as The View, Entertainment Tonight, and, as we never tire of mentioning, the Pimp With a Limp’s radio show. This schedule has solidified Obama’s standing as Celebrity in Chief, a title that probably impresses many people who won’t bother to find their way to the voting places, and while that might diminish his stature with the more serious-minded it usually has the compensating advantage of shielding the president from tough questions.

Stewart’s more awe-struck fans will insist that he’s a serious satirist in the tradition of Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain, and an influential conduit of the news to today’s youth, but he’s basically a guy who makes funny faces into the camera and flatters the pretensions of his slacker audience with sneers and snarkiness, and Obama had every reason to expect the usual gentle treatment. Indeed, Stewart’s unfortunate choice of the word “optimal” was seemingly intended to euphemize the situation as much as possible, making it all the more embarrassing that Obama was somehow able to turn it into a snippet for an upcoming Romney ad.

Tuesday’s debate was supposed to be the turning point for Obama’s recently besieged campaign, but all they got out of it was the futile efforts to exploit Romney’s binders, and more harm from the ongoing Libyan fiasco. One word won’t change the campaign, whether it’s “optimal” or “binders,” but there seems to be a cumulative effect of Obama’s self-inflicted wounds.

— Bud Norman

L’Commedia e Finita

These are hard times for the left-wing humorist.

The observation is prompted by a story over at the invaluable’s Big Hollywood site, gloating over the surprisingly paltry ratings for “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” both of which are attracting fewer viewers than such fare as “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” “Bad Girls Club,” and professional wrestling. The paltriness of the shows’ ratings is surprising because both “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” are widely hyped by other media, and their stars are often lauded as the modern days heirs to Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain, but upon reflection it is not difficult to believe that the shows have a limited appeal.

Left-wing humor has been a rather smug and self-righteous genre since at least the late-‘60s heyday of Lenny Bruce, The Smothers Brothers, Dick Gregory, and Mort Sahl, but in recent years it has become especially tedious, predictable, and downright mean. The left-wing comic continues to think himself a brave and intrepid iconoclast, challenging the stale conventions of an uptight and conformist society with devastating wit, but they never challenge the assumptions of their like-minded audiences nor seem to notice that it’s no longer the 1950s and that all of the conventions of that era have already been quite thoroughly demolished. Lenny Bruce did indeed run afoul of the law by dropping a few naughty words into his stunningly un-funny routines back in the pre-cable days, and has been hailed as a champion of free speech ever since, but these days an equally un-funny comic such as the execrable Louis CK can devote an entire set to a stunningly vulgar rant about Sarah Palin’s daughter having Down’s Syndrome and instead of an arrest he gets an invitation to address the Radio and Television Correspondents Association.

The past three years or so have been particularly tough for the left-wing comic, not just because they lost their favorite whipping boy in George W. Bush but because it’s so glaringly absurd for a comic to pose as brave and cutting edge while speaking truth to the out-of-power.

One of the last episodes of “The Daily Show” we bothered to watch was during the early days of the Obama administration, when the euphoria of hope and change was still rampant in the popular culture, and we tuned in merely to see how Jon Stewart would continue his anti-establishment pose now that his hero had become the establishment. The big headline story of that day was Obama’s executive order to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and we were curious to see what humor he might find it that. Predictably enough, the joke was that there were still a few Republicans left in Congress and they were so laughably absurd as to raise questions about the decision. The show aired some footage of a Rep. Pete King wondering if the prisoners would be set free to continue their terrorist activities, transferred to an American prison in a community that would become a natural terrorism target, tried in a court with the defense given access to top-secret anti-terrorism protocols, or some other problematic solution, followed by a cut back to Jon Stewart responding with one of his “can-you-believe-this-guy” stunned expressions. The audience howled at this Swiftian riposte, but we couldn’t help thinking that King had raised some reasonable and not at all funny questions, and we now can’t help noticing that three years later the best and brightest minds of the Obama administration are still trying to come up with better answers than a comically stunned expression.

Stewart probably hasn’t noticed, his attention no doubt being diverted by a Republican primary campaign that has undeniably provided some grist for the left-wing comic to mill, but he’d probably find some good material if he were to look at his side of the aisle from time to time. Of course there would probably be boycotts, denunciations by respectable society, and presidential phone calls to the targets of his barbs, but at least he’d be able to claim he was an iconoclast with a straight face.

— Bud Norman