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