Unfunny Conservatives

Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, explains humor. Humor has six elements: Cute (as in kids and animals); Naughty; Bizarre; Clever; Recognizable (You’ve been there); and Cruel. To be humorous, you must meld two or more of these elements.

South Park, for instance, combines Cute, Naughty, Recognizable, and Clever with its potty-mouthed fourth-graders and intentionally ill-concealed political and pop culture allegories. The Simpsons combines Clever, Bizarre, Cruel, and Recognizable. I’d argue that for comedy to reach laugh-out-loud portions, there must be at least three elements and one of them must be Clever.

Left-leaning comedians seem able to get laughs. But there’s nothing in the formula that suggests that right-leaning comedians are incapable of the same thing. Why can’t right-wingers do comedy? I don’t mean that conservatives can’t tell a joke now and then or include some humor in a speech. But when they sit down (or, often, stand up) to do comedy, it nearly always falls really flat — other than with the exception I describe below.

Examples: Fox’s Half Hour News Hour was painfully unfunny. Its successor, NewsBusted, is only a little better — this recent episode actually had a funny joke in it (the one about Sarah Palin’s future). And this odd story from former Saturday Night Live writer and performer Victoria Jackson is not funny at all, even though it’s clear that she’s trying to throw in some jokes. But at the end of the day, her story is about her walking in to a store, ranting at the shopkeeeper in a manner that demonstrates she has drunk too deeply of the Kool-Aid, and then walking out not buying anything.

Recent P.J. O’Rourke can only invoke a smirk from me these days — he’s not even particularly insightful anymore, either. O’Rourke is a particularly painful example of this phenomenon, because he used to be hilarious. Parliament of Whores remains one of the funniest books I have ever read. But today’s P.J. O’Rourke would sneer at his younger self; his idea of a good time now is relaxing in an overstuffed chair with a cigar and a glass of good Scotch — a far cry from the vision of fun he uses to open up Republican Party Reptile of driving a sports car over a hundred miles an hour while receiving sexual favors from a hot teenage girl in the passenger seat.

A example leads us to the real issue. Chris Muir’s attempt to make a conservative “Doonesbury” is only funny when it avoids politics altogether. Conservatives can be funny — when they aren’t political.

The problem, I think, is that conservatives who try to write “conservative comedy” inject another element into the mix: Preachy. And “conservative comedy,” at least the bulk of the examples I describe above, is typically begun with the objective of conveying a conservative message. By definition, the primary objective becomes Preachy, rather than Funny.

Preachy kills Funny, the way bleach kills mildew. Yeah, every once in a while, mildew is really strong, so some of it survives the bleach and the scrub. But if you were trying to grow mildew, you’d want the bleach to stay away. (Yes, I just compared conservative comedy to mildew. See, that combines Cruel and Recognizable.) The best you can hope for when you try to be Preachy and Funny is Ironic, and generally you have to settle for Bitter or Sarcastic.

“But, TL, liberals can be preachy, too!” Damn right. And they aren’t funny when they’re preachy, either. Example: George Carlin. Very funny comedian, and reasonably persuasive liberal speaker. But both at the same time? That, he achieved only rarely.

Most political jokes at the expense of conservatives seem to be based on pointing out hypocrisy relating to sexual ethics. This combines Naughty, Recognizable, and Cruel, and is therefore Funny. I would argue that poking fun at a hypocrite isn’t particularly “political;” we could just as easily poke fun at the sexual habits of a celebrity like a movie star (say, Lindsey Lohan or George Clooney). I should also point out that conservatives have gone out of their way to invite mocking attention to their licentiousnesses, in a way liberals have not.

Conservatives can be funny — when they aren’t Preachy about what they’re saying.

Rob Long was the producer and a principal writer of the long-running and quite funny TV show Cheers, and he’s conservative. But he didn’t set out to make a conservative TV show. His only objective as a writer and as a producer was to be funny, and he’s stated on a few occasions that he sometimes put the kabosh on jokes or scenarios for Cheers that were political. Cheers was one of the least explicitly political comedies on TV and also one of the funniest on the air at the time (and indeed, its reruns hold up pretty well).

A conservative friend of mine has been a stand-up comic — and when he gets on a roll, he can be funnier than any of the professional performers on TV. But he doesn’t incorporate conservative politics in his routines, he doesn’t set out to do political jokes. Like Carlin, when he even refers to politicians at all, they are foils becaue of their personal foibles rather than their politics. It would be hard to tell, at least from his comedy routines, what his political opinions really are.

These guys said, “I’m going to write and perform comedy.” Note the lack of adjectives. A comedian should try to be funny first, and leave their politics to be an outgrowth of their humor, rather than its focus. The result is that they were funny, people liked hearing what they had to say, and they wound up sneaking in some subtle conservative points in there — like, say, Sam Malone on Cheers coming to terms with his self-destructive womanizing, thereby promoting the ethic of monogamy. It wasn’t forced or preached, it just was there.

Preach if you’re going to preach. Joke if you’re going to joke. Doing both effectively at the same time is extraordinarily difficult. Save that sort of thing for the professionals — and bear in mind that even they can’t pull it off most of the time.

Hat tip to Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Dennis Miller is a good example. Very funny before 9/11. Decided that 9/11 changed everything. Now trying entirely too hard to be On Message, not funny.I disagree about O'Rourke, though. I'm currently reading "Driving Like Crazy" — his collection of 30 years of automotive writing — and his riff on that very driving-with-the-hot-chick story is actually very funny, because it's not about getting conservative (though there are some cultural elements about that), it's about the arrogance of youth and cowardice of age. Also, some of his other recent stuff has been funny — book reviews and years in review.

    • I was just gonna say, he actually did come back to the “how to drive fast on drugs” well.

      I agree that O’Rourke has gone downhill. And I further agree that the problem is the On Message rather than the funny. I honestly prefer when he just riffs on stuff, does the foreign-correspondent thing. Parliament of Whores is still hilarious, but it needs a lot of explanation of who the people are and what they’re talking about (and, again, O’Rourke calls this out in the text, when he makes a crack about his book ending up sounding like a Jody Powell joke.) I think that his best work is probably Eat The Rich, which manages to make the philosophical points he wants without being too obvious about the way he’s hammering the square pegs of reality into the round holes of his narrative.

  2. One of the South Park boys is, I believe, a registered Republican and the other is LP. But in general they occupy a sort of middle ground. I think most "liberal" comics do as well. Chris Rock gets some of his biggest laughs at lefty sacred cows. I'd note that Al Franken who was fitfully amusing before he got a political radio show was utterly unfunny after. Even when he was trying to be funny. Extremists are never funny, left or right.More to the point I suspect is that conservatives don't want to live the comedy lifestyle. What conservative wants to spend 7 nights a week in front of a brick wall earning the price of drinks? That's where Leno and Seinfeld and Attell and Louis C.K. learned their craft. It's an uncomfortable lifestyle, to say the least. Conservatives take risks with money, liberals take risks with life.One other factor to consider: while there are plenty of great white comedians (Letterman, Steve Martin) blacks and Jews have dominated comedy for a long time. There aren't a lot of conservative blacks or Jews.

    • Indeed, there’s that “On Message” again. And you could argue that the same thing happens with Jon Stewart–funny when he’s just being funny, not as funny when he’s trying to be Funny For A Cause.

      “There aren’t a lot of conservative blacks or Jews.”

      Voting Democrat doesn’t mean you aren’t conservative. Indeed, you might argue that someone who votes Democrat because that’s what he always did and that’s what his family does is hewing more to the conservative ideal than someone who gets all radical and votes Republican just to show that he isn’t his father…

      • Also, keeping the new deal system in place is conservative while trying to reform it or get rid of it isn’t really conservative. (Whether or not the new deal system is a good thing to keep in place)

  3. Michael, your reference to Chris Rock is a good one. I forgot he can rip well on anyone. Didn't Carlin also like to rip on some liberal politics like Global Warming?Plus, when Stewart or Colbert feel the urge, they can pull the trigger on liberals, democrats, etc… Part of me thinks it boils down to talent. But, as TL points out, the material is more abundantly found in the conservative politics. Easy to make fun of adulterous family value upholders than people who want to spend too much on welfare.Easy to make fun of those up high compared to the downtrodden or humble.

  4. Thanks for finding that Adams bit about the Humor Formula. I’ve often wanted to refer to it but could never figure out where I’d seen it.

  5. I dunno about this thesis. I grew up on National Lampoon, but the left has become increasingly neo-Puritan and PC—too much is out of bounds.

    While it’s true “comedians” don’t trend right-wing, essayists like Mark Steyn have taken over for PJ O’Rourke, whom I’m likelier to catch on NPR than any right-wing organ. He’s joined the club of “acceptables,” i.e., boring.

    I’m sure The Simpsons is still funny, but the only bellylaughs and respect for depth, daring and brilliance I get these days is from South Park, the only true successor to NatLamp and the only real political satire anywhere today aside from SNL’s opening [and usually tame] Obama segments.

    Stewart, I find hard to sit through, too predictable, high-five humor. Colbert is still capable of surprising you, so he remains worth a stop during a channel-surf.

    Every once in awhile, I run across an old Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor clip, and I still laugh to shaking. I really don’t think all my humbugging here is just me.

    • The issue is that it’s hard to tell when someone’s exaggerating for comic effect and when someone believes that they’re being observational. It’s not so much that the jokes aren’t funny–cheap stereotype humor is a fundamental part of hack comedy–but relying on them tends to promulgate the notion that the thinking underlying them is part of mainstream society.

  6. I think the answer is simpler than all of this. I think because of the assumption that the entertainment industry is a liberal thing, we assume that most entrainment that is not explicitly “conservative” is liberal. But it isn’t; it may well be informed by a liberal point of view, certainly. Chris Rock, for example, is certainly a liberal, but he will just riff off stuff he finds funny, and it works. Same thing with Tina Fey, or Patton Oswald.

    I think for whatever reason, most “conservative comedy” done these days is done by people who are conservatives first, entertainers second. In fact, a lot of “conservative” comics (or movies, or rappers, or whatever) seem to have a chip on their shoulder that they’re conservatives, and this is their schtick, and does anyone have a problem with that? The assumption seems to be that we’ll pay to see them not because they are a funny comic, but because they are a conservative just like you! This gets in the way of the entertainment.

    The clip you linked to from the 1/2 Hour News Hour (which I confess I had never heard of prior) doesn’t look like it’s main point is even trying to be funny. It looks like it’s trying to say, “Hey, we have Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter! We’re conservative!” very, very loudly. The trying to be funny (painful to watch, kind of) feels like an afterthought.

    When I was in college we had a husband and wife comic team, The Atomic Comics, perform in Eugene. They billed themselves as bringing “The Liberal Laughs for the People.” They came with a message of Peace, and criticized Reagan a lot, and made jokes about how we were all going to die in a horrible nuclear winter as they fought back tears. And they were very angry. They weren’t funny at all. All of the things you are linking to remind me of The Atomic Comics.

    • Chris Rock was very transgressive on race, then quit. Soon he had a black-oriented show with a mostly black audience and was kissing Al Sharpton ass. He remains mildly funny.

      I remember one of the last Richard Pryor movies, where he’d come back from Africa a changed man, wouldn’t use the n-word anymore, and retired his Hambone character. I loved RP, but that was the end of his edge.

      I forgot to mention Chappelle’s Show as one of my all-time faves, but I read that he quit because he didn’t want to make fun of black people anymore.

      Which is a shame, because my favorite bit was “The Effect of Electric Guitars on White People.”

      But there ya have it. The truly brilliant ones are transgressive, and when you scrap that for PC, you’re just another [modestly] funny man.

      I do agree w/Tod here about explicitly “conservative” humor. That takes all the danger out of it, and most of the laughs. The Fox News “comedy” shows bit the dust after a handful of airings.

      But as for potential material, #OWS is far more absurd than the Tea Party. OTOH, there’s a limit to how much you can satirize that which is already absurd.

      • Yeah, maybe the best example I can give from the other way around is 24. Great show (at least in it’s early years; I thought it went on too long, like most other successful tv shows.)

        24 definitely felt like it came from a conservative point of view, but it’s mission was to entertain it’s audience. And it bloody well worked.

        An American Carol not so much.

        As of for Tea Party vs. OWS humor, you may be right. But I would think that the Tea Party would be better material to satirize on the basis that it is more controlled, more grown up, more earnest and therefore easier to poke holes in for laughs. The OWS feels like it is so chaotic and over the top in so many ways that you wouldn’t quite know where to go. (What satirical device are you going to make up that is funnier that the actual drum circles or finger wiggling?)

    • “I think for whatever reason, most “conservative comedy” done these days is done by people who are conservatives first, entertainers second. ”

      Much like “Christian entertainment”. The point is not to entertain, the point is to be Christian, so that people who insist on their media having the right labels can have something.

  7. To look towards right-oriented stand-up comedy, one of the best places to look at is the Blue Collar Comedy group. Both Foxworthy and Engvall are Republicans (or otherwise lean to the right) and Ron White, when he gets political, veers towards libertarian-conservative.

    Foxworthy’s routine is broadly apolitical. Some of his route (“You might be a redneck”) is a sort of mirror of Chris Rock, making fun of his own people in a way that outsiders find funny and fellow travelers don’t get offended by. But the rest of his routine is family-focused with a Red America backdrop in the same way that a lot of other stand up comics are about being single in the city. There’s nothing to stop liberals from enjoying his humor, though. The same mostly applies to Engvall, except when he gets particularly political (and unfunny), which I have only known him to do once.

    Ron White is a different bird. Just about whenever he expresses a political point of view, it’s not liberal. The closest he came on that score was taking aim at the TSA during the Bush Administration. He’s very different than the other two in that his is not family-oriented and he is very much not a family man.

    The fourth Blue Collar Comedy guy is Larry the Cable Guy. He is big on confederate symbology, but I don’t know the content of his routine because I find him too obnoxious to watch or listen to.

  8. Putting comedy aside for a second, as someone that wishes that there were more conservative entertainment more generally, I remain quite aware that if they ever did start a conservative entertainment network, they’d make a real hash of it. It would be unwatchable to me despite being ideologically more sympathetic to (and intrigued by) a conservative variant of The West Wing than of Sorkin’s work. In part because TWW did a good job of entertaining first and using the politics as a backdrop. Had the goal been to change minds, it would have been every bit as successful as the liberal anti-Bush vanity films.

  9. A few years back, one of our friends told us that someone who was a senior when he was a sophomore was now a Professional Standup Comedian! and we ought to go see him at the local two drink minimum comedy corner place.

    There were two comedians and one MC. Our friend’s friend was fine but the other comedian really interested me… not because of his schtick, but because he opened with two jokes. Joke One, in a nutshell: “Democrats are dumb.” Joke Two, in a nutshell: “Republicans are dumb.”

    Joke One killed the club. Joke Two got crickets. He then launched into a fairly well-received “Democrats are dumb” monologue.

    I’m pretty sure that he had four monologues. One for Killed/Killed, one for Killed/Missed, one for Missed/Killed, and one for Missed/Missed. (Though he may have had only the two middle ones.)

    I didn’t get a chance to ask him whether he had two or four, given that my friends wanted to do stuff after the event… but that’s a pretty smart way to go about things, all things considered.

    If cynical.

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