Understanding the Politics and Rise of Right-Wing Comedy: The Missing Links

One remarkable development in our current cultural moment is the growing emergence of conservative comedy as a powerful force in our social conversation. Contrary to other explanations so far offered for it, this essay attributes the rise of right-wing comedy to the intense polarization that has occurred in our politics and culture over the recent decades.

At the forefront of this conservative counterpoise to the more dominant liberal comedy is TV host Greg Gutfeld courtesy of his eponymous show Gutfeld! on Fox. According to Nielsen data, Gutfeld has bested the left’s leader Stephen Colbert in viewership numbers in the late-night comedy space in the most recent period.This despite the significant fact that Gutfeld’s show runs on cable rather than the more available network TV channels.

In their article on the subject, professors Nick Marx and Matt Sienkiewicz suggested that the growth of conservative comedy was due to “shifts in media industry economics and political ideologies.” (“How a Conservative Comic Greg Gutfeld Overtook Stephen Colbert in Ratings to Became the Most Popular Late-Night TV Host”, September 24, 2021, The Conversation.) 

However, the evidence rather suggests that comedy did not become “ideological” until the last two or so decades, with the overall polarization of our politics and cultureIndeed, it was largely the ideological tenor of latter-day comedy that seemingly transformed the so-called “media industry economics”. 

For his part, comedian Bill Maher rightfully explained that “comedy goes where the funny is, and there is funny on the left now, as well as the right”. (See Real Time with Bill Maher, August 27, 2021)

However, it is a fact that both the Left and the Right have had their share of scandals and absurdities over the last half century and yet no conservative comedian (think Dennis Miller and others), regardless of their talent, had managed to break through to comedic recognition and applause like Gutfeld has done. And it’s not because conservatives don’t know how to do comedy, as Maher further claimed. They actually do.

And so, the question lingers, why now?

Well, fact is, America itself changed, materially. Over the past two decades, the political branchof comedy has tended to dominate the practice of comedy, bringing with it the introduction of ideology and advocacy to the work of comedians. This new sort of comedy has been aptly termed “muckraking comedy”, courtesy of an August 2018 article in Medium co-authored by the Paley Center’s senior curator Ron Simon and this writer, titled “The Brave New World of Muckraking Comedy.” In explaining muckraking comedy, the article stated, “Once facts were facts and jokes were jokes. But the two have merged with comedians now wanting to change hearts and minds and not just release a guffaw. Funny now investigates and persuades, with the hopes of knowing laughter too.”  Comedian Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show on Comedy Central is considered by many to have birthed this new (muckraking) era in comedy.

Once upon a time in American society, say the 1960s and 1970s, comedians simply stayed in their lanes and rendered the jokes to entertain their audiences and mostly kept their politics to themselves. And that was in keeping with the country’s mores at the time. Even a political scandal as big as Nixon’s Watergate was not perceived by most comedians of that era as offering comedy gold; nor did most Americans see it as that much of a laughing matter, as confirmed by a 1973 article in The New York Times which noted that “Watergate just isn’t a laughing matter for most of the nation’s standup comedians”. (Watergate Comics Find the Joke Is on Them,” by Roy Reed, September 8, 1973).  “When they subpoenaed the President, that’s not comedy,” said Ken Barry, a comedian from that time.

To understand the “new normal” in American comedy, try imagining the probable reactions of leftwing comics if, Donald Trump, say, were to have faced a political scandal so huge as to force his resignation from office. Given recent suggestions in some quarters of a “national divorce” between Red and Blue America, it is hardly surprising that Americans now seem to have trouble being able to laugh at the same jokes. It is this sort of polarized environment that has created the golden opportunity for conservative comedy to answer the needs of people on the political right who hunger to “own the libs” and to laugh heartily at their expense. Accordingly, right-wing comedy of the muckraking variety has simply joined the fray, not so much to displace left-wing comedy as to stand in opposition to it in the service of its own political constituency. Gutfeld’s operation has seemingly emerged as the flagship of this movement, one that appears poised to wax even stronger in our current political and cultural moment. 

Editor’s NoteAt the moment the author is seriously working hard to finish writing a new book on a rather tight deadline. So please bear with us if upcoming posts do not appear as regularly as they should during this, hopefully, quite short period. However, in the meantime, please do dig into the many other posts contained in the archives, which are readily available for your reading pleasure. There are two “categories” of articles: “Comedy Legal” and “Other Controversies.” You can find all of them at the “Categories” box on the sidebar. Please keep reading!

Confronting Trump and Nixon: Comedy’s Changing Perspectives

In the wake of the January 6 Capitol attack few would dispute the assertion that Donald Trump is the most controversial president of our lifetime. Surely, he seems to bring out the very worst in his detractors: the mainstream media loathes him and he in turn famously berates them as “the enemy” of the American people. The comedy community makes a feast of trump jokes and, as some comedians have noted, the Trump jokes are literally writing themselves. To say the least, these jokes can be pretty tough stuff and are clearly intended to hurt mightily.

It is worth stating at this point that despite Trump’s departure from power, the current moment can still be fairly regarded as the Trump era, thanks to the continuing impact of the phenomenon of Trumpism in our cultural life.

The controversy of the Trump era recalls another president in America’s modern history: Richard Nixon. Aside from his frosty, adversarial relationship with the media, Nixon, in fact, created a so-called “enemies list” of people to be hunted down by the government; predictably, the list included not a few members of the media. Former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein calls the Nixon’s presidency a “criminal presidency.” Ultimately, Nixon was forced to resign the presidency in disgrace. Yet, it seems rather noteworthy that the comedy community of Nixon’s time did not go after him with anything resembling the venom and virulence with which Trump is assailed by comedians of his era. Question is, what accounts for the different reactions of the comedy community to the two uniquely controversial presidents?

America in the Nixon Era

As comedy legend Dick Cavett noted, the comedian [in that era] simply set out to think about an event and try to find some humor in it. A classic example can be seen in one of Cavett’s jokes about Watergate. In it, he cracked that the White House “plumbers” in trying to do their job of plugging leaks instead opened a Watergate. Speaking of his experience with Watergate, Cavett said, “I set out to do an entertaining talk show, never dreaming that I’ll get up to my neck in a national scandal.”

Cavett’s comments aptly capture the way comedy was done in the period before the contemporary era. Back then, comedy saw itself in a different role in society: it stayed in its own lane where the whole act was about making people laugh with whatever subjects would do the trick, whether the subjects were drawn from the political arena or elsewhere. Thus, comedians did not directly venture into the politics of the day to take sides in the political controversies of the moment. (Despite its apparent ideological bent, even the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which many would consider the outlier in that era, hewed closely to the goal of provoking laughter albeit at Nixon’s expense. The show neither wore its politics on its sleeves nor betrayed a burning desire to help the political opposition.)

Perhaps there was a good reason that comedians opted for that approach: their audiences, somehow, seemed to want it that way. Consider, for instance, the Watergate scandal, the biggest disaster of the Nixon presidency. According to a 1973 article in The New York Times (“Watergate Comics Find the Joke Is on Them,” by Roy Reed, September 8, 1973), most comedy audiences across the country, with the exception of a few isolated spots like New York, did not find Watergate jokes all that funny. “Watergate just isn’t a laughing matter for most of the nation’s standup comedians,” began the article, which went on to note that, “even scarcer than anti-Nixon Watergate jokes at the clubs are pro-Nixon jokes. Indeed, an informal nightclub survey didn’t turn up one of them.” From all indications, it was indeed a different time in the culture: “When they subpoenaed the President, that’s not comedy,” said Ken Barry, a comedian from that time.

Enter Trump and the Muckrakers

In today’s divisive political climate, it is difficult to imagine a comedian expressing the sort of sentiment expressed above by the comedian in the Times article. The simple reason is that we now live in the era of “muckraking comedy”, an overtly political and weaponized comedy that is news-based but lacks the commitment to objectivity that news professionals feel obliged to practice. The essence of this genre of comedy, which has been growing for the past two decades, consists of holding a viewpoint and using the vehicle of comedy to advance that viewpoint. As comedian Bill Maher rightly observed about today’s comedy audiences, “they’re there more to clap for the opinion they already believe in than to laugh. That’s what changed,” he said, adding, “It became more important to cheer for your team than to actually have a laugh.”

To be sure, the old laughter-based comedy of Cavett’s generation of comedians still exists today. However, in contemporary pop culture and the political climate that surrounds it, such comedy, clearly, has taken a back seat to the far dominant and more appealing genre of muckraking comedy, which is what reels in the all-important ratings. Given Trump’s outsized impact on the news cycle and the intense loathing of the man by those on the left, any left-leaning comedian of any significance today can only ignore anti-Trump muckraking at his or her own career peril. For instance, during Trump’s time in power, NBC’s Jimmy Fallon was forced to confront this new reality in his late-night competition with CBS’s Stephen Colbert: thanks to anti-Trump muckraking, Colbert the new-kid-on-the block in late-night comedy did seize the late-night ratings crown from Fallon, for at least three consecutive seasons through 2018-2019, when Colbert snagged a hefty 3.82 million nightly viewers compared to 2.44 million for Fallon and 2.04 million for Kimmel, according to Nielsen data.

Fallon’s troubles began in September 2016 when he famously mussed Trump’s hair during the latter’s appearance on his show, a gesture interpreted by angry audiences as him “normalizing” Trump. Over the three – year period since then, Fallon’s audience numbers have plunged whereas Colbert’s have spiked. Needless to say, Fallon has since learned his lesson and dutifully joined the anti-Trump muckraking party as a matter of sheer self-preservation. Samantha Bee is another leading comedian of the muckraking era who has reaped the benefits of anti-Trump advocacy. Acknowledging the role of outrage in her comedy, Bee noted in an interview with Canadian TV journalist Rosemary Barton that in her comedy world she found that “people care about the world” and aren’t so interested in jokes about celebrity antics anymore.

Under the prevailing circumstances, hardly any left-leaning muckraking comedian today particularly cares to either hide the political undertones of their act or the fact that they’d be glad to take down the Trump presidency if they could. And sometimes, it can get downright personal, to boot. Case in point: Bill Maher’s New Rules segment about Trump’s supposed narcissism (See Real Time with Bill Maher episode of September 21, 2018). In the six-minute span of the segment, Maher lamented how narcissism has rendered the president a stupid person who considers himself infallible and is therefore unteachable and can never be corrected. He likened Trump’s brain to a cell phone with a full mailbox where one can call but cannot leave a message.

Though more noticeable on the political left, muckraking comedy, by its nature, is a phenomenon that also exists on the right of the political spectrum. Thus, the muckraking comedy era isn’t all anti-Trump. To the contrary, the former president does indeed have some powerful muckrakers in his corner. Fox’s Gutfeld! a classic muckraking show, which according to Nielsen data is the current late-night ratings king, is a case in point.

In a nutshell, Greg Gutfeld, the show’s eponymous host, is the political right’s answer to what happens on the political left, complete with both his unabashed defense of Trump and the (correspondingly) brutal sarcasm he heaps on Joe Biden’s person and presidency. He joined the late-night fray this past April.

Making sense of what may not seem to add up

If the foregoing makes anything clear, it is that comedy’s reaction to the Nixon and Trump presidencies is a tale of two eras in comedy, which at bottom reflect a change in cultural attitudes. This cultural shift, coinciding with the transition from traditional to muckraking comedy, explains why Nixon and Trump, both right leaning and uber-controversial politicians could have been treated so dramatically differently. Whereas the audiences of one era preferred that comedians not take partisan political positions, the audiences of the other era rather wanted to be entertained with jokes that espouse an ideological point of view and would reward comedians who play the part. In this scenario, one can see that Nixon avoided the assaults of muckraking comedy simply by having existed in an era when the phenomenon did not yet exist. Trump’s presidency, however, was quite literally born into the era of muckraking comedy and he simply couldn’t avoid its harsh spotlight if he tried.

Therefore, to those who wonder about the disparate treatment of two personalities-of-a kind by the comedy community, one simple observation should suffice: Were Nixon were in power today, it’s a safe bet that he’d probably be treated with as much hostility as Trump is facing. Not least because Nixon remains the only person ever to resign the presidency, thanks to the worst political scandal of modern America.

Editor’s NoteAt the moment the author is seriously working hard to finish writing a new book on a rather tight deadline. So please bear with us if upcoming posts do not appear as regularly as they should during this, hopefully, quite short period. However, in the meantime, please do dig into the many other posts contained in the archives, which are readily available for your reading pleasure. There are two “categories” of articles: “Comedy Legal” and “Other Controversies.” You can find all of them at the “Categories” box on the sidebar. Please keep reading!

Seriously, Can Comedy and Cancel Culture Live on the Same Planet?

Comedy is at a quite different place today than it was just a generation ago.

 In that simpler time, comedy was essentially about making people laugh, whether it was slapstick humor or one involving social commentary.  Then society as a whole started to change, beginning in the 1960s, with the push to create a more just and less oppressive society. Thus began our society’s journey to its ultimate destination, namely, our present era of “political correctness” (PC), which requires all of society’s speech to respect the sensibilities of its oppressed or vulnerable groups. In so doing, PC has tended to create around said groups a zone of protection from offensive speech.  

More consequential yet in our new PC society, especially for comedians who make their living by talking, is the emergence of a rather virulent and oppressive offshoot of PC known as “cancel culture,” courtesy of the confluence of social media, woke culture and the relative decline in the importance of comedy clubs in the career advancement of comedians. As the name implies, cancel culture simply “cancels” people for expressing offensive or objectionable opinions in the social conversation; it also cancels places and institutions for representing said offensive ideas.

In the current architecture of the cancel culture phenomenon, “wokeness” functions as the litmus test for cancellations while social media is the forum for the trial and execution of convicted offenders of the woke orthodoxy, a regularly updated and sometimes unpredictable code of conduct.  Over the past two or so decades, as one might predict, especially since the advent of Twitter, the so-called PC brigade has increasingly weighed in on just how far comedians can freely swing their bats in exercising their art form. In other words, they’ve taken a position on what sort of “material” comedians are permitted to use for their work.

Hence, over the said period, several comedians have gotten into trouble for literally running the red light of political correctness, including Tracy Morgan (gay jokes); Dane Cook (Aurora, Colorado theater shooting); Bill Maher (cowardly US soldiers vs. brave terrorists) George Lopez (Kirstie Alley’s weight problem); Gilbert Gottfried (Japanese tsunami jokes) and Tosh. O (rape jokes).

Not surprisingly many in the comedy community find this state of affairs simply unacceptable. Lisa Lampanelli’s May 2013 guest column for the Hollywood Reporter (“How Political Correctness is Killing Comedy”), for example, aptly captures the prevailing sentiment of the comedy community on this matter: fundamentally, most comedians believe their art form is subjective in nature when it comes to what jokes appeal to different people and that to deny an artist the chance to explore his art is like forcing your beliefs on him. 

So, the question arises, can comedy and cancel culture co-exist with each other on the same planet?  As uncomfortable as it might seem, the short answer is, well, they’re going to have to.

For starters, political correctness, to be sure, seems to have some redeeming qualities, considering our society’s history of oppression and the relative permissiveness of our laws in that regard. True, there is always the risk of the pendulum swinging too far in the direction of cancel culture. Yet, PC in its good moments might actually have a salutary influence upon the civic life of any modern society. For instance, in America, the First Amendment, which is a wonderful gift that we enjoy, nonetheless gives protection to so much hurtful and, arguably, unnecessary speech that might well be homophobic, xenophobic, racist or misogynistic. Perhaps in those circumstances, it may not be such a bad thing for PC to occasionally step in and try to civilize our society.

Take the Don Imus controversy in 2007 concerning the Rutgers University basketball women, whom the late former radio host and humorist had attacked without any provocation as “nappy-headed hos” during an infamous episode of his show “Imus in the Morning.” Though to his credit Imus later apologized for his wrongheaded actions, the fact remains that he was well within his First Amendment rights when he lobbed the rather gratuitous attack on the hapless ladies. In fact, prior to the firestorm that followed his attack on the women, Imus was known to tout his irreverent show as the “First Amendment at its best and its worst.” 

Now what’s the way forward in this apparent standoff between these two warring contingents, none of which is entirely blameless. Well, the starting point here is to recognize that cancel culture isn’t going anywhere soon. Under the circumstances, therefore, it is comedy more than the cancel culture squad that has to adjust to the “reality of the times”, not least for the very simple reason that comedians actually have a job to do and a living to make for that matter. Speaking of which, it must be noted that comedy is now a mature art form at a brilliant “golden age” moment, where the rewards of success are literally astronomical compared to its past.

More importantly, since comedians are doing comedy not for themselves but rather for the broader society, they must consider their “shtick” as something of a service or product being offered for sale in the marketplace. As a matter of sheer economics, it is no more a winning strategy for a comedian to push comic “material” that the audience, owing to changing sensibilities, won’t find funny than it is for a salesman to be offering goods that his prospective customers won’t buy owing to changing tastes.

For good or ill, navigating the waters of cancel culture has become a cost of doing business today in our society and must be accommodated as such. Not least because political correctness and cancel culture are not directed at comedy alone: they set down rules of general application touching every segment of society, including politicos and corporations.  

In the end, the good news for talented comedians with a healthy imagination and creativity is that there is still a lot of game on the ground, meaning that there is yet so much funny stuff out there in the real world that can be said without necessarily burning down the town or breaching the proverbial “red line” drawn by contemporary society, however debatable the said line might be. Besides, in real life anyway, one cannot simply say whatever one likes any more than one can do whatever one likes.   So, there you have it!