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!

Roy Moore vs. Sacha Baron Cohen: The Maverick Politico and the Gadfly Funnyman

Roy Moore vs. Sacha Baron Cohen: The Maverick Politico and the Gadfly Funnyman

This is a case about a failed collaboration between two odd ducks on a project that is alleged to have damaged the reputation of one of them. The one that is suing, as one might imagine. Enter Roy Moore and Sacha Baron Cohen. One, the plaintiff, is a Republican maverick who fell short in his senate bid in Alabama a few years earlier and the other, the defendant, is a gadfly funnyman famous for pranking the unwary into embarrassing behaviors. Now they walk into a courtroom for their hour of reckoning on their failed collaboration.

First, here’s what happened: sometime in 2018, both parties took part in an episode of the defendant’s Showtime TV political satire series Who is America?  In a segment of the said episode, presented in an interview format, the plaintiff Moore, who had been dogged by sexual misconduct allegations, including child molestation accusations, willingly appeared as himself whereas the defendant Cohen posed as an Israeli Mossad agent. During the interview, the defendant produced an instrument he described as a pedophile detector which is programmed to beep around pedophiles. The instrument beeped when the defendant waved it in front of the plaintiff but did not beep when the defendant then waved the same instrument in front of both himself and another person who was present at the interview.  In response, the plaintiff walked out in protest, denying any and all involvement in child molestation.

In the present lawsuit, pending in federal court in New York, the plaintiffs, Roy Moore and his wife, allege defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and fraud, owing to Cohen’s portrayal of Moore as a pedophile, and therefore seek damages totaling $95 million against the defendant as well as the media entities Showtime and CBS.

For starters, this isn’t your typical case where somebody who is at arms-length is suing a comedian for defamation and other harms related to it. (Defamation here, simply put, means that the defendant has damaged or injured the plaintiff’s reputation in the community through a false statement of fact.) In such cases, as experience shows, it is pretty difficult to win in America because of the way the First Amendment guarantees free speech to everyone. For comedians who talk for a living, and sometimes, perhaps often times, talk in a way that offends other people, the free speech protection is a pretty big deal. And because they are comedians, most people listening to them often think they are making a “joke” rather than stating a “fact” (whether true or false) about someone else.  And, of course, when the person suing is also a “public figure”, like Roy Moore, a former chief justice of Alabama and a candidate in a high-profile national campaign for the US. Senate, then the obstacles to winning are even higher because the plaintiff will have to show essentially that the defendant either knew that the statement was actually false or that the defendant (recklessly) did not care that the statement was probably false. This is the so-called “actual malice” rule.

Predictably, as any comedian would in these situations, Cohen did file a motion asking for the early dismissal of the case but the court rejected his request and waved the case on to its subsequent stages. This despite the fact that Moore had signed a “release” in favor of Cohen and his co-defendants at the start of the parties’ collaboration on the project.  So why does this case seem something of a different animal and why has it already lasted longer than your typical defamation case against a comedian?  

First, one should note that the parties in this case actually collaborated on the project in question, unlike the ordinary case where a comedian did something on his own that is alleged to have “harmed” the person suing him. And the release in question was signed prior to the collaboration, as one might expect. And this is where it gets complicated because the defense that a comedian is just making a joke has been tainted in this case by an allegation of fraud against the comedian: Moore claims that his signature on the release “was obtained through fraud”, thus making the release “void and inoperative”.   To explain this, Moore said he was conned into doing the interview by Cohen putting on a disguise and posing as an Israeli anti-terrorism expert and also that he had been falsely told by the defendants that he was being presented with an award for his support of Israel.

Thus far, Moore’s argument is doing quite well in court, judging by the dismissal of Cohen’s motion, and this means that deciding whether there was in fact defamation or not will have to wait until the court first decides whether the agreement (the release) between the parties can be enforced and if so in whose favor. If Cohen is right, then that’s likely the end of the road for Moore because by signing the release he’d already exonerated Cohen for whatever loss or damage arises from his participation in the TV program.  Of course, if, however, Moore is right, then the agreement will not protect Cohen and his co-defendants Showtime and CBS, who will then have to defend themselves against Moore’s big money claims for defamation and emotional distress in the normal manner in which such cases are litigated in court.   

Now, if the case goes forward to a likely jury trial, how will the jury look at it? Well, this being a defamation case, Moore’s biggest hurdle, as suggested above, will be getting the jury to look past the fact that Cohen is a comedian and thus to think that he is doing anything other than just making a joke. That, plus the fact that Moore is a “public figure” would seem to cut in Cohen’s favor. Yet the determination of that matter by the jury will be affected by a few factors on the minus side for Cohen: for starters, an allegation of fraud consisting in disguising one’s actual identity to a collaborating partner isn’t a good look. Plus, when it comes to the question of “malice”, it won’t help Cohen’s side that Moore had previously warned them not to air the allegedly “defamatory” segment but they did so anyway, meaning that they intended to actually air it and if it turns out that it included false statements of fact, then just because Moore happens to be a public figure won’t help Cohen’s side.   Besides, Moore’s claim of fraud, for instance, will be decided on different principles which are more neutral than the defamation claim, where the law is much more comedian-friendly.

In the end, though, Cohen, as a comedian, still seems to have better-than-even odds of victory in this case, at least on the defamation claim; yet he will come to find that the more a comedian gets away from the traditional boundaries of comedy and wanders into dicey areas like punking folks via questionable tactics, the more that comedian loses the generous protections afforded him by America’s First Amendment. Especially when the comedian is dealing with people of means, who can afford to make their vengeful point, winning the lawsuit itself be damned. (Already, the lawsuit has been on since 2018; has been re-located from Washington DC to New York, where presently a nasty war of words is raging between the parties’ lawyers over alleged “discovery” misconduct, with threats of sanctions on both sides.)  Describing Cohen’s actions against his clients as “malicious” and “despicable”, Moore’s lawyer, the scrappy veteran litigator Larry Klayman vowed: “great harm has been done to my clients, which must be addressed and remedied.” Well, so far, as an adversary, Roy Moore is proving not to be an ordinary plaintiff, the lesson being that Cohen can still get hurt even if he wins the lawsuit.

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