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!

THE JAY LENO TRIANGLE: Comedy, Courtroom & Foreign Relations

Funnyman Jay Leno is back in court and we have seen this script before. Just last month, the Sikh religion found itself at the butt of Leno’s jokes and the Sikh faithful did not find the stuff amusing. So, early the next week, Randeep Dhillon, an Indian-American and a Sikh, filed a defamation lawsuit in Los Angeles against both Leno and NBC for allegedly ‘racist’ remarks that defamed the Sikh religion and injured his feelings and those of other Sikhs. Dhillon claimed that Leno’s remark exposed the Sikh religion to “hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy because it falsely portrayed the holiest place in the Sikh religion as a vacation resort owned by a non-Sikh.” Overseas, folks were not amused by the joke either: the Indian foreign ministry strongly condemned the joke as “quite unfortunate and quite objectionable” and vowed to take up the matter with the U.S. State Department.

It all happened during a monologue segment on Leno’s “Tonight Show”, when the talk show host showed photos of the homes of Republican presidential candidates. When it came time to show multimillionaire Mitt Romey’s pricey vacation home in New Hampshire, Leno instead showed a photo of the sprawling and majestic Golden Temple, in Amritsar, India, the most revered temple in the Sikh religion. Though Leno reaped boisterous laughter from his late night audience he did hit a raw nerve and create ripples outside the world of comedy.

So, bingo! …there we go again: another late night guy, another monologue quip, another pissed off person and another lawsuit.

In America, the lawsuit itself has not been well received and has in fact been ridiculed by many, including Fox cable TV’s controversial Bill O’Reilly who in his trademark derisive manner described the lawsuit as “dopey”. One commentator, himself a lawyer, said the filing of the lawsuit was proof positive that there were indeed too many lawyers in America.

So, it turns out that the Americans and the Indians view both the joke and the lawsuit rather differently. But politics and cultural differences aside, does the lawsuit look like something that might have legs in the courtroom? Well, in America at least, it seems like Dhillon’s chances of winning his lawsuit may be quite close to zero.

For starters, suing somebody for defamation in America is a whole different ball of wax from suing that same person anywhere else. Especially a public figure like Leno and especially on a matter so connected to politics as the wealth of political candidates. And throw in the religion factor and the whole thing gets messy pretty fast. Plus, the man Leno is, of all things, a comedian, to boot. In these situations, the First Amendment comes across like an 800 pound gorilla sitting in the courtroom and making tough demands. At its heart, the First Amendment is all about promoting an atmosphere of “uninhibited, robust and wide open debate” about matters of public concern.

Considering that Leno is a comedian, the defamation lawsuit has two big strikes against it in a place like America. First, what Leno did in his monologue was an attempt to “parody” the economic background of candidates running for political office. For whatever it is worth, such a “satirical” treatment of current events usually gets a ton of protection from the First Amendment.

Also, Leno being a comedian, his remarks during his monologue were not understood as statements of fact but mere jokes by a comedian trying to get a laugh. Since in a defamation case the person filing the lawsuit is claiming that his reputation in the community has been damaged by the false statement made by the person he is suing, the “context” of the statement itself becomes quite important. And this is where it gets quite difficult for someone like Dhillon. Speaking of “context”, the monologue segment of “The Tonight Show” is clearly understood by most everyone in America as an occasion for light hearted jokes designed merely to make people laugh and no more.

This means that even those audience members at Leno’s show who had never seen or heard of the Golden Temple would have simply taken it that Leno was just making a joke about Romney’s wealth. Such an image, by itself and in association with Romney, would not have caused those audience members to hold the Sikh religion up for “hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy.” Plus, even setting aside the “context” of the statement for the moment, it is also fair to say that neither Dhillon himself nor any other person (whether they are Sikhs or otherwise) who truly knows the Golden Temple could have really thought that the place shown in the photo on Leno’s show was in fact Romney’s home.

Speaking of what claims Dhillon could make against Leno, perhaps in other circumstances, he might be able to sue for a tort called Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress on the claim that the joke was “extremely outrageous” and thereby “intolerable in a civilized society.” Yet, in a place like America where comedy is a huge part of the pop culture, Dhillon’s big problem is that he’d have to actually demonstrate that the joke was both extremely outrageous and utterly intolerable in a society like America. Fat chance! And there’s always the First Amendment, still sitting in the courtroom.

Of the two strikes that are set against this case, the First Amendment hurdle is the bigger one. And as it happens, not even Romney himself could win this kind of lawsuit in an American court. Fact is, the protection for “satire” under the First Amendment is so broad that even pretty hurtful, unnecessary and outrageous remarks are protected. It is interesting that the Indian foreign ministry, in condemning Leno’s remarks, also added that “freedom does not mean hurting the sentiments of others.” Well, may be so, but in the American experience, it happens, apparently.

Yet, none of this stuff is really new to Americans. For example, thanks to the First Amendment, attacks on other people’s religions by both comedians and other folks are not punished by the law. If there is any surprise in this whole situation, it perhaps ought to be that Dhillon, an American himself, could indeed have expected to win this kind of lawsuit. This being America, the Catholic Church, for instance, or perhaps the Mormon religion for that matter, would not have thought it worth their time to file a defamation lawsuit against Leno if the image he had used on his show for Romney’s home would have been instead a Catholic Cathedral or some other iconic Mormon building.

Though such a depiction would obviously piss off those religious organizations and definitely rub them the wrong way, lawsuits in situations like that just don’t work out here in America, regardless of whether or not they should. One remarkable example comes to mind here. Not long ago, in the wake of the child sex abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church, comedian Louis CK put out a You Tube clip in which he accused the entire Catholic Church of existing “solely for the purposes of boy rape.” Ouch! Well, nobody thought to sue him. Say hello to the First Amendment in America!

As already noted, the case has pretty long odds of success and will most likely fail when push finally comes to shove in the courtroom. But before the courts weigh in, the foreign policy people have already given their short answer to the question in this case. In typical America-speak, the State Department has let it be known in an official statement that what Leno did was protected by the First Amendment. (Of course, the State Department also acknowledged the tensions that the joke has caused to the friendly relations between the U.S. and India.) It is only a matter of time before the courts tell Dhillon the same thing about the First Amendment.

In the end, this one seems like a total no-brainer. The way it is, diplomacy and foreign relations have their place but Leno is just a comedian trying to make people laugh on his show. And it is a safe bet that none of this entire hoopla will be slowing him down any time soon: If the stuff is funny, the funnyman will take his shot, diplomatic sensibilities and foreign relations notwithstanding. That’s just the way it is with comedy and, as they often like to say, “It’s nothing personal!”