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!

Spy Magazine and Today’s Brutal Political Satire: An Origin Story?

A remarkable feature of today’s political satire is what appears to be its “snark and insult” character. By most accounts, it wasn’t always this rough and mean.

Perhaps the most persuasive theory on how we started down this brutal path is that the now defunct Spy magazine from the 1980s and 1990s put us on it.  Paul O’Donnell, a writer at Mediabistro.com, reportedly declared that “We’re all Spy now.”

The obvious question that arises is whether there is anything to this legacy theory?

For starters, when Spy debuted a generation ago, during the excesses and glamor of the swaggering ‘80s, it made no secret of its ambition: to take the baton to the noggins of the rich, famous and/or powerful and of course to try to take them down a peg or two. Indeed, as if to serve clear notice (to anyone listening) about the magazine’s intended brand of journalism, its maiden edition in 1986 was captioned JERKS.  In it, the magazine proceeded to ridicule individuals that it considered the “Ten Most Embarrassing New Yorkers.” Quite interestingly, this list included Donald Trump, who the magazine would, in due course, famously describe as “a short-fingered vulgarian’. Not one to be outdone in the insult department, Trump in turn dismissed the magazine as “a piece of garbage.”

For sure, any casual observer at the time could have easily noticed the magazine’s signature style and tone in dealing with its famous subjects, with its unabashed snark and insult bent. A piece that ran in its March 1988 edition could perhaps give those unfamiliar with its work a good sense of the magazine’s modus operandi. The said piece dealt with the subject of people who doubled as managers/boyfriends to their clients and it ran under the (appropriately) provocative headline “Behind Every Great Woman is a Drunk Man (With a Wispy Mustache).” The piece was accompanied by photos of three separate couples, with matching captions to boot. The first photo was captioned “Yesteryears’ Cyndi Lauper and husband manager Dave Wolf”; the second photo’s caption was “Tina Turner and Ike, In Between Spectacular Beatings”; and the third caption read “Twiggy and Nigel “Justin de Villenueve” Davies”.

In that same piece, the writer also wondered in a separate passage why a [then] 24-year-old beauty like Jenny McCarthy would be dating her manager Ray Manzella who the writer claimed resembled “a mangled Ted Danson”.  McCarthy herself was not spared the writer’s vicious ribbing and was described as a “breast-augmented and armpit sniffing former Playboy model”

So, anyhow, that’s the sort of stuff Spy was doing back then. Now what are the political satirists doing today? Well, first, it is not hard to notice that the current practice of satire has steadily become a “no-holds-barred take no-prisoners” business that often carries with it a clear point of view reflecting an ideological slant to the debate on social issues. For instance, shows like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (previously Jon Stewart), Last Week Tonight with John Oliver or The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which are arguably the dominant actors on the scene, make no secret of their left-leaning point of view. From the right flank of the ideological field, Greg Gutfeld’s eponymous new show Gutfeld!  (on the Fox network) is joining the party and his stock in this regard is rising steadily. To be sure, these are all news-based shows that hit pretty hard on the events of the day and the people involved in them.

Concerning the legacy question, what can barely escape notice is the obvious parallels that exist between Spy and today’s political satire, not least the shared attitude of critical or even snarky take on their respective subjects.  In fact, anyone who follows contemporary political satire probably won’t have much trouble recognizing the strong presence of Spy’s signature snark and insult in the work of the satirists. And for that matter, this phenomenon seems so infectious that even non-satirists are playing the game, too.

For instance, Trump himself, a favorite target both of then Spy magazine and today’s satirists, deploys this shared tactic of snark and insult in dealing with his opponents both in and outside the political arena, whether he is mocking handicapped people; belittling political opponents based on their physical stature or denigrating female enemies as fat pigs or ugly. Indeed, during the 2016 election, as James Poniewozik of the New York Times rightly observed, he habitually treated political campaigning “like a roast, “

Yet there are those who don’t exactly feel comfortable with the notion that a legacy exists between what Spy did in its day and what today’s satirists are doing: Daniel Radosh, for one.  Having worked as a reporter for Spy then and is now working as a senior writer on The Daily Show, Radosh is someone who can perhaps be described as a rare common link between the two worlds at issue.  As Radosh sees it, what Spy did and what, for instance, The Daily Show does, are different things in the sense that the former is journalism, albeit humorous journalism, whereas the latter is comedy, news-based though it may be. Perhaps a distinction without a difference?

Apparently not in the opinion of Radosh. He explains that what Spy did was genuinely based on the principles of journalism, where professionals would actually dig up facts and do a reporting of the news, albeit with an “attitude of playfulness, rebellion and irresponsibility which was what made it fun.” Thus, at all times they, as journalists, had to be responsible with the facts. On the other hand, he notes that The Daily Show as a news-based comedy show often relies on the facts already dug up and reported by the journalists and tries to make a joke from them. (Radosh, however, acknowledges the long form storytelling and reporting on John Oliver’s news-based comedy show as an exception to this journalism versus comedy dynamic.)

So, given the above, what does one make of the link between Spy and today’s satire?  Well, it’s obvious that Spy’s signature snark-and-insult tactic is practiced on both the left and the right in their work, not only against their targets but also in their ideological feuds with each other. In a perverse way, therefore, Spy can claim credit for starting us down this road in our political satire. Whether or not one chooses to use the term “legacy” to describe this phenomenon may well be a matter of perspective. Yet it is perhaps fair to say, though, that anyone looking to place the viciousness of our current political satire in its proper context might do well to take a look at what Spy magazine did in its day. Well, so there you have it!

***Editor’s Note: At 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. Please keep reading!