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 Brave New World of Muckraking Comedy

By Carl Unegbu and Ron Simon

These crazy times have demanded a new brand of comedy. With the news more insane than any joke a comedian can devise, this new comedy has partnered with journalism. 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. This is comedy with a Pulitzer purpose, as the New York Times recently noticed. Funny is no longer funny, as Sid Caesar would say. Funny now investigates and persuades, with the hopes of knowing laughter too.

Comedy interacts with Journalism. Murrow meets Mirth. It has been developing over twenty years, but has reached its apex with Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. We like to call this new humor, muckraking comedy. Back at the turn of the twentieth century citizens were prompted to act because of so-called muckraking reporters, who scoured the filth to discover the truth for its readers. Our leading comedians now get dirty with the transgressions of politics and culture to bring some type of cleansing illumination to its audience. Laughter is the first step of the way to action and enlightenment. You might remember Upton Sinclair from school; his novels prompted legislation in Congress. Now you can see an electronic version of The Jungle nightly with such comedy muckrakers Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert.

Political Jokes Then and Now

Yes, there have political jokesters like Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. But they just wanted to release tension and basically affirm the status quo. Take this classic joke by Hope in the sixties: “President Kennedy is just winding up a nonpolitical tour of the 11 states he lost in the last election. He wanted to see how they’re getting along without federal aid.” Kennedy could be any politician. Funny to all sides, but ultimately harmless.

Oliver wants more. He posits: “Is anything about Trump funny anymore? I don’t know. Somehow the world’s most objectively laughable human has become a comedy graveyard where laughter goes to die.” Oliver recognizes that good old-fashioned inclusive humor is now hopelessly dead. The comic arrows must now be laced with some sort of poison. The world and its leaders are muck and your mission after the laughter is to change it.

Creating Muckraking Comedy

Well, this new muckraking comedy has transformed the process of creating jokes. If you are going to attack, you have to ensure that your jokes are as accurate and factual as anything in the New York Times. Comedy staffs now feature journalists and fact-checkers, reviewing every word to affirm it is true and factual, as well as funny. Lawyers also assiduously review punch lines to ascertain any possibility of defamation. The danger of muckraking comedy is that your targets will always be out to get you. Not to outwit you, just sue you.

Most people credit Jon Stewart as the trailblazer of this phenomenon in comedy thanks to his revolutionizing Comedy Central’ s The Daily Show. However, this new genre seems to have attained maturity at the hands of John Oliver in the weekly production of his own show HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Taking advantage of the weekly intervals between his shows and the absence of in-studio guests, Oliver, an alum of Daily Show and a protégé of Jon Stewart, is able to do a deep dive into an individual issue each week. Investigative reporting with savage laughs.

Oliver Takes on the Coal Industry

In this award-winning report on the coal industry, Oliver follows the journalistic principles of the muckrakers of old. He begins generally with the Trump Administration’s relationship with the coal industry. He then specially zeroes in on the safety practices of Murray Energy and the fatal collapse of the company’s mine in Utah in 2007. The piece was a smart indictment of the coal industry, worthy of Upton Sinclair, but with a large talking squirrel. His satire led to a defamation lawsuit by the company’s boss Robert Murray, which was ultimately dismissed by the court. Think how much research and comedy writing went into this piece, seamlessly intermingled.

We plan to explore ramifications of this radical muckraking comedy in future blogs. But first we want to understand the roots of the phenomenon. We had a conversation with one of its unsung heroes, Daniel Radosh. Radosh was a journalist for such publications as Spy before he became a writer for the Daily Show hosted by Jon Stewart and then Trevor Noah. Here he explains how journalism is injected into the satire, as well as the comedic differences between Stewart and Noah.

Now journalists play a very crucial role, something that Radosh considers a big legacy of Jon Stewart’s writing staff. As he puts it, “The Daily Show’s DNA” is becoming widely adopted as research and fact checking become commonplace in satirical writers’ rooms, the definition of muckraking comedy.

*This article was originally published in Medium, under Paley Matters. The co-author Ron Simon is curator of television and radio at The Paley Center for Media. Simon has been an associate adjunct professor at Columbia University and New York University, as well as a former chair of the Peabody Awards jury.

*For more interesting information about humor at large, visit Feedspot for the Top 100 Humor Blogs on the web. (https://blog.feedspot.com/humor_blogs/)

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. 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!