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!

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!