An academic’s doomed attempt to explain why there are no good right-wing comedians.
A Conservative Walks Into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor
by Alison Dagnes
Palgrave Macmillan, 255 pp.
Alison Dagnes, a political scientist at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, has a curious affliction: she thinks the comedian Dennis Miller is really, really funny. She wanted so badly to meet him and discuss his craft that she contrived to write an entire book on the subject of comedy and politics essentially as a professional excuse to fulfill this desire. Dagnes was working as a production assistant at C-SPAN in 1991 when she discovered Miller, who was then at the apex of his career, fresh off a successful run on Saturday Night Live and famous for his knowing, referential brand of humor. As she moved on to academe and he to HBO, Dagnes kept up what she calls her “steadfast devotion.”
Miller styles his act as a stream-of-consciousness rant that is heavy on cultural allusions and was, back then, laced with an acid scorn toward the unenlightened — especially hicks, rednecks, culture warriors, and other right-wingers. Here’s the flavor of Miller’s comedy circa late 2000:
And on Monday, movers went to the governor’s mansion in Austin, Texas, to transfer Bush’s belongings to Washington. The move itself took very little time once workers discovered that Bush had nothing upstairs. Now, I don’t want to get off on a rant here, but as a comedian, with George W. Bush coming into office, I feel like the owner of a hardware store before a hurricane. I hate to see it coming, but I have to admit it’s good for business.
Then something odd happened. The attacks of September 11, 2001, turned Miller into a fawning admirer of the same president he’d once held in contempt. The change was striking not only because Miller was supporting a Republican, but because he lost his sense of irony and adopted the full complement of Fox News- Republican vices: the chest-thumping America-first bravado, the angry paranoia, the presumption of treasonous bad faith in anyone who didn’t share his views. This was especially jarring because the latter included most of Miller’s fans, who didn’t know what had happened to the guy. Dagnes, confused like the rest, watched her friends turn on Miller, and then watched the long arc of his career decline, from a failed stint hosting Monday Night Football, to a short-lived show on the financial network CNBC, and finally to his current role as comedian in residence at Fox News. Dagnes, who describes herself as “fairly liberal,” is touchingly devoted to her hero but also somewhat blinded by her fandom, because she attributes Miller’s shrinking audience to his reversal in politics. In A Conservative Walks Into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor, she sets out to discover why conservative satirists number so few and whether this is something that we, as a country, ought to be concerned about.
Dagnes is a pleasant guide and companion, whose accessible (sometimes chirpy) prose helps the lay reader to grasp what I suspect is a punishingly dry canon of scholarship on political humor. Most of us, for example, would prefer her synopsis of the Norwegian psychologist Sven Svebak’s attempt to quantify and measure the sense of humor in 54,000 Swedes by administering his “Sense of Humor Questionnaire (SHQ)” than to read the unabridged Sven for ourselves. (Trust me, I Googled it.) Another frustrating aspect of the scholarship is that it seems awfully haphazard and contradictory. One set of scholars studying The Daily Show accused Jon Stewart of “unbridled political cynicism” and cultivating distrust in his impressionable viewers. But two other sets of scholars concluded that satirical comedy increased viewers’ political awareness.
Do these hyperaware cynics even vote? And do they vote differently because of Stewart and his ilk? “The answers,” reports Dagnes, “are wildly divergent.” Some scholars have concluded that cynicism discourages participation, others that satire fosters enlightened engagement. One study determined that viewers of late-night comedy shows are more inclined to cross party lines (seeing politicians from the opposing party yukking it up with Letterman presumably casts them in a more favorable light). But Dagnes’s own earlier research concluded that such personalization “encouraged superficiality,” thus trivializing the discourse. Whole shelves groan with academic treatises on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report — stuffed with typologies, program analyses, monologue exegeses — but they don’t seem to have proven much or illuminated anything particularly interesting about the audience.
In fact, much of the scholarship feels like it was primarily motivated by the authors’ desire to study something cool, and then retrofitted with exaggerated significance to justify the endeavor. Take the conclusion of two academics who studied Will Ferrell’s Saturday Night Live presidential debate skits in 2000: “Voters seeking to understand the substance of ideas in the debate may have found the parodies of the debate to be a useful organizing tool for their inherent complexities.” Only a Will Ferrell character would rely on a Will Ferrell debate skit to parse the complexities of modern presidential politics. An academic herself, Dagnes doesn’t avoid some of these pitfalls. As she explains in her introduction, she examined political humor to gauge the bias, studying the content of satirical shows, columns, and drawings.
I examined the guest lists of programs and explored other data on the target of political jokes, and surveyed the long and impressive history of American political satire from its founding until today. I analyzed the satirists, their skill sets, political ideology, liberalism, conservatism, and the goals of the entertainment industry.
In other words, she is attempting, like Sven Svebak, to quantify and measure something that doesn’t lend itself to quantification and measurement. Humor is subjective; an academic’s tool kit—scrutinizing joke targets, sniffing out “bias” in guest lists — doesn’t yield much insight about why there aren’t more conservatives on late-night television. Her dutiful slog through the litany of gripes from right-wing commentators and media organizations is likewise unilluminating (they blame nefarious Hollywood liberals).
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