On Political Books

September/October 2012 Why Aren’t Conservatives Funny?

An academic’s doomed attempt to explain why there are no good right-wing comedians.

By Joshua Green

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).

Joshua Green , a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek and a columnist for the Boston Globe.

Comments

  • GraniteSentry.com on August 28, 2012 10:40 PM:

    Liberalism excels at satire because both depend on a glib, flippant take on reality that is more concerned with how things look than how they really are. Liberals are like the popular kids in high school, always riotously amused by their own antics and failing to notice that it's all fairly stupid.

    On the other hand, at least one conservative manages to be funny, often by lampooning liberals with an acuity and wit that puts folks like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to shame. One word and two initials: P.J. O'Rourke.

  • gpc31 on August 28, 2012 11:09 PM:

    Two quick takes:
    1) The entertainment industry is a closed shop.
    2) Perhaps the author is in a Pauline Kael-like bubble? There are very funny conservative satirists such as Iowahawk, and of course PJ O'Rourke.

  • Johnssaga on August 28, 2012 11:53 PM:

    The great Malcolm Muggeridge noted that all true satirists are conservative. They have to be.

  • Victor on August 29, 2012 12:16 AM:

    Johnssaga

    Most English conservatives of the Muggeridge era would have had nothing in common with the freemarket extremists, religious fundamentalists and anti-intellectual populists who call themselves conservative in the present day US. On the other hand, they'd have been very fair game for Muggeridgian satire.

  • Juvenal on August 29, 2012 2:57 AM:

    Why was Malcolm Muggeridge "great"? I found him a very confused credulous self-publicist.

  • Robert Goin on August 29, 2012 5:05 AM:

    Conservatives aren't funny to liberals because liberals don't like being made fun of. And vice versa. It's not rocket science Joshua, why make it so complicated?

  • boba on August 29, 2012 10:26 AM:

    From the comments it appears that conservatives not only fail at satire. Self-awareness is also among their weaknesses, but most knew that already. Humor is an aesthetic and there is no universal standard.

  • catopublius on August 29, 2012 10:47 AM:

    Gosh, this essay was bad.

    Like watching a blind man play lawn darts. All over the place, peppered with frustration and scorn, and ultimately futile.

    I'm all for something a bit off the beaten path - but this author should never have touched a keyboard over this.

    Never going to make it to the New York Times like this Josh.

  • Luke Lea on August 29, 2012 11:47 AM:

    The proof is in the pudding:

    http://tinyurl.com/d8erhhy

  • Luke Lea on August 29, 2012 11:49 AM:

    The proof is in the pudding.

    http://tinyurl.com/d8erhhy

  • SteveNYC on August 29, 2012 12:53 PM:

    There's something in the liberal psyche that makes many of them willing to sacrifice any chance at a normal, stable career and toil away at pursuits like comedy, where the odds of making it are slim, but the reward for doing so can be considerable. Frankly, I can't imagine anything more horrifying to a 22-year-old Republican than the thought of being a thirty-something failed entertainer/artist cum loser who works as a waiter.

  • tertaine on August 29, 2012 2:19 PM:

    Iowahawk can be pretty funny. Perhaps we don't see much conservative satire because the mainstream media is mostly liberal.

  • jasperjava on August 29, 2012 3:22 PM:

    Conservatives are just not funny. They're bitter, repressed, paranoid, hateful, ignorant, xenophobic, homophobic, and suspicious of anybody who isn't like themselves.

    Part of the craft of comedy is the ability to be likable and get the audience on your side, so you can create the common complicity of laughing at others. Because conservatives are essentially misanthropes, that's very difficult for them to do.

    There's something very unfunny about being a hateful extremist. And that's what the conservative movement has become.

  • Led on August 29, 2012 3:50 PM:

    Uh, Rob Long? PJ O'Rourke? They don't do standup but they sure as hell write funny stuff, including satire. The whole premise is weird here. Most people in entertainment are liberal, so it's misguided to focus on comedians in particular.

  • bughunter on August 29, 2012 4:08 PM:

    How about looking at the kinds of jokes Dennis Miller tells vs. John Stewart's.

    Almost all conservative humor that I've seen on radio and TV -- and especially the unfunny stuff (which is almost all of it) -- consists of the same two schticks over and over again, either a) allusions to (or outright repetition of) bigoted stereotypes of [hippies|liberals|blacks|latinos|gays|muslims|scary others], or b) echoing right wing fallacies and intellectual dishonesty. And to many conservatives, these *are* funny --at least they seem to elicit reflexive laughter-- because the audience knows they're supposed to laugh. And whether the audience thinks it's funny or not, these conservative "humorists" make them feel better because these kinds of jokes reinforce the conservative listeners' sense of superiority and 'rightness,' strengthen their social bonds to a group defined by a rigorously uniform set of collective opinions, and helps lessen the stress of the cognitive dissonance that permeates their lives.

    Non-right-wing humorists -- those widely acknowledged as funny, including everyone from Tim Allen to Jay Leno to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert -- create their jokes by pointing out the inherent absurdity in everyday situations and public events. Stewart, especially, has a talent for this and that's why his show is so successful. It's not about whether the example of absurd behavior or speech comes from a liberal or conservative public figure, it's about the absurdity itself. You don't see ad hominem or stereotypes used as the basis for a joke on The Daily Show. You see Stewart or one of his correspondents pointing out or acting out an example of absurdity, usually in allusion to current events.

    And absurdity makes most people laugh, regardless of political orientation. That kind of humor makes them feel better because it makes their own lives feel less absurd and more normal. If you look at any attempt to define humor, a reference to the absurd is right at the top of the page. Absurdity is funny. Even Miller's pre-9/11 funny material wasn't allusions to Dubya's intelligence - it was his ability to point out irony and absurdity, and his ultra-snarky delivery.

    Dennis Miller stopped being funny because he stopped telling jokes that most people find funny... because they are not jokes, just more right wing echo chamber reverb dressed up in grease paint and floppy shoes.

  • Stephen on August 29, 2012 4:12 PM:

    Mark Steyn, William F. Buckley, Jr.

  • rgh on August 29, 2012 4:40 PM:

    You could re-title this more accurately as "WHy don't I like the people I don't like".

    Its an odd moment in the country because I can think of no group more prone to church lady moralizing than contemporary liberals. Who is shutting down satirical newspapers and punishing students on college campuses across the country for fear of "hurting someones feelings"? Little clue, it sure is hell isn't the conservatives.

    Besides, much of what passes for humor isn't humor at all. Its ridicule. Ridicule is the "in crowd" going after the "outs"; the bully going after the kid who won't fight back. And the only people who find it funny are other members of the in-crowd.

    All I know is I'm way too old to worry about who is sitting at what table during lunch.

  • Chris on August 29, 2012 5:03 PM:

    Ever hear of a guy named Jonathan Swift? Aristophanes

  • Anonymous on August 29, 2012 5:18 PM:

    PJ O'Rourke is a libertarian who caucuses GOP, not a conservative. You don't get to claim him unless you're willing to claim his drugs policy.

  • Parliament of Who on August 29, 2012 5:46 PM:

    Wherever you put PJ O'Rourke on the right of the spectrum, the book's and the article's failure to address him in this regard is fatal.

    But the answer to the central question of "Why so few funny conservatives?" is staggeringly simple:

    Ever since the days of the court jester, SATIRE HAS ALWAYS BEEN ABOUT BREAKING TABOOS. This is by its very nature anathema to conservatism. Really, this isn't a complicated question at all.

    O'Rourke succeeds because he brilliantly attacks leftist taboos about the effectiveness of humanitarianism and social planning.

    Most of the political right fails miserably at satire because, mostly their edgy-but-acceptable concept of breaking taboos is mainly about being able to say n****r and f****t again.

    Super simple stuff.

  • Santiago MacQuarrie on August 29, 2012 6:50 PM:

    Evelyn Waugh was often amusing, especially when he wrote about Americans. He was also conservative by any standards, disliking both the consequences of democratic capitalism and of attempts to replace it with some socialist or, as you would say, "liberal" order.

  • Santiago MacQuarrie on August 29, 2012 6:52 PM:

    Evelyn Waugh was often amusing, especially when he wrote about Americans. He was also conservative by any standards, disliking both the consequences of democratic capitalism and of attempts to replace it with some socialist or, as you would say, "liberal" order.

  • Mike Bird on August 29, 2012 7:00 PM:

    A while back I heard some left-wing writer state, "All satire comes from the left" and I sat down and thought about famous satirists:

    Aristophanes (very right-wing) mocked the arrogant pretensions of the demagogues of the day and rightly saw that their hubris would destroy Athens

    Horace was no leftie, though he was careful whom he made fun of

    Thomas More's Utopia is a satire on people who believe in perfect social systems

    Jonathan Swift skewered the whigs of his day and doubted believers in progress

    Evelyn Waugh was a devout Catholic who could not abide trendy left-wingers.

    George Orwell, nominally of the left, is hated by the hard-left for nailing their pretensions and hypocrisy, revealing the brutishness of real socialist societies.

  • Ken Emmond on August 29, 2012 8:40 PM:

    Maybe it's just that the extremes don't have a sense of humor and it's a sign that American conservatism is hitting an extreme. Case in point: find me a funny Marxist.

  • kemmond on August 29, 2012 8:45 PM:

    Maybe it's just the extremes that lose their sense of humor, and this is just a sign that American conservatives are at the extreme. Case in point: find me a funny Marxist.

  • Jack on August 29, 2012 8:53 PM:

    The author loses all credibility when he says that " there is more and better political journalism than ever before." Just whom is he referring to? When was the last time anyone has seen any politician asked a rough question and then pressed for an actual answer instead of a chance to recite a talking point? The only ones doing real political journalism are being prosecuted or threatened with prosecution. The NYT and the WAPO " cooperate " regularly with the government. And why are no journalistic voices raised in outrage over "Obama's secret kill list, the persecution of Bradley Manning, expanded government eavesdropping of all kinds, both legal and illegal, and the list goes on and on? All the political journalists today want is access to some high government official so they can quote some " high government official who wishes to remain anonymous" instead of getting off their butts and actually going out and finding the truth to tell us. Oh, and they also desperately want to be invited to the press club dinners and the right parties. And aren't we all getting sick of journalists interviewing other journalists so they can each tell each other what a wonderful job they are doing? When was the last time time a journalist responded to a politician's statement by pointing out that it was a bald-faced lie, as it so often is?

  • Greg on August 29, 2012 8:53 PM:

    There are and have been plenty of funny conservatives, but the current dominant strain of media conservatism (I mean the Fox flavored brand of conservatism) lacks a certain ability to be self-effacing which is essential to any sort of comedy that wants to go deeper than simply playing to the seats. I think, too, that modern media conservatism is so narrowly defined and obsessed with correct identity that it shuts out humorists and comedians that could only be described as conservative.

    Case in point: Nick DePaolo, one of the most respected American stand-ups working today. But he is dark, complex and not really given to propriety. He also doesn't wave his ideological allegiances around like flag or use them to get into the good graces of his audience. But it's clear he's conservative. He's also very funny. I'm not conservative, but I love Nick DePaolo. Meanwhile, I don't know what Jay Leno's political persuasion is, but I tend to think of him as a conservative comic. He treads very carefully along a very narrow path that flatters conventional sensibilities and (albeit gently) makes fun of folks outside the norm.

    Of course, the obvious thing is that laughing at authority and the symbols of authority simply isn't a conservative trait. Even many critiques offered against Obama isn't attacking the institution: they are attacking the man as unfit for the institution. That's where David Zucker's hideously crappy American Carol fell apart. Having George Washington and George Patton take on the role of the hip and with-it John Belushi to the faux Michael Moore's noob jackass is just tonally false.

    All that said, I have laughed with specific conservatives plenty.

    Buckley, P.J. O'Rourke, Celine, Winston Churchill, Bob Tyrrell, Taki when he's not being racist, Derbyshire when he's not be racist, Florence King (though as a lesbian there are some folks on both left and right who would argue this prevents her from being a true conservative), Larry Miller, Adam Carrolla (libertarian), Drew Carey (libertarian), Orson Bean... all funny people.

  • Ford on August 29, 2012 11:13 PM:

    I think K Emmond is right that extremists of either pursuasion aren't funny. Comedy must be radical enough to mock powerful people and social conventions, but this can only come from an implicit moral baseline.

    PJ O'Rourke hasn't been funny for 20 years, since he stopped being an equal-opportunity mocker and started banging the drum for the GOP.

  • Ford on August 29, 2012 11:42 PM:

    I think K Emmond is right that extremists of either pursuasion aren't funny. Comedy must be radical enough to mock powerful people and social conventions, but this can only come from an implicit moderate moral baseline.

    PJ O'Rourke hasn't been funny for 20 years, since he stopped being an equal-opportunity mocker and started banging the drum for the GOP.

  • buddy66 on August 30, 2012 12:41 AM:

    Comparing the ideal with the actual is called irony and is going to piss off some people while making some others laugh. It depends on whose ox is being gored. If yours, it's funny; if mine, it's outrageous.

  • Girl on August 30, 2012 1:25 PM:

    I am 27, female, Harvard graduate (Classics major), law student (emphasis on personal injury and privacy), not registered in any political party, but I live with an half-deaf father who adores any cable TV pundit with a large Irish noggin, most prominently, Bill O'Reilly and Chris Matthews.

    I find Denis Miller funny. There. I said it. I do not find him as funny as Stephen Colbert, or Howie Car (Boston Radio Host), but I laugh at his jokes. I'd rather listen to him than Lewis Black any day.

    Perhaps the problem here is that humor is relative to the audience.

  • steeploan on August 30, 2012 11:19 PM:

    It's always interesting here in Australia to read comments from the US, as our political scene is turning out very much like yours with ad hominem attacks in parliament and shock jocks in the mainstream media. However, in line with the old gag about Australia being upside down, our conservative politicians are members of the Liberal Party. (They and their followers generally don't get satire either.)

  • Ochle on August 31, 2012 10:35 PM:

    I'm a conservative and one of the things I frequently bemoan about the conservative press (Weekly Standard, Natl Review) is that so much of it is satire and not enough hard nosed,ideologically assured news writing like you get in the NYTimes. The Daily show and Colbert find a broad audience because they are unremittingly cynical about power and authority, and even middle American Republicans have come to feel that way. The media Left has swagger and cynicism, the media Right insecurity and spite. What is so winsome about Jon Stewart is that he firmly believes he has an unimpeachable stick-up-for-the-little-guy ethic that puts him and his his listeners above the fray. A conservative view of social justice is more complex and so doesn't lend itself to moral satire in the mixed public square. But readers of While We're At It in First Things have enough of a coherent theology and politics that it can sustain a truly funny, noncynical,but bitingly critical humor.

  • Jack in Phoenix on September 01, 2012 11:15 PM:

    Dennis Miller is not funny?

    Maybe this is a documentable case where a sense of humor has been dissolved by Leftist political dogma. Maybe researchers can probe Joshua Green for its absence.

    Dennis Miller has the fastest wit in the West. Comic geniuses in my lifetime? Rodney, of course. Jonathan Winters (at the top of the stack), Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin, Belushi-Ayckroyd (together.)

    I include Dennis Miller because of the depth and breadth of his wit. He is so well-read and so quick on the draw that he astounds me.

    You folks who want to dismiss him just because he is a conservative who does Fox News and appears onstage with O'Reilly need to see if you still have your funny bone. Really.

  • pbasch on September 02, 2012 3:56 AM:

    "Funny" is pretty subjective. Jon Stewart is self-mocking, which makes it OK for me laugh when he mocks others. It's very hard for conservatives to mock themselves, because it calls into question their absolute rightness. A great example of self-mocking lefty satire is Portlandia... viciously self-mocking, actually. There can be no right-wing version of that. The closest is "how do you know you're a redneck" style of good-ol-boy humor; but that's actually self-congratulating, too: you're a redneck because you're *above* sophistication, too *good* for citified manners. P.J. O'Rourke allows himself some self-mocking, but he's not really all that funny. Rob Long is very funny, but segregates his politics from his humor, which is pretty standard-issue sitcom stuff.

  • Joel on September 02, 2012 9:44 PM:

    Here is a joke:

    A chicken walks into a bar.
    The bartender says "We don't serve poultry!"
    The chicken says "That's okay, I just want a drink."

    So, you set up one point of view for the "story" -- chickens walk into bars, etc. The listener adopts that point of view, and suspends their disbelief, often without noticing. Then, the joke surpises the listener by reverting back to reality.

    Democrats love multiple points of view; they celebrate that. So jokes fit right in with their entire worldview.

    Generally, these days, Republicans celebrate homogeneity. They assert there can only be one, right, true point of view -- their own. Everyone thinking that reality is something otherwise is foolish, and deserving of ridicule.

    So, pointing out the multiplicity of points of view of life, politics, whatever, is disconcerting to many conservatives, in itself.

    Even merely pointing out that different conservatives have a different perspective is a threat to their entire worldview. Which is a big deal. Threatening others' worldviews is the premise upon which wars are fought.

    So humor, for the GOP, is a threat to their entire existence. So no, unless it's based in merciless ridicule of others' points of view, humor has no place among today's conservatives.

    It doesn't have to be that way, and hasn't for much of our history. But pushing that agenda these days makes some people a lot of money. And that's where we are.

  • Ellis Weiner on September 03, 2012 10:55 PM:

    I like what Joel just said, but here's my take: Conservatives today are not conservative. They're Republicans, who cheered for 8 years of anti-conservative baloney under Geo. W. Bush. What's left in the GOP now are idiots, religious fundamentalists, authoritarians, and I'm-alright-Jack wise guys.

    In any case, their "humor" begins and ends (as the writer of this piece says) with ideology. To hacks like Gregg Gutfield, "liberals" is a punch line. All legitimate lunges at being funny are subsumed to mocking straw-man "liberals" and reinforcing and riffing on stereotypes. Their audiences "laugh" because they've been signalled to laugh, to reinforce their preconceptions.

    But then, those audiences are predisposed to worshipping and agreeing with their socio-economic superiors from the start, so go be surprised.

    Whereas everything liberal comedians say are based on the specific words and actions of specific Republican people. And why not? Actual Republicans are an endless source of idiocy, hypocrisy, and lies. They make it easy for Stewart, Colbert, etc., to do their job.

    Alas.

  • Kaleberg on September 03, 2012 11:28 PM:

    I think Fowler nailed it back in 1927. In his Modern English Usage he presents a taxonomy of rhetorical approaches: wit, humor, sarcasm, satire and the like. For satire he said the motive was amendment, the province morals and ideas, the method accentuation and the audience the self satisfied. That's classic liberalism. Humor, in contrast, has a goal of discovery, a province of human nature, a method of observation and an audience of the sympathetic. That can work for liberals or conservatives, so while not everyone can agree which president most resembles a chimp, for example, there are people, and possibly chimpanzees, who may find the comparison funny depending on their politics.

  • CZ Light on September 04, 2012 5:59 PM:

    This is what I can share: I have a friend I've known for 40 years. We used to travel and go to comedy clubs and he is the person that got me to watch "The Simpsons" and "Married with Children". Then he became a devoted GOPer. Not an actual conservative, he's never had a job or a wife or a child, but he says he wanted to overturn the seatbelt law as an overreach of government power and that's what he says the GOP offers. So, a decade later, not only will he not watch the "Simpsons", he won't do anything funny anymore. He's dour and angry, so much so that he's had a heart attack at 56. A few days ago I picked him up at the airport on his return from Tampa. He attempted to joke about how the woman that was found raped and burned (she died after 2 days) at least wasn't going to want an abortion!!!! How horribly sad it that?

  • anarchitek on September 04, 2012 7:55 PM:

    I hadn't thought about Dennis Miller in quite a long time, because the last I heard of him, he wasn't that interesting! I haven't missed him, since he was so unfunny that last time, so I thought to myself 'he needs to go away,' and I assumed he did.

  • adsfa on September 06, 2012 1:25 PM:

    Mark Steyn, P.J. O’Rourke, WFB, Florence King, John Derbyshire, Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, H.L. Mencken, Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift…what were we talking about again? Oh yes, Jon Stewart is liberal.

  • Matt Patton on September 07, 2012 2:37 AM:

    The only funny conservative I can think of off the top of my head is Jay Ward -- mind you, he got a lot of help from a funny liberal, namely Bill Scott . . .

  • Ellis Weiner on September 08, 2012 9:21 AM:

    "Conservatives" aren't funny today because there are no actual conservatives in American public life. There are only Republicans. Every single tenet of conservatism was violated by the George W. Bush administration as "conservatives" cheered, from fiscal responsibility to the disapproval of "nation building" to respect for science, respect for the separation of church and state, resp-- need one go on?

    Republicans, in dreary contrast, are simply apparatchiks of their party. As such, their comedy is merely propaganda, their punch lines straw-man stereotypes, and their tv shows atrocious. If Alison Dagnes uses the term "conserative" with a straight face in her book, she's guilty of academic malpractice.

    As for Dennis Miller, he's an authentically witty person. But he's also--and always has been--a dreadful opportunist. He decided after 9-11 that the kingdom of the blind on the right could provide a fine living for a comedian with one eye. In so doing he outsmarted himself, and is now reduced to delivering the same kind of pre-fab, Party-approved punch lines that either begin or end with the word "liberals." Sure, he's better than Greg Gutfield, but who isn't?

  • Greg Shenaut on September 09, 2012 11:21 AM:

    First, I am in favor of attempts to understand every part of the human experience, including humor. Why should something so important not be studied?

    Second, my take on why conservatives have difficulty being funny is different from the author's. In fact, conservatives are hilarious. The problem is, conservative comedians want to be the straight man, when in fact, they are the funny guy. It spoils the whole dynamic of the jokes.

  • Jesse Fell on September 11, 2012 7:36 AM:

    Humor requires detachment and playfulness -- thus, once it gets going, you can't be sure where it's going to take you. This is more of a risk than most conservatives are willing to take with their thoughts, and why their attempts at humor seem controlled, sledge-hammer heavy, and dull. Spontaneity is dangerous.

    Conservatives seldom indulge in self-parody -- another thing they don't dare risk. It is hard to imagine there being a conservative Phil Oakes, singing "Love me, I'm a conservative."

    Satire is a somewhat different thing. It requires a stable point of view and is more controlled than humor. It takes deliberate aim with the intent to kill. Our conservatives ought to be good at it -- still, simple hatred, the basic fuel of satire, becomes dull without fancy and playfulness. Where is the conservative Tom Lehrer?

  • beejeez on September 11, 2012 8:33 AM:

    I think the reason we don't find conservatives funny is the same reason we don't find old lefty comics like Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory funny: the ideology always has to trump the joke. The first conservative comic who learns to salt his act with just enough self-deprecation to let his material breathe is going to make a killing and may actually be sort of influential.

  • Snarki, child of Loki on September 11, 2012 8:58 AM:

    "Why Aren’t Conservatives Funny?"

    But they are!

    Oh, wait. Did you mean "ha ha" funny?

    Never mind.

  • estamm on September 11, 2012 11:01 AM:

    An interesting topic, which invites introspection and thought. To me, a political comedian must be able to poke fun at themselves and their ideology, and must be brutally honest and factual. Let's look at one event: Dick Cheney shooting the guy in the face. Jon Stewart had an absolute FIELD day with this. Look, Cheney shot a guy in the face and the guy who got shot apologized to CHENEY. Comic GOLD. It clearly showed Cheney's personality and how his power warped his sense of fair play and honesty. That is a PERFECT topic for comedy and satire. I'll bet $5 that Dennis Miller never ever poked fun at that. Why? Because wingers are completely unable to poke fun at themselves or show ANY faults with anyone on their 'side'. Biden? Geez, Stewart pokes fun at him every chance he gets (which is, sadly, quite often). I would note also that right-wing humor tends to be much more cruel, in addition to being dishonest. Empathetic people (who tend to be liberal) don't like it when people who don't have power are mocked and laughed at. It seems like wingers like to mock people on welfare or other poor people. These people HAVE NO POWER. Rush 'Take that bone out of your nose' Limbaugh may think that he is a laugh riot, but when you are calling a young woman a 'slut', that 'joke' just falls flat.

  • Col Bat Guano on September 11, 2012 1:48 PM:

    Boy, I sure hope P.J. O'Rouke never dies or there would be no one living for conservatives to site.

  • TR on September 11, 2012 2:13 PM:

    Liberalism excels at satire because both depend on a glib, flippant take on reality that is more concerned with how things look than how they really are.

    "Drill, baby, drill!"

    "You're either with us, or with the terrorists."

    "Reagan proved deficits don't matter."

    Yeah, those liberals sure are flippant and unconcerned with reality.

  • JDC on September 11, 2012 2:15 PM:

    There's plenty of hilarious conservative humor. Racist jokes, for example. You just can't get a TV special with them anymore.

  • BuffOrpington on September 11, 2012 2:37 PM:

    One big diffference is that liberal comedians are, first and foremost, comedians. Some of the best bits coming from the likes of Stewart, Colbert and the cast of SNL have been their skewerings of liberal politicians such as Clinton, Gore and Obama. At the same time, American political conservatism is such a target-rich environment for comedians that the pieces virtually write themselves. In contrast, conservative "humor" - such as it is - often comes off as forced and mean-spirited.

  • Memekiller on September 11, 2012 3:58 PM:

    You beat me to this... I have a theory, though. Look at the science instead of political science.

    A lot of research suggests laughter is a response to conflicting ideas that need to be resolved, and laughing releases the tension.

    If you look at the science in Chris Mooney's "The Republican Brain," it finds conservatives have a larger amygdala, which tends to reject ambiguity and see things in black and white.Conservatism's need for closure rejects irony or ambiguity, which many find to be the root of humor.

    But there is another form of humor which derives from mockery, teasing, poking fun at the expense of the weak, the nerd, the stoopid. This form of humor is not a "release" from contradiction, but rather comes from placing yourself in a position of superiority.Thus, the unfunniest of Zuckerman's movies is American Carol seeks laughter by repeatedly punching a Michael Moore takeoff in the face.

  • dfs on September 11, 2012 4:03 PM:

    Satire is not the exclusive province of "the left" or "the right" (as the examples already given show). It does not exist in the service of any particular ideology.

    Satire exists in opposition to privilege, and as a critique of it. I use the word "privilege" in its precise sense: "a special benefit, exemption from a duty, or immunity from penalty, given to a particular person, a group or a class of people."

    Thus, if members of the American political movement who self-identify as "conservative" (the accuracy of this label is a separate argument) seem unable to deploy satire in the service of their movement, it would be logical to suppose that it is because said movement is incapable of offering a critique of privilege, and plausible to suppose that said movement exists mainly to perpetuate privilege...

  • Memekiller on September 11, 2012 4:18 PM:

    Humor (at least when I researched this 15 years ago) is a result of incongruity, an attempt to make sense of the senseless. It is not just a rejection of authority, but seeing contradiction, irony, and surprise - having a result that is not in line with what we expect. That is all opposed, not just to the character of the movement, but the average Tea Partier. They do not deal with contradiction and unexpected results by laughing, but rationalizing to make things work out clearly.

    But humor can also come from achieving psychological distance - tragedy is close up, and comedy from long shot as Chaplain used to say. It can be watching Tom & Jerry beat each other up with a "lack of feeling," as Henri Bergson described it.A feeling of superiority - making fun of the idiot.That kind of humor does not require any recognition of irony.

  • Dylan Otto Krider on September 11, 2012 4:21 PM:

    “There are two kinds of humor. One kind that makes us chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity -- like what Garrison Keillor does. The other kind holds people up to public contempt and ridicule -- that's what I do. Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel -- it's vulgar. ” - Molly Ivins

  • Jose Hipants on September 11, 2012 4:34 PM:

    Red Eye w/Greg Gutfeld is not an exception to the "not funny" rule. Neither is PJ O'Rourke, but at least he used to be funny.

  • Painless on September 11, 2012 5:37 PM:

    Because ultimately, humor has to have one foot grounded in reality, and conservatives have been divorced from reality for a couple of decades now.
    And PJ O'Rourke? I guess if you set your standards low enough, then just about everyone is funny.

  • Stephen Daugherty on September 11, 2012 6:04 PM:

    The Problem with GOP humor is that conservatives don't allow themselves to empathize with folks outside the party without reservation, and they certainly don't like goring their sacred cattle. If they allowed themselves to laugh at their leaders, they might not be able to stop laughing.

  • T-Rex on September 11, 2012 8:59 PM:

    I won't argue whether or not some conservatives are funny, but there are a great many conservative pundits who spew hateful, libelous abuse at people they don't like and then hide behind the claim of "humor." Is there something funny about saying you wish Timothy McVeigh had blown up the New York Times building? Is it humor to refer to Muslims by a racist epithet, and then when asked to show some respect for loyal American citizens who also happen to be Muslim, to reply "They killed 3000 people, I just made a few jokes. I think we're about even."? Is it funny to call Sandra Fluke a slut for testifying before Congress about why women need insurance coverage of contraceptives, and to grossly misrepresent what she said?

  • Steve on September 11, 2012 11:53 PM:

    There's a difference between "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable" and "comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted."

    Just sayin'.

  • Robert Waldmann on September 12, 2012 7:31 AM:

    It hasn't always been this way. Tom Wolfe is very funny and very conservative. Mark Russell is very funny and right of center. I see two changes

    1) as you note putting politics before humor (or in other fields before critical thinking or data analysis).
    Partly I blame Murdoch/Ailes. They promote disciplined foot soldiers in the Conservative army: not likely to be funny.

    2) being in power. Much of your sample was when Republicans had all the power. Post 9/11 the Zeitgeist was thumping its ghostly chest.

    One other thing. No new lefty silliness. Jokes about tree huggers don't stay funny forever. To help conservatives, we lefties have to find new ways of taking ourselves too seriously.

  • FrooFroo on September 12, 2012 1:00 PM:

    Humor is subjective. Dennis Miller was funny on SNL. He hasn't been funny in a long time. P.J. O'Rourke is a frequent guest on Bill Maher's show. I haven't read any of his books, but I find him insufferable.

  • Wally on September 13, 2012 2:08 PM:

    I think Joel and Jesse address different parts of the reason. I would add that most stand up comics (who then can become TV stars) and Hollywood writers are observers of life. They take common experiences but they stare at them and ponder them and make observations about the irony or illogic of these experiences. The standup comedians almost always start their routines with, "Didja ever notice...?" Or maybe, "Don't you hate it when...?

    Thus, they have to be open to all the absurdities and illogic of life, from the lady in supermarket who spends 10 minutes fishing pennies and nickles out of her luggage sized purse to the the politician who is blatantly trying to wag the dog. If the politician is being illogical or silly, he will get skewered, regardless of his politics.

    Modern day conservatives (NOT traditional 19th century English satirists like Evelyn Waugh... sheesh!), are not open to such observations because they have already decided what is odd, absurd or illogical before they observe it. The lady in the Supermarket is a distraction but since it is commerce, it must be all fine. The guy wagging the dog is only worth pointing out if he is the opponent - a librul. Thus they are not observing illogic or absurdity as any normal person would but instead are LOOKING for illogic or absuridity in certain places. And comedy with a mission just isn't that funny.

    Re: PJ ORourke, like many funny writers, he just doesn't have the relaxed stage presence to be able to empathize with a live audience. And just because one smiles knowingly at a clever satiric thing said by 200 year old writers, does not mean they are either conservative or comedians.

  • sjay on September 15, 2012 11:34 AM:

    I have been reading P. J. O'Rourke probably longer than anybody except O'Rourke himself, going back to 1970 when he edited the local alternative paper in my hometown. He was funnier then but was at his funniest when he was a recovering radical during his late '70s period at the National Lampoon. That was, I think, because his humor was ruefully based on the foibles of people like the person he himself had been. Gradually, he turned more and more from mocking the sentimentality and illusions that he had shared towards mocking the objects of his former sentimentality. Because he no longer had a connection with the targets of his humor, it first became mean-spirited and then became no longer funny, even as mean-spirited humor, because he no longer really understood his targets.

  • Puh Leeze on September 16, 2012 12:17 AM:

    Dennis Miller had one shtick in his heyday, and he beat it until it was flat: the slightly esoteric reference/analogy. And by virtue of having spotted it, middlebrow audiences convinced themselves that they'd just been entertained.

    A listener who congratulates himself for knowing who William Faulkner or Duane Doberman or Rasputin were is a listener who isn't going to bitch that Miller's punchlines are mediocre and formulaic.

    The formulaic nature of his material was masked by a fast pace, a la Robin Williams. And also by an affected delivery that's half Bill Murray's lounge singer character and half Sammy Davis Jr.

    He's not funny now, either; I just reject the premise that Dennis Miller suddenly got worse after supposedly "going to the dark side."

  • Matt on September 17, 2012 12:33 PM:

    There's a huge problem with the thesis that "Dennis Miller used to be funny when he was a liberal, but sucks now that he's conservative."

    It mistakenly assumes that Dennis Miller writes most of the words Dennis Miller speaks. Demonstrably false, both in his early "liberal" career (SNL), and his post-2001 "conservative" phase (his various HBO shows, print stuff, and the monologue portions of his talk shows).

    These things all have end credits that feature dozens of writers whose job it was to put words in Miller's mouth that week. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and the reason Miller keeps getting work is that he's good at reading the cue cards that are put in front of him, with maybe a little light improvisation on the theme.

    So when snarky one-liners about George H.W. Bush fit the bill, his SNL writers wrote those on the cue cards. And when HBO needed a way to tap into the new, turbulent political reality after 2001, poof, Dennis Miller is suddenly a blue-collar libertarian with an Islamophobic streak. Also his hair is shorter and he's got a beard and he's more of a righteous ranter than a New York wisecracker.

    Miller has had a few minor parts in movies over the years, and he's always been perfectly capable at doing what minor characters are supposed to do: give some expository dialogue, react to what the leads say, and maybe get killed off in the third act. But guess what? He's never not acting. That's exactly his job, to stand where they tell him to stand and say what they tell him to say. I don't have the faintest clue as to what his politics are or how they've evolved over the years, any more than I know what kind of car Daniel Day-Lewis drives from watching There Will Be Blood.

  • Joe Rubino on September 17, 2012 6:03 PM:

    Uhh... Who said Dennis Miller's career is dead? He is playing to packed houses all over the country. He has a syndicated daily radio show with millions of regular listeners. His weekly appearance on the O'Reilly Factor is the most popular segment on the most popular cable news show on television, by a wide margin. He is absolutely killing it and making money hand over fist. I was in an airport recently where I saw him being mobbed by autograph seekers as he walked to his gate. As far as I can tell, he is merely not popular with the writer and the readers of this blog.

  • Jack G on September 17, 2012 8:36 PM:

    Liberal humor is laughing at the emperor because he has no clothes.
    Conservative humor is laughing at people who fall and get hurt.

  • FettFan on September 23, 2012 8:47 PM:

    I can spare you all from reading the book:

    Dennis Miller has always been center-right. This comes from none other than Democrat Senator Al Franken, who was on SNL with Miller in the late 80s/early 90s, who said "Dennis has always been that type of guy."

    In 1995, in an interview for USA Today, he stated: "I might be profane and opinionated, but underneath all that are some pretty conservative feelings. On most issues, between Clinton and Newt Gingrich, I'd choose Newt in a second, even though he is a bit too exclusionary."

    In a 1996, he told Playboy that he was a conservative libertarian.

  • jack on September 28, 2012 7:21 AM:

    I think politics is not a funny field its a different category and there is not a crossbow sale special conservatives.

  • mh on September 29, 2012 6:36 PM:

    Wow, someone better tell every psychologist, sociologist, anthropologist, and cultural scholar to pack up their "academic’s tool kit" and go home because, according to Joshua Green, scholars can't study things that are subjective.

    I'm sorry but this is a really poorly written article. It doesn't do justice to even the scant facts I know about Dennis Miller and it can't possibly be accurately representing this academic argument or the literature on humor and political satire. Mr. Green has waded out of his depth.

  • jbuzz on October 03, 2012 3:43 AM:

    One significant factor that the article fails to mention is the Jewish roots of much of American comedy, from the vaudevillians of a century ago right up through Al Franken and Jon Stewart. And the Jews are famously liberal due to a number of cultural factors, most notably a long history of persecution, a love of learning, and the veneration of the "mensch", the virtuous little guy.

    The piece also needs to distinguish between the mainstream liberalism of Stewart and Franken and the far-left of the alt-weeklies and progressive-talk radio, who are just as humorless and Manichean as anyone on the Right.

  • qxev on October 12, 2012 4:19 PM:

  • mike davidson on October 30, 2012 11:15 PM:

    It figures. Muggeridge? Why dont you just call your a liberal ? Since you use terms like religious extremists, and other stupid labels?

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  • Quotes on November 26, 2012 11:19 AM:

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  • Jeff on January 25, 2013 10:54 AM:

    Old joke

    Why aren't conservatives funny?
    Because they have jobs.

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  • Steve on July 04, 2013 8:01 PM:

    Hahaha give me a break. John Stewart doesn't hold a candle to Stephen Colbert. I think it's liberal comedians who are unfunny. In fact they're just fags.

  • Justin on July 07, 2013 9:14 PM:

    Dennis Miller is still hilarious! It's just the people who no longer find him funny are liberals. They don't think he is funny no more because he is now making fun of liberal views so liberals hate him now. It's that simple.

  • Justin on July 07, 2013 9:57 PM:

    I see a few comments saying a problem with conservatives is they are unable to poke fun at themselves and there ideology. In my opinion I think conservative comedians don't occasionally make fun of conservatism because the entertainment industry is very very liberal most comedians are liberal and they are always ridiculing conservatism so these conservative comedians play the defense. They see conservatives getting crushed in the industry so why would they add to the conservative jokes?

  • Justin on July 07, 2013 10:04 PM:

    So Alison Dagnes who is "fairly liberal" stopped liking Dennis Miller after his comedy material turned more conservative. OMG I WONDER WHY SHE STOPPED LIKING DENNIS? Could it be that Alison is "fairly liberal" and Dennis Miller started making jokes about liberals? I bet that's the reason.