An academic’s doomed attempt to explain why there are no good right-wing comedians.
What redeems Dagnes’s book is that she also interviewed a ton of comedians and television writers, who are amply and colorfully quoted throughout. This provides a real-world grounding absent from most other studies, although much of what she’s told goes against her thesis that these shows are a vital part of the political process — in fact, the interviews undermine the whole idea of academics parsing Daily Show transcripts. As the comedian Marc Maron explains, “The one thing I do know is that 90 percent of the time if you’re going to talk about politics the audience’s eyes [are] going to glaze over and not know how to take it in because they don’t fucking think about it.” When Dagnes cites the studies about how satire affects political behavior, the comedian Lewis Black replies, “Well, first, tell those academics to fuck themselves. Really, tell them it is bullshit satire doesn’t have that effect. If satire was really that important as a way to get things done, then, you know, more shit would be getting [done].” The common thread running through all these interviews is that professional satirists are almost exclusively concerned with being funny, and while many hold liberal views, they don’t expend much effort trying to impose them on others or imagine that they’d succeed if they did.
Dagnes isn’t having it. “Modern political humor,” she writes, “has become a powerhouse of cultural influence and Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and their brethren wield an immense amount of sway among voters, especially young ones.” And elsewhere: “As our news media soften considerably in their changing work environment, satirists (whether they like it or not) are filling some of the watchdog functions that journalists used to carry out.” But the notion that journalism has become so impoverished that hungry minds have turned to The Daily Show for news and moral guidance doesn’t hold up. Not only is there more and better national political journalism than ever before, spread across more platforms and easier to share, but it supplies the subject matter for The Daily Show and other shows like it, which don’t produce journalism, but riff on that produced by others.
So why do conservatives fail to turn political news into entertaining satire like liberals do? In 2007, with the Republican Party in tatters and Jon Stewart splashed across every magazine cover, Fox News Channel began broadcasting ,em>The 1/2 Hour News Hour, which was billed as “a conservative Daily Show.” It was a spectacular flop, because it put politics before humor. “It was mostly just loud and complainy with not a whole lot of basis in fact or reality,” says the Saturday Night Live writer Alex Baze. A writer for The 1/2 Hour News Hour told Dagnes that Fox News censored the best material because it was deemed “too controversial.” Surveying this landscape, Dagnes concludes that conservatism is philosophically incompatible with satire. “The nature of conservatism does not meet the conditions necessary for political satire to flourish: conservatism is harmonized and slow to criticize people in power, and it originates from a place that repudiates humor because it is absolute.” Any member of the Obama administration would heatedly disagree with the first claim; and there’s plenty of conservative humor if you know where to find it. Conservative satire flourishes in places like the Weekly Standard, particularly in the essays and articles of Matt Labash and Andrew Ferguson, and the cover art of Mark Fredrickson and Thomas Fluharty, whose paintings travestying braindead hippies and aging radicals are dead on and piercingly funny.
It’s true that late-night television is largely bereft of conservative humor — Fox News’s late, late-night (3 a.m.) Red Eye w/Greg Gutfeld being a notable exception. To me, the conservative inclination to put politics before humor goes a long way toward explaining this disparity. It’s one reason why talk radio has been such a successful format for conservative entertainers (and such a challenging one for liberals, who have failed in their attempts to match it). You can’t cultivate a national television audience for a comedy show if being funny isn’t the first order of business. Throughout the time she was researching her book, Dagnes was toiling to convince Miller to talk with her, at first by touting her academic credentials and finally by approaching him through an intermediary. He declined every advance. This wasn’t very sporting of him, but on the other hand, the prospect of his career being rigorously examined couldn’t have held much appeal.
There’s something karmically fitting about the fact that Miller, whose act requires an audience with deep cultural fluency and a finely honed sense of irony, has wound up performing for the boobs who watch The O’Reilly Factor. His fall has been long and precipitous, from the comedy flagship of Saturday Night Live to the graveyard of Fox News. Miller is too sharp not to recognize this himself.
To Dagnes, the explanation lies in the complicated interplay of political philosophy and cultural climate. But what killed Dennis Miller’s career wasn’t that he became a conservative. It’s that he stopped being funny.
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