Are Conservatives Really Pulling Ahead in the Comedy Race?Historians in the News
tags: conservatism, media, partisanship, humor, Comedy
It’s as though there’s some sort of fundamental disconnect between right and left on the issue of comedy. On a very basic level, the two sides seem to disagree on the question of what a joke should look like, what it’s okay to joke about, and what is so under threat that to joke about it would be unthinkable.
No one seems sure how to talk about the difference, exactly. They just know that they want to be the funny ones.
HumorHumor theorists see some basic differences between conservative and liberal humor.
Teresa Prados-Torreira, a historian and the former head of the American Humor Studies Association, argues that the comedy you can watch on John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight and the comedy you see in right-wing spaces are based in two intrinsically different versions of reality. If we can no longer agree on what’s true, she says, then we won’t be able to agree on what’s funny, either.
Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist and the co-author of Late Night with Trump: Political Humor and the American Presidency, says this split is exacerbated by the increasingly polarized conservative news landscape. Fox News has created a siloed environment for their viewers, one where they can pick up memes and in-jokes that are incomprehensible to those outside their bubble and then go watch someone they agree with make jokes about those things.
“Fox News has been able to create an environment where there is more of a seamless transition [for] the people who are spending their time consuming news in the silo of the conservative media environment, [where they have] that back-story understanding,” Farnsworth says.
In other words, conservative media has created such an all-encompassing narrative that now its practitioners are able to joke around about that narrative, like when a Marvel movie puts in sly nods to other characters in the MCU. Meanwhile, Fox News viewers might not get exposed to the storylines the rest of the country is making jokes about, and vice versa.
“For humor to be funny, it needs to be somehow based in reality. Humor exaggerates and you want to emphasize what is grotesque, but it has to be based on something accurate,” says Prados-Torreira. “If your joke is about Hillary Clinton eating babies, that’s untrue, so it’s not going to be funny. The connection to reality is getting more tenuous for conservative people.”
One way the conservative and liberal worldviews mirror each other, though, is that each side likes to position themselves as an underdog, mocking the oppressive elites on the other side.
“Both left and right can claim positions of victimhood and aggrievement that give them plausible claims to punching up,” says Nick Marx, a media scholar and the co-author of That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them. “We’ve got lots and lots of great comedy from non-white folks and marginalized folks punching up at white hetero patriarchal systems of power, right? But all you have to do is talk to a right-leaning person about their love of Gutfeld, and they’ll say, ‘Well, no, we on the right are the victims, because Joe Biden is president, because my kid is coming home wanting me to use their pronouns, because I’m constantly inundated with left-wing ideas.’”