The recent Simpsons clip in which “the Squad” takes on Donald Trump has gotten flak for being “cringe,” but it is valuable as a particularly clear example of what is wrong with much of mainstream, topical comedy. The short is bland, sloppy, and timid not because the creators lack talent but because they lack integrity. And before we blame them, we should consider that the people who made the clip are rationally responding to the tribalization of mainstream comedy and the fear of left-wing cancel culture.
Perhaps the most influential comedy program of the last 15 years was Jon Stewart’s revitalization of The Daily Show as a vehicle for scathing, left-of-center satire. It spawned a host of imitators including Samantha Bee, John Oliver, and Michelle Wolf, and its political style eventually turned late-night network comedy in a more overtly partisan direction. When Michelle Wolf was invited to host the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, while the organizers had probably anticipated neither her exact material nor the resulting blowback, they would have known that she was not going to attack both parties. She was a comedian, and political comedy was liberal.
It wasn’t always this way. The irony is that Stewart’s Daily Show was, knowingly or not, a more exactingly and expensively produced version of Rush Limbaugh’s mid-1990s television talk show. That show was short-lived, but for a time it was the second-most popular late-night talk show in the country. It, too, featured a polemicist mocking the opposition to the laughs and cheers of a live audience that was desperate to be reassured that they were good and smart.
For years, liberals had been trying to find a counter to the conservatives who dominated talk radio. None of the liberal talk-radio alternatives really caught on, but it turned out that liberals had been imitating the wrong Rush Limbaugh show. When they figured out an infotainment format that worked, it wasn’t Limbaugh’s three-hour radio program. It was his 30-minute television show. Whether they know it or not, Stewart and his imitators are the illegitimate children of Rush Limbaugh.
This influence has extended beyond the explicit Daily Show rip-offs such as the Samantha Bee and John Oliver efforts. When they touch on public affairs, Stephen Colbert’s Late Show opening monologues sound more like a 1990s conservative talk-radio rant (with the ideologies and targets reversed) than a 1980s Johnny Carson opening segment. Colbert’s rival, Jimmy Kimmel, regurgitates talking points provided by Democratic congressional staffers. It is like a television version of 1990s AM radio. On one station you have Limbaugh mad about the Democrats. On the next station, you have any of a legion of Limbaugh clones mad about the Democrats.
In adopting this style of partisan comedy, Stewart’s imitators have made a contract with their audience. The unwritten (but brutally enforced) rule of tribal comedy is that tribe comes before comedy. That makes the gags predictable, but the predictability is the point. The people who like that sort of thing want to be reassured. There are enough such people on both the left and the right that Stewart, Colbert, Limbaugh, and others have made wonderful livings. It does tend to leave out those who want to laugh more than they want to be reassured that Trump’s secretary of the interior is very bad.
A second factor constraining mainstream comedy is the fear of backlash from liberals in journalism and social media. This could take the form of Joanna Schroeder’s widely shared Twitter tirade that her son might be harmed by exposure to unwoke comedy. It could take the form of The Atlantic’s Devin Gordon criticizing Joe Rogan for a including a few jokes at Hillary Clinton’s expense in one of his comedy specials. Schroeder’s argument is that unapproved comedy is a public danger. Gordon implied that including some Hillary jokes in with the Trump jokes is a sign of bad character. Gordon wrote, “Of all the things in the world for a comedian to joke about right now, why these?”
In their different ways (respectively, hysterical and passive-aggressive), Schroeder and Gordon are reminding mainstream comedians of the rules of tribal entertainment: You don’t cross the tribe — and you especially don’t cross the tribe for reasons of personal authenticity.
This is a lesson conservative talk-show hosts learned recently when the mass of center-right Americans decided to back Donald Trump (whether enthusiastically or on a lesser-evil basis). Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh managed this transition and are still cashing checks. Charlie Sykes stuck by the standards of limited government and character. Sykes lost his radio show and is now among the embittered, marginalized refugees at the anti-Trump Bulwark.
The stultifying atmosphere of mainstream comedy has been attested to by legendary comics including Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle. These comedians already have vast wealth and pre-existing fan bases. They can take a hit from the New York Times for the crime of not being perfectly left on everything. They can afford to say what they think. Anonymous sitcom writers don’t have that luxury. They have to say what the Devon Gordons and Joanna Schroeders want them to say. Where networks used to fear petitions organized by midwestern housewives, they now fear cancel-culture campaigns that can be organized by any semi-employed liberal-arts grad who lives on social media.
Both these influences — the tribalism and the fear of cancel culture — can be seen in the Trump-vs.-Squad Simpsons clip. First is the laziness of the opening gag where Trump sings “No one but me in America, no taxes for me in America.”
It isn’t just that the gag is feeble. It is that the writers have given up. They know that the audience they are writing for will accept slop as long as the message is vaguely reassuring. The Simpsons started as a parody of bland, conformist 1980s family sitcoms, but the writers of those sitcoms weren’t untalented. They were just scared and defeated. They knew that a phony, unmoving scene in which a kid learns a valuable lesson from a parental figure was safer than a much smarter joke that caused a stir. The opening Simpsons gag is the exact same kind of defeated conformism, only it is a conformism of political contempt. If you have the right target, better safe than funny.
The next gag is even more revealing. The Squad sings to Trump, “We’re more American than your wife.” If there is one thing liberals have been clear on, it is that the immigrant who takes the citizenship oath is immediately as American as the descendants of the Mayflower. It is a noble view, and therefore the people who produced that segment are at least as bigoted as the crowds who chanted “Send her back” about Congresswoman Omar.
But, of course, that isn’t the case, because in tribal comedy, tribe doesn’t just come before comedy. Tribe comes before truth or insight — tribe comes before professed values — tribe comes before everything. Liberals can say that the first lady is less American because she is an immigrant for the same reason that conservatives who celebrate immigrants like Republican congressional candidate Scherie Murray can chant “Send her back” at Omar. All scorn is fair when directed at the opposition. Tribe comes first.
The final gag is perhaps the greatest betrayal of what had once been a great show. The Democratic presidential candidates form a chorus line and display a unity that has been notably absent from the recent debates. While, in the real world, the Democratic candidates are calling one another closet segregationists and corrupt, out-of-control prosecutors, an alleged comedy show portrays them arm in arm. The scathing, satirical Simpsons that parodied Bill Clinton and the Kennedy family is now reduced to idealizing the Democratic party more than the Democratic party idealizes the Democratic party.
There are still holdouts. Bill Maher generally agrees with the Left, and he is, if anything, more obnoxious and cruel than Colbert and Bee. But he will never be fully accepted, because on those occasions where he disagrees with the Left, he is almost as venomous as when he attacks the Right. In response, Squad member Rashida Tlaib called for a boycott of Maher’s show. Maher is on a subscription service and his show isn’t advertiser-dependent, but one imagines how such a call from a Squad member would impact a writer with a less-established brand.
Maher, like Seinfeld, Chappelle, Rogan, and Chris Rock, doesn’t fit within post-Stewart, topical network comedy because, however liberal any of them might be on most issues, they can’t be trusted to bow to every last demand for conformity. In today’s mainstream comedy of liberal partisanship and fear of cancel culture, only the gutless are trustworthy.