Magazine | July 9, 2018, Issue

Comedy Platform

Samantha Bee (YouTube screengrab via "Full Frontal With Samantha Bee")

Some on the left have long bragged and some on the right have long lamented that “there is no such thing as conservative comedy.” But I’ve never really bought that.

There’s plenty of mainstream comedy, for instance, that’s rooted in small-“c” conservatism, or at least its close cousins traditionalism and fogeyism — from the good ol’ boys in the Blue Collar Comedy troupe to successful get-off-my-lawn sitcoms such as Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing or Matt LeBlanc’s Man with a Plan. And for ten overlapping years, the funniest characters on 30 Rock and Parks and Rec, two sitcoms whose heroines are earnest liberal feminists, were Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, a Dick Cheney–esque captain of industry, and Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson, a government-hating hyper-individualist.

In the edgier environs of stand-up, there are guys such as Nick DiPaola and Bill Burr, whose politics are finally incoherent but include heaping helpings of the reactionary, alongside anti-establishment provocateurs such as comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan.

And what need be said about Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Mike Judge, or Armando Iannucci? They made South Park, Idiocracy, and The Death of Stalin, respectively, masterpieces all that, if not explicitly rightist, are at least right-adjacent.

There are also highly effective anti-liberal trolls, of course. The Internet’s practically made out of them, and the sick burn is the coin of their realm. Some of them also happen to be conservatives, though not as many as you’d think. One of the lessons of the late era is that you can know what you’re against without having to be for anything at all.

So there’s plenty of funny around the Right and against the Left. What there isn’t is a coherent program of partisan Republican comedy, the way there is an entire industry of partisan Democratic comedy.

Now, I suppose there are people whom MAGA types find funny (which isn’t to say that there are funny MAGA types). Fox News’s Jesse Watters — whose greatest comedic hits include ambushing Asian Americans with ching-chong noises and reading lascivious intent into the way Ivanka grips a microphone — is said to be a sometime dinner guest at the White House, for instance. And why not? If I could have dinner with anybody, living or dead, I would definitely choose Jesse Watters, and I would definitely choose to be dead.

But there is nothing on Fox News or the Daily Caller that can match the mass cultural reproduction of a very specific kind of partisan Democratic humor, namely comedians’ sitting at desks and espousing orthodox progressive views while delivering zingers about unflattering images of Republicans projected over their shoulders. Much of this comes directly from the Daily Show diaspora, from Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert to John Oliver and Samantha Bee. But even shows that used to be politically noncommittal, such as Seth Meyers’s Late Night, or at least more varied, such as Bill Maher’s Real Time, have devolved into this green-screen groan fest, as if the combined might of every writer’s room in New York and L.A. hasn’t had an original idea since “Indecision 2000.”

It’s not surprising that as this format reaches ubiquity it should also near creative exhaustion. When Bee took some (but, honestly, not that much) crap for going a good deal farther than Watters with respect to Ivanka and lasciviousness, it was nothing so much as an index of comedic hyperinflation. A wheelbarrow full of deutschmarks in a comedy Weimar. In a year, one suspects, Michelle Wolf will defecate on a picture of an ICE agent on a livestream and it will barely draw a polite chuckle.

Speaking of Wolf (who wrote for Late Night and The Daily Show), her new show, The Break, takes the same tired formula to some truly strange new places, such as a song-and-dance sketch that imagines a fanciful, Wonka-esque New York Times opinion editor as the source of every awful opinion printed in the paper’s pages. Lest you be confused, reader, the bit sprang from Wolf and her staff’s distaste for the Times’ decision to give space to centrist Bari Weiss, and it had the impish editor mouthing such incisively satirical lyrics as “Give me 20,000 words defending Kevin Spacey / then 40,000 more that praise the art of John Wayne Gacy!”

I know, I know. Totally nailed it.

One sees this kind of thing and realizes that maybe it’s not lame that right-wing partisans don’t have their own comedy ghetto. Maybe it’s lame that left-wing partisans do.

Of course, there are few things woke hepcats like to roll their eyes at more than a conservative poindexter such as yours truly protesting that “actually, it is I who am transgressive!” But if the shoe fits . . .

In any case, I bet they’ll pick a really bad picture of me to project over Sam Bee’s shoulder.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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