There’s an op-ed in the New York Times on Tuesday on the rise of right-wing comedy, and you won’t be surprised to learn that this is no laughing matter.
Left-of-center satire is becoming an endangered species, Times opinion columnist Tressie McMillan Cottom begins. Trevor Noah is retiring from “The Daily Show,” and James Corden is following his lead. Samantha Bee’s TBS program was canceled. Desus and Mero broke up. The late night shows, most of which have transformed into flaccid group-therapy sessions for anxious progressives, are struggling to retain viewers. And in their place, comedy with a distinctly right-wing flavor has become an emerging cultural and financial powerhouse. Humor that is utterly devoid of any social mission beyond its entertainment value is back in vogue.
The retreat of the left-wing comedy scene is a cultural phenomenon, McMillan Cottom observes. “Audiences have different orientations toward humor and political talk,” she writes. “Those orientations have some underlying psychological needs.” Indeed, much of mainstream center-left comedy predictably caters to those “psychological needs,” and predictability is the enemy of the joke.
As the late satirist P.J. O’Rourke told me in an interview for my book The Rise of the New Puritans: Fighting Back Against Progressives’ War on Fun, the laugh is a product of “two planes of meaning at an unexpected angle”—emphasis on “unexpected.” But the extirpation of frisson from the equation is only part of the problem.
“Bluntly, scholars who study political communication and humor often find that liberals are ironic smart alecks and conservatives are outraged moralists,” McMillan Cottom contends. Maybe once upon a time. Today, however, the left is increasingly inclined toward detached irony and preening moralism. Take the example McMillan Cottom uses to illustrate the “spectrum” of political humor, with Jeff Foxworthy on one side and George Carlin on the other. Foxworthy is presently teaming up with former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno, both of whom are less overtly conservative than they are simply not liberal (a distinction with a difference that too few progressive comedy critics recognize). Carlin, by contrast, has been deemed posthumously problematic in the pages of the New York Times.
As Times writer David Itzkoff wrote, “the durability of Carlin’s material can be dangerous, too.” Though the injustices against which Carlin railed “persist to this day,” the American right finds itself increasingly attracted to his flippancy, iconoclasm, and almost libertarian desire to be unmolested by moral scolds. “Dislocated from the time and circumstances that inspired his work, the arguments he delivered can be made to serve purposes he didn’t intend,” Itzkoff continued. Nobody familiar with Carlin’s work doubts how the man would be voting if he were alive today, but that’s beside the point. In an age in which everything is political, everything becomes an instrument of political utility. And those instruments must be kept out of the wrong hands.
Carlin’s insistence that standups should avoid “punching down” has been praised by the progressive left. A strong satirist, the comic once said, challenges convention and speaks truth to power. But when Carlin offered that observation, it was a time in which the American left thought of themselves as an insurgency. They were the plucky radicals mounting an assault on the commanding heights of corporate and political power.
Today’s progressives are not orchestrating a rebellion but trying to put one down. Corporations kowtow to their concerns. Politicians flatter their pretensions. Universities cater to their preferences. Entertainment follows the flow chart they wrote. There is a pervasive sense on the politically active left that this is a fragile covenant, and anything that threatens it must be policed. Even humor. But that is a rearguard action, not a bold assault on the citadels of conformity.
Back to McMillan Cottom: “If you have a high need for clear-cut moral rules, then satire, which asks us to skewer our own beliefs, is going to make you pretty anxious.” She has that right, but she has applied this observation to the wrong targets. The rise of right-wing humorists like Greg Gutfeld and irreverent alternative media figures like Ben Shapiro (who is a conservative) and Joe Rogan (who is not) is not explained by a dispositional attraction to “outrage” among those who identify as conservative. Outrage isn’t funny. It is explained by the self-seriousness of the audiences to whom left-leaning comics are trying to appeal, which McMillan Cottom evinces in abundance:
The Dobbs decision has radicalized and terrified millions of voters. Many Americans think the Supreme Court is partisan, if not outright corrupt. President Biden’s policy achievements do not seem to be capturing voters’ imagination. And he has several significant policy wins. Large swaths of the Republican Party have embraced white identitarian violence. We are too scared to laugh.
Progressives have ceded the genre to their political opponents in the misguided belief that the laugh is subversive. And what is being subverted is their own political and cultural preeminence. “If satirical political content is the liberal audience’s way to stick it to the man,” McMillan Cottom asks, “why isn’t the genre exploding right now?” It’s because you are “the man.”