I know I wrote as recently as yesterday that humor is in the eye of the beholder and it’s futile to try to convince a person that something is or isn’t funny, but I think there’s at least one universal truth in comedy: people who strongly self-identify as conservative aren’t funny. Oh, much like conservative musicians, conservative comedians think they’re hitting their mark, but they’re not. The reason for this is two-fold: one, because good comedy, like all art, requires a kind of radicalism and ability to think outside one’s comfort zone and challenge societal norms — the norms conservatives generally strive to uphold; two, because conservative comedy tends to start from a political position and tailor the humor around that rather than beginning with the comedy and pushing forward from there.
It takes a certain way of thinking to be an artist and it’s one avowed conservatives, simply by their choice to be conservative, prove they don’t have. Great art doesn’t always offend but it often takes the willingness to offend to make great art, specifically the willingness to offend those in a position of power or privilege. As Gawker said back in 2010:
It might be that comedy, like journalism, is best when it comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. It’s certainly partly built of empathy. ACORN, for all of its flaws, mainly works to give voice to the disenfranchised. Sure, you can trick them and sneakily edit your reporting and make them look silly, like O’Keefe did. But comforting the comfortable, and afflicting the afflicted just comes off as mean and nasty and smug. See: Dennis Miller and Ann Coulter.
Coulter and Miller were a sorority girl and and frat boy — Delta Gamma and Sigma Tau Gamma respectively. Which stands in contrast to the depressed, substance-abusing end of society that spawns many funny people. Richard Pryor made jokes about his cock looking like a foot from all the STDs he’d caught, and about setting himself on fire while smoking crack. We fear he would not be at all Sigma Tau Gamma material.
Even removing overt politics from the equation, left-of-center comedy is Bill Hicks baring his contorted psyche in front of an audience; conservative comedy is Jeff Dunham talking through a dummy that’s supposed to be an Arab terrorist. Left-of-center is Louie CK’s often apolitical social commentary; conservative is Gallagher smashing watermelons with a big hammer. Left-of-center is Adrian Cronauer; conservative is Lt. Steve. Yeah, I know this sounds condescending as hell and I can always appreciate a contrary populist argument, like the kind Chuck Klosterman is so terrific at, but decent art really is the realm of the right-brained. And the right-brained tend to be at least slightly to the left in their politics.
I bring all this up because last night two of the unfunniest people on the planet got into a little back-and-forth bemoaning NBC’s apparent lack of appreciation for what’s really funny. And what’s really funny, of course, is Jay Leno.
Referring to a clip of the late-night host mentioned earlier in the show, Hannity incredulously asked his guest: “Can you believe how dumb NBC is?”
“He’s trusted and fair,” agreed Cruz.
“And funny,” inserted Hannity.
“He’s the only late-night comic will be to make fun of Obama,” the Texan senator asserted.
“He makes fun of everybody!” Hannity exclaimed.
“The others don’t,” Cruz explained. “In fact, I remember (David) Letterman told a joke: ‘People ask me why I don’t make fun of Obama. Now with the IRS scandal, you know why.’”
“It was the exception proving the rule. Everyone laughed,” Cruz concluded, “but where is the next joke?”
Now certainly guys like Hannity and Cruz think everyone in the country should be making jokes at Obama’s expense and bringing up the various pretend scandals they’re still trying to make into a “thing” at every turn. The problem is that even really good comics will tell you that for the most part, Obama’s too boring to be a great comedic target. He’s just not a wealth of raw material waiting to be mined. That said, there isn’t a thing wrong with mocking him or making jokes about him — that’s the ultimate form of taking on the establishment in comedy. But what conservatives lack when it comes to comedy — and this goes to the point I made about putting the politics first but it can really be applied across the board — is subtlety. Jon Stewart takes aim at Obama and his administration all the time and he does it well, the thing is there isn’t an avowed staunch conservative alive who would consistently give Stewart credit for it because he or she likely couldn’t get past a deeply ingrained set of prejudices with regard to The Daily Show.
It’s no surprise that Cruz and Hannity and those like them like Jay Leno. He’s the perfect comedian for conservative values: non-threatening, folksy, overachieving in his desire to please mom and pop. There’s nothing about him that the conservative mindset would find “weird.” Not like, say, Jimmy Fallon.
And that kind of says everything you need to know about conservatives and comedy.
By the way, off topic but to answer Ted Cruz’s question, as it turns out, the next joke is on him.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.