Why conservatives aren’t funny

“Although it is not true that all liberals are funny, it is true that most funny people are liberal.”

In a feature for the Atlantic, Oliver Morrison asks why comedy seems to lean to the left. He focuses on America where he observes there are few conservative equivalents of the Daily Show and Colbert Reports and that those there are have few viewers. We can see the same thing in the UK where the likes of Eddie Izzard, Stephen Fry, Jeremy Hardy, Sandi Toksvig, Mark Steele, Mark Thomas, Stewart Lee, David Mitchell etc. are off set by Jim Davidson and…..ummm…he’s basically it. Morrison wonders if this is because politics is correlated with personality type and different personalities are drawn to different kinds of humour:

At the end of the 1990s, when Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show, conservatives dominated one form of entertainment media: talk radio. Liberals have never managed to equal conservatives’ success in that arena. The Air America network—whose talent included Rachel Maddow, as well as Saturday Night Live alumnus and future Senator Al Franken—filed for bankruptcy at the beginning of 2010. Even MSNBC has never been able to attract as large an audience as Fox News, the televised version of conservative talk radio.

Could it be that American political satire is biased toward liberals in the same way that American political talk radio is biased toward conservatives? Dannagal Young, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Delaware, was looking into the lack of conservative comedians when she noticed studies that found liberals and conservatives seemed to have different aesthetic tastes. Conservatives seemed to prefer stories with clear-cut endings. Liberals, on the other hand, had more tolerance for a story like public radio’s Serial, which ends with some uncertainty and ambiguity.

Young began to wonder whether this might explain why liberals were attracted in greater numbers to TV shows that employ irony. Stephen Colbert, for example, may say that he’s looking forward to the sunny weather that global warming will bring, and the audience members know this isn’t what he really means. But they have to wonder: Is he making fun of the kind of conservative who would say something so egregious? Or is he making fun of arrogant liberals who think that conservatives hold such extreme views?

As Young noticed, this is a kind of ambiguity that liberals tend to find more satisfying and culturally familiar than conservatives do. In fact, a study out of Ohio State University found that a surprising number of conservatives who were shown Colbert clips were oblivious to the fact that he was joking.

In contrast, conservative talk radio humor tends to rely less on irony than straightforward indignation and hyperbole. When Rush Limbaugh took down Georgetown student and birth-control activist Sandra Fluke in 2012, he called her a “slut” in order to drive home his point about state-mandated birth control. After the liberal blogosphere erupted with derision, Limbaugh responded with more jokes, asking that Fluke post videos of her sex online so taxpayers could see what they were paying for. (After a few days, he offered a public apology, insisting that he “did not mean a personal attack” on Fluke.)

These examples formed the kernel of Young’s theory that liberals and conservatives look for and see different kinds of humor. Connover, the producer of [right leaning satrical show] The Flipside, has already voiced skepticism about Young’s hypothesis. “That’s another way of saying that liberals are smarter,” Connover said. “And clearly that’s not the case. Liberals are some of the dumbest people to walk the earth.” Young insists that hypothesis is not about intelligence; it’s about a preferred structure of jokes. She maintains that there’s nothing inherently better about liking ironic jokes over exaggerated ones.

If this view is accurate then I’m afraid it doesn’t reflect well on conservatives and their ability to govern. The world is a place replete with uncertainty and our politics has to be able to cope with that. If you can’t handle the ambiguity you find in an episode of the Colbert Report then you’re going to find the Syrian Civil War utterly impossible.

4 thoughts on “Why conservatives aren’t funny

  1. It is worth noting that “conservative” and “liberal” mean something completely different in the USA from the UK- basically they are synonymous with “Republican” and “Democrat”.

  2. I think it’s more because of the kinds of people it’s acceptable for humour to target. It is more socially acceptable for the powerful to become the targets of humour and audiences are more comfortable with this and less comfortable with targetting the less powerful. This tends to mean that comedy is skewed in the direction of a liberal take, because right wingers tend to hold ordinary people to a higher standard of behaviour, and powerful individuals to a lower standard as compared to lefties. Examples of conservative comedians would include Jonathan Ross, Boris Johnston (yeah, he’s really more comedian than politician) and Jeremy Clarkson- people who are funny but also have to make a lot more apologies, because they don’t exclusively target people with broad shoulders, and are often un-PC about doing so. That’s one reason a lot of famous comedians focus on making themselves the butt of their jokes- you don’t risk alienating anyone in the same way. I’d wager that quite a lot of talented less left-wing people have had their careers ruined by making this type of blunder earlier one.

    There’s also the trend that older people tend to be more conservative, and also tend to have a less ironic sense of humour, because it’s what was fashionable at the time, what they grew up with and it was constrained by the social mores of the day. As an example, my grandmother thinks that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. My mother thinks it’s funny, despite being less intelligent than my grandmother. Also, there’s a correlation with religion and conservatism, religious people often being as you pointed out in another post, less supportive of “clever meaness” than the average person.

    Government is about making judgement calls in ambiguous situations, but it’s also about not making simple situations ambiguous and imposing clarity and order wherever it’s possible to do so in order to enable people to have the certainties that they need to build lives around.

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