July 8, 2009

Unfunny Conservatives

Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, explains humor. Humor has six elements: Cute (as in kids and animals); Naughty; Bizarre; Clever; Recognizable (You’ve been there); and Cruel. To be humorous, you must meld two or more of these elements.

South Park, for instance, combines Cute, Naughty, Recognizable, and Clever with its potty-mouthed fourth-graders and intentionally ill-concealed political and pop culture allegories. The Simpsons combines Clever, Bizarre, Cruel, and Recognizable. I'd argue that for comedy to reach laugh-out-loud portions, there must be at least three elements and one of them must be Clever.

Left-leaning comedians seem able to get laughs. But there's nothing in the formula that suggests that right-leaning comedians are incapable of the same thing. Why can't right-wingers do comedy? I don't mean that conservatives can't tell a joke now and then or include some humor in a speech. But when they sit down (or, often, stand up) to do comedy, it nearly always falls really flat -- other than with the exception I describe below.

Examples: Fox's Half Hour News Hour was painfully unfunny. Its successor, NewsBusted, is only a little better -- this recent episode actually had a funny joke in it (the one about Sarah Palin's future). And this odd story from former Saturday Night Live writer and performer Victoria Jackson is not funny at all, even though it's clear that she's trying to throw in some jokes. But at the end of the day, her story is about her walking in to a store, ranting at the shopkeeeper in a manner that demonstrates she has drunk too deeply of the Kool-Aid, and then walking out not buying anything.

Recent P.J. O'Rourke can only invoke a smirk from me these days -- he's not even particularly insightful anymore, either. O'Rourke is a particularly painful example of this phenomenon, because he used to be hilarious. Parliament of Whores remains one of the funniest books I have ever read. But today's P.J. O'Rourke would sneer at his younger self; his idea of a good time now is relaxing in an overstuffed chair with a cigar and a glass of good Scotch -- a far cry from the vision of fun he uses to open up Republican Party Reptile of driving a sports car over a hundred miles an hour while receiving sexual favors from a hot teenage girl in the passenger seat.

A example leads us to the real issue. Chris Muir's attempt to make a conservative "Doonesbury" is only funny when it avoids politics altogether. Conservatives can be funny -- when they aren't political.

The problem, I think, is that conservatives who try to write "conservative comedy" inject another element into the mix: Preachy. And "conservative comedy," at least the bulk of the examples I describe above, is typically begun with the objective of conveying a conservative message. By definition, the primary objective becomes Preachy, rather than Funny.

Preachy kills Funny, the way bleach kills mildew. Yeah, every once in a while, mildew is really strong, so some of it survives the bleach and the scrub. But if you were trying to grow mildew, you'd want the bleach to stay away. (Yes, I just compared conservative comedy to mildew. See, that combines Cruel and Recognizable.) The best you can hope for when you try to be Preachy and Funny is Ironic, and generally you have to settle for Bitter or Sarcastic.

"But, TL, liberals can be preachy, too!" Damn right. And they aren't funny when they're preachy, either. Example: George Carlin. Very funny comedian, and reasonably persuasive liberal speaker. But both at the same time? That, he achieved only rarely.

Most political jokes at the expense of conservatives seem to be based on pointing out hypocrisy relating to sexual ethics. This combines Naughty, Recognizable, and Cruel, and is therefore Funny. I would argue that poking fun at a hypocrite isn't particularly "political;" we could just as easily poke fun at the sexual habits of a celebrity like a movie star (say, Lindsey Lohan or George Clooney). I should also point out that conservatives have gone out of their way to invite mocking attention to their licentiousnesses, in a way liberals have not.

Conservatives can be funny -- when they aren't Preachy about what they're saying.

Rob Long was the producer and a principal writer of the long-running and quite funny TV show Cheers, and he's conservative. But he didn't set out to make a conservative TV show. His only objective as a writer and as a producer was to be funny, and he's stated on a few occasions that he sometimes put the kabosh on jokes or scenarios for Cheers that were political. Cheers was one of the least explicitly political comedies on TV and also one of the funniest on the air at the time (and indeed, its reruns hold up pretty well).

A conservative friend of mine has been a stand-up comic -- and when he gets on a roll, he can be funnier than any of the professional performers on TV. But he doesn't incorporate conservative politics in his routines, he doesn't set out to do political jokes. Like Carlin, when he even refers to politicians at all, they are foils becaue of their personal foibles rather than their politics. It would be hard to tell, at least from his comedy routines, what his political opinions really are.

These guys said, "I'm going to write and perform comedy." Note the lack of adjectives. A comedian should try to be funny first, and leave their politics to be an outgrowth of their humor, rather than its focus. The result is that they were funny, people liked hearing what they had to say, and they wound up sneaking in some subtle conservative points in there -- like, say, Sam Malone on Cheers coming to terms with his self-destructive womanizing, thereby promoting the ethic of monogamy. It wasn't forced or preached, it just was there.

Preach if you're going to preach. Joke if you're going to joke. Doing both effectively at the same time is extraordinarily difficult. Save that sort of thing for the professionals -- and bear in mind that even they can't pull it off most of the time.

Hat tip to Lawyers, Guns and Money.


Ken said...

Dennis Miller is a good example. Very funny before 9/11. Decided that 9/11 changed everything. Now trying entirely too hard to be On Message, not funny.

I disagree about O'Rourke, though. I'm currently reading "Driving Like Crazy" -- his collection of 30 years of automotive writing -- and his riff on that very driving-with-the-hot-chick story is actually very funny, because it's not about getting conservative (though there are some cultural elements about that), it's about the arrogance of youth and cowardice of age. Also, some of his other recent stuff has been funny -- book reviews and years in review.

Michael Reynolds said...

One of the South Park boys is, I believe, a registered Republican and the other is LP. But in general they occupy a sort of middle ground. I think most "liberal" comics do as well. Chris Rock gets some of his biggest laughs at lefty sacred cows.

I'd note that Al Franken who was fitfully amusing before he got a political radio show was utterly unfunny after. Even when he was trying to be funny.

Extremists are never funny, left or right.

More to the point I suspect is that conservatives don't want to live the comedy lifestyle. What conservative wants to spend 7 nights a week in front of a brick wall earning the price of drinks? That's where Leno and Seinfeld and Attell and Louis C.K. learned their craft. It's an uncomfortable lifestyle, to say the least. Conservatives take risks with money, liberals take risks with life.

One other factor to consider: while there are plenty of great white comedians (Letterman, Steve Martin) blacks and Jews have dominated comedy for a long time. There aren't a lot of conservative blacks or Jews.

DaveBuck said...

Michael, your reference to Chris Rock is a good one. I forgot he can rip well on anyone. Didn't Carlin also like to rip on some liberal politics like Global Warming?

Plus, when Stewart or Colbert feel the urge, they can pull the trigger on liberals, democrats, etc...

Part of me thinks it boils down to talent. But, as TL points out, the material is more abundantly found in the conservative politics. Easy to make fun of adulterous family value upholders than people who want to spend too much on welfare.

Easy to make fun of those up high compared to the downtrodden or humble.