Category Archives: Comedy

The plight of conservative comedy: Where’s the right’s Daily Show?

Fox News has astronomically high ratings. Rush Limbaugh rules talk radio. But liberals dominate political comedy. The few attempts to create a conservative satire show have either not found mainstream success (News Busted, a YouTube series with views typically in the low 30,000s), aired far outside of prime time (Red Eye, filling Fox’s 3 a.m. slot), or been promptly cancelled (Half Hour News Hour, with 13 episodes on Fox). Are right-leaning satires doomed to failure?

The creators of Flipside don’t think so. Their once-a-week program, in the vein ofThe Daily Show or The Colbert Report but with a generally conservative tilt, hosted by comedian Michael Loftus, will premiere this fall. Can it work?

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Most explanations for why Republican-friendly satire struggles pin blame on conservative philosophy. Comedian Mike Macrae told me in an email,

Most American comedy traditions stem from the concept of resisting or questioning authority on some level. Our comedy is about rascals and rule-breakers. Mark Twain skewered the notion of Europe’s cultural hegemony over the rustic New World and its new nation of upstarts. Most Marx Brothers movies are essentially about them evading some arbitrarily deputized authority figure, be it the hotel detective or the sailor in charge of finding stowaways. Cheech and Chong wouldn’t be as funny if marijuana weren’t made pointlessly illegal by right-wing cultural pressures. The common thread in these and other American comedy staples has been that the foils are generally motivated by values that we tend to associate with conservatism or, in some cases, the Republican Party platform itself.

Alison Dagnes, an academic who examined politics and comedy in her book A Conservative Walks Into a Bar, came away with the conclusion that:

The nature of conservatism does not meet the conditions necessary for political satire to flourish: conservatism is harmonized and slow to criticize people in power, and it originates from a place that repudiates humor because it is absolute.

These theories may sound attractive—especially to liberals—but suffer from deep deficiencies. For one: Humor doesn’t rely on the objective nature of the social structure, but rather, one’s subjective understanding of it, which is often fraught with bias. For instance, majority of Republicans think that racial discrimination against whites is as bad as discrimination against minorities. “During the last four decades the Republicans and conservatives in general have conceded a lot of the progressive premises,” Kfir Alfia, one of the executive producers of Flipside, told me. “I would question that premise that conservatives are in a state of, or a position of authority.”

What’s more, skepticism of authority is a conservative tenet itself. It was the great conservative philosopher was Edmund Burke who said, “The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.” In the Obama era, there are plenty of liberal institutions ripe for mockery. South Park has brilliantly lampooned many of the left’s excesses, from PETA, to raceenvironmentalismAl Gore, San Francisco smugnessabortiontoleranceanti-smoking activists and celebritieslots of celebrities.

So philosophy isn’t the problem. Indeed, history shows that conservative-leaning comedy isn’t inherently unviable. Half Hour News Hour, for example, did well in its time slot despite weak reviews. Financial concerns, not low viewership, killed it. “Essentially, they were trying to run a broadcast show on a cable budget,” Matthew Sheffield, an executive producer atFlipside told me. “It was a lot cheaper to run Oliver North’s ancient war clip show than it was to do that.”

Before Comedy Central settled on the Colbert Report/Daily Show model, it hadTough Crowd With Colin Quinn, a well-liked panel comedy show with many very funny conservative commentators in conversation with liberal ones. (For a representative segment, watch the famous Giraldo/Leary fight over North Korea.)But Tough Crowd struggled with ratings, especially with younger audiences, so it was cancelled to make room for Colbert. Before Tough Crowd, there was Bill Maher’s Emmy-winning Politically Incorrect, which, unlike his current show on HBO, Real Time, had more equally balanced panels and less demagoguery.

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So if philosophy isn’t preventing conservative comedy from flourishing, what is? Structural, demographic, and financial issues.

Successful comics often rise up out of thriving, crowded standup scenes, which tend to mainly exist in urban areas. Jon Stewart, for instance, spent five years in the New York City comedy world before landing a show on TVBig cities tend to be liberal, and it stands to reason that so would be the people who attend comedy clubs in them. Funny urbanites who are conservative may decide that there just isn’t much of a market for their political material. One comedian who I was referred to declined to be interviewed because, the comedian said, the conservative label, “has never been good to me.”

Similar impediments exist in the entertainment industry, which has a not-undeserved reputation for being run mainly by liberals. “People always ask why there aren’t a lot of really big conservative comedians but I think the deck is stacked against that and I doubt it will ever happen in my lifetime,” Nick Dipaolotold The Daily Caller, mentioning that he suspected that his politics were why HBO wouldn’t air a recent hour-long special he taped. There just aren’t many outlets for conservative comics. The feeling, as Stephen Kruiser writes on Breitbart, is that “most liberals in the entertainment industry expose themselves to conservatives about as readily as they would a leper colony.”

But the problem for right-leaning televised comedy may also have to do with audiences. Historically, it’s young people who have favored news mixed with humor, and polls have shown young people trending liberal for years. Fox News’ viewership is older, of a different generation than any up-and-coming standup comics, and many of its members hold pretty traditional views. That’s not exactly the audience that’ll help nurture boundary-pushing, conversation-making comedy. On Half-Hour News Hour, for instance, one writer complained that “the best material we wrote was rejected because the network considered it too controversial.”

In fact, the closest thing Fox News has to The Daily Show (Red Eye) is broadcast at 3 a.m. In Fox style, the show primarily takes the form of a panel and doesn’t include the more expensive-to-produce field pieces. Its racy humor might be off-putting to much of Fox’s primetime audience, but it’s doing relatively well with young people.

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Loftus already has had a successful career as a comic and a writer. He has an hour-long special to his name (You’ve Changed) and he can woo a city crowd (he often stops by Hollywood Improv in LA for a set). Though I’m a liberal, I’ve enjoyed his bits before (and was excited to see him hosting the show).

If Flipside succeeds, it might be because in this era where high-quality web videos for niche audiences are thriving, it can avoid some of the structural obstacles other attempts at conservative satire have faced. Flipside’s looking for broadcast distribution, but it’ll also try to build an audience online. One of its producers, Kfir Alfia, has worked in TV before and seen “really, really funny things go through a horrible development process and have the funny squeezed out of them,” he says. “We’re not going to have a board of directors with a stick-up-their-ass network to have battles regarding content.”

The pilot episode of Flipside proves there’s plenty of potential material, though the punch lines could use some tuning. One bit mocks Harrison Ford for warning about the effects of global warming and then “flying his plane to get a hamburger.” It’s a promising setup, but the payoff—Mattera spraying aerosol cans in studio—falls flat. Another bit lampooning the possible Hillary Clinton documentaries is funny, but a jab about her attractiveness stuck me as gauche.

Of course, politically infused comedy from both sides of the spectrum is tough to pull off. As Norm Macdonald put it to me, “The problem with coming to comedy with any ideology is the surprise is gone. We know the punchline.” Marc Maron told me that he moved away from his more overtly liberal jokes, because “when you’re doing ideological comedy, from a point of view that pre-exists you, it’s very tricky not to carry water for someone else’s agenda.” The Daily Show, for example, seems aware of this. Jon Stewart happily mocks Democrats, drawing vituperative harangues from lefty viewers. The first great conservative comedy show will put humor before ideology. As Mark Twain noted, “Humor is never artificial.”

Originally published on The Atlantic.

If conservatives aren’t funny, are they wrong?

I’m in the final editing process of a piece for The Atlantic about whether conservatives can be funny. It’s been a long time in the making, so I’m really excited to get it out there. Today at the gym I was watching the Nantucket Film Festival’s Comedy Roundtable 2012 with Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jim Carrey and Bill Hader.* At one point in the discussion (around 15 mins) Carrey interrupts and asks what makes something funny. After some discussion (at 18 mins), Ben Stiller says, “the truth.” I don’t want to give away my take coming up, but if “truth” is funny, and someone is arguing that conservatives aren’t, isn’t she saying that conservatives can never say anything true? Is that a proposition she wants to accept? Can she avoid arguing that?

P.S. Not going to lie, neither of these roundtables are particularly impressive. Far better is Talking Funny

* They’ve done two and so far had no female panelists and Rock was the only black one. In a very embarrassing moment in the 2012 one, the panelists are asked to name a female comedian they admire and Hader forwards Wiig. She is the only female comedian mentioned in the entire round table. **

** This is, of course, absurd. I regularly go to the Upright Citizen’s Brigade and frequently see hilarious female comedians. Off the top of my head, Amy Shumer, Kathleen Madigan, Aubrey Plaza, Maria Bamford, Natasha Leggero…

 

Edit: I realize that if you don’t know what I’m writing about, these questions sound logically absurd. That is, many, if not most truths, are not funny. What I mean by my question is that, if there is truth in conservatism, than it could most certainly be expressed in a funny way. So is the idea that conservatives can’t be funny just a sneaky way of saying, “facts have a well-know liberal bias”? Is it hubris?

The robots aren’t the problem, politicians are

A spectre haunts us, the spectre of robots. The Economist writes, “it seems likely that this wave of technological disruption to the job market has only just started. From driverless cars to clever household gadgets, innovations that already exist could destroy swathes of jobs that have hitherto been untouched.”

recent study from the University of Oxford finds that 47% of U.S. jobs could be replaced by computerization (see chart). The study includes a handy table at the bottom where you can see the probability of your job being computerized (most likely to be affected: telemarketing, least likely: recreational therapy). As Tyler Cowen writes in Average is Over, “as intelligent-analysis machines become more powerful and more commonplace, the most obvious and direct beneficiaries will be the humans who are adept at working with computers and with related devices for communications and information processing.” This, he argues will drive inequality.

It’s certainly true that innovation has driven inequality, but it is more complicated than Cowen makes it out to be. Technology has always been disruptive, but how the gains are distributed is the real issue. Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891,

Up to the present, man has been, to a certain extent, the slave of machinery, and there is something tragic in the fact that as soon as man had invented a machine to do his work he began to starve. This, however, is, of course, the result of our property system and our system of competition. One man owns a machine which does the work of five hundred men. Five hundred men are, in consequence, thrown out of employment, and, having no work to do, become hungry and take to thieving. The one man secures the produce of the machine and keeps it, and has five hundred times as much as he should have, and probably, which is of much more importance, a great deal more than he really wants.

His analysis is surprisingly relevant today. The benefits of technology and globalization have been distributed differently in different societies. In countries with strong bonds of social democracy, the benefits have been more widely distributed through a government transfer system.

The conventional wisdom is that skill-biased technological change is driving inequality. The premise is that technological developments have favored college-educated workers over unskilled labor, thereby increasing inequality. Since it was formulated, SBTC has drawn criticism. A 2002 paper by David Card first drew attention to potential holes in the explanation: a short period of stabilization in wage inequality in the 1990s during a technological boom and the failure to explain wage gaps between men and women as well as blacks and whites. A 2012 paper by Daron Acemoglu and David Autor noted other failures in the theory, namely that it could not explain the divergence in incomes that had occurred among skilled workers and why the real median wages could decline during a period of increasing productivity.

New research Larry Mishel, Heidi Shierholz and John Schmitt further vitiates the thesis. Mishel et al. argue that “job polarization,” the premise that more jobs have been created in low-wage sectors and high-wage sectors, thus driving wage inequality, doesn’t actually explain the problem. On the one hand, high-wage occupations have not significantly expanded their share of the workforce since 2000. On the other, low-wage jobs have not increased as a total share of employment since 1979.

They find that changes in the occupation structure do not affect the wage structure, so if technology causes a shift from manufacturing to retail, this doesn’t necessarily entail a shift in the wage structure. They find that inequality is increasing within occupations, not between occupations as the SBTC narrative would predict. The SBTC narrative relies on the idea of an “education premium,” i.e., people with higher education reap the benefits of technological progress. But Mishel et al. find that wage inequality has grown strongly since the mid-1990s while the education wage premium grew little. Wages for college graduates have flattened over the last 10 years, even among science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and business occupations. He and his colleagues point instead to political choices, not economic inevitability.

In the show Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Charlie Kelly is one of the owners of a bar, but has lost a large portion of his share through Esau-esque trades. Because he no longer owns as much of the bar, he is forced to do the bad jobs around the bar, which become known as “Charlie work.” Charlie is subject to bouts of unemployment and degrading labor. He is trapped in a Catch-22; he would happily give up “Charlie work” in favor of machines, but because he lacks a stake in the bar, it would only leave him unemployed. This is the plight of many Americans, because America has not developed social democracy. John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research told me that countries with strong social safety nets view globalization more positively than countries without. That’s because the gains from trade are distributed more equally, so everyone benefits. In America, since the 1970s, these gains have accrued more and more to the richest Americans, while hourly compensation for non-supervisory workers has remains stagnant (see chart).

Oscar Wilde proposes to eliminate “Charlie work” through machines:

And as I have mentioned the word labour, I cannot help saying that a great deal of nonsense is being written and talked nowadays about the dignity of manual labour. There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities, and should be regarded as such. To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours, on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine.

In the near future, such work will be done by robots, a welcome development. The question is how we distribute these gains. Since the 1970s, we’ve allowed most of them to accrue to the top 1%. That is not practical, nor was it inevitable. We need the productivity growth that comes from machines to be distributed equitably, so that everyone benefits.

Why I’m a Belieber

I would like to announce my membership in the ever-expanding club that boasts among its members the likes of Anne Frank. I am a Belieber. Through and through. I’ve paid about as much attention to Bieber’s career as most American’s have to what is happening in Ukraine right now (on review I spelled his last name correctly once in the first draft of this piece), but what I know makes me believe he is someone I should support. Let me run through the only five facts about Justin Bieber stored in my cranium:

1. Justin Bieber desecrated a photo of Bill Clinton and shouted “Fuck Bill Clinton!”

2. Justin Bieber egged a millionaire’s house

3. Justin Bieber recently got arrested for a DUI

4. Justin Bieber was born to a single mother, grew up in low income housing, taught himself four instruments, created Youtube videos of him playing those instruments, was discovered by a marketing agent and became, in short time, one most successful male artists currently working

5. Justin Bieber is now hated by a broad swath of the American public

For me, fact #1 is a great reason to support Bieber. Having grow up in low-income housing, he’s certainly aware of how disastrous the Clinton presidency was to the American poor. Having lived in Canada, he is stunned at just how illiberal Clinton is and how cruel American society has become. The symbolic act of urinating in a mop bucket and denouncing Clinton was his first step in the direction of high-level performance art. If anything, we should encourage more artists to follow his lead of aggressive political art. As to the fact #2, I can’t hate anyone who eggs rich people’s houses.

Fact #3 is sad and personal; it strikes me as evidence that America is a nation of dicks. We are lead by the “journalists” at TMZ whose entire goal in life is too feed off of misery and insecurity. These writers are so incredibly dumb that even touching a book causes aneurysms so violent they require hospitalization. Instead of actually investigating, reporting or thinking, they make their money leeching off of actually talented and successful people. Like ringworms, they have embedded themselves in Bieber’s bowels and can only survive if he does, but constantly work to emaciate their host.

Bieber has done a lot of douchey things. I’ve done a lot of douchey things. All of my friends have done a lot of douchey things. You’ve done a lot of douchey things. The difference is, your douchey things and my douchey things aren’t national stories, because you and I don’t have voices like a fucking angel. A recent The Daily Beast story (perfectly shaped to by an atomic bomb of click-bait) compared Richard Sherman and Justin Bieber and declared Bieber a “thug.” The evidence:

In case of Justin Bieber, does any one [sic] doubt hat [sic] he would love to be called a thug? He clearly has been trying be seen as a bad boy for the past few years. He has reportedly threatened paparazzi and his neighbor with physical violence. Bieber is being sued by a photographer who claims Bieber beat him up. (Why anyone would admit to being beaten up by Bieber is beyond me?) And Bieber has done his best to convey the image on social media that he smokes marijuana.Earlier this week Bieber was again seen trying to cultivate his “thug” image. Bieber was reportedly in a Miami Strip club, “making it rain”—translation: throwing money at strippers as often depicted in rap videos.

 

Compare these misdemeanors (he smokes weed and goes to strip clubs! *gasp*) to say, Mark Wahlberg regularly beating the shit out of people in his youth, all the Woody Allen stuff or Eminem’s drug use. We don’t actually know Bieber, or what he’s like, instead we’re fed a narrative by TMZ and Hollywood Reporter that is meticulously shaped to create interest. TMZ’s article on him egging his neighbor’s house is an exercise in this Huxleyian game. After describing the egging, the author writes, “And, in a shamefully obvious ploy to make himself look good, he posted these pictures of himself with his little brother and sister.” Isn’t it possible that Justin Bieber made the dumb decision to egg his neighbor’s house and also very much loves his sister and brother? Must everything be black and white for the simpletons at TMZ?

Earlier this year I discovered that I was supposed to hate Anne Hathaway because she is a theatre girl or something. Right now, I’m supposed to love J-Law. It’s all narrative and all spin. When I hear these benign doings of celebrities, I’m reminded of the apocryphal quote of Christ, “he who is without sin, let him throw the first stone.”

Facts #4 and #5 are the most interesting. America holds two entirely contradictory ideas about itself. First, it believes it is a society of opportunity, and therefore inequality, where every man or woman can, through force of will, make themselves a fortune doing what they love. Second, we believe that all men are equal, and hold fiercely egalitarian sentiments. Thus, the “middle class” runs from roughly $30,000 a year to whatever you earn and truck drivers in El Paso vote for tax breaks on Park Avenue. Even the richest American pretends to be middle class just like you (see: Warren Buffett’s persona) and even the poorest among us is, as John Steinbeck noted, are “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

This dialectic means that we first build up a celebrity, often far beyond their merits and then, once they’ve reached the apogee of their success, begin violently tearing them down. We’ve all seen this cycle happen — Woods, Spears, Sheen — to name a few instances. But what is odd about the Bieber story is how perfectly he embodies the American Dream. He’s not a Ben Stiller or Frank Ocean or Jayden Smith or Luke Russert (or come on, let’s face it, basically every successful musician or actor) who was born to famous parents and managed to not totally fuck it up. Because masscult music and acting are so easy to do that almost anyone can do it passably, it helps to have a parent in the business. In contrast, Justin Bieber became successful from pure talent, drive and luck alone. He owes no one anything. How many actors, singers and bankers can say that these days? Not many. Justin Bieber may be the only shred of evidence that something like the American Dream exists. He is a self-made man, the epitome of meritocracy and democracy. Like Nietzsche’s overman, he has transformed the world to his will, re-valued all values and he did it through sheer talent and drive. So call me a Belieber.

Nietzsche has some harsh words for me (AKA the right thinks you’re “jelly”)

So, it’s not in my most recent Salon article, but this is one of my favorite Nietzsche quotes, not because I agree with him, but because it’s a far more potent formulation of what the right talks about today:

Ye preachers of equality, the tyrant- frenzy of impotence crieth thus in you for “equality”: your most secret tyrant-longings disguise themselves thus in virtue-words! Fretted conceit and suppressed envy—perhaps your fathers’ conceit and envy: in you break they forth as flame and frenzy of vengeance.

Basically, the right thinks we’re just jelly. As if to prove my point, the Wall Street Journal published this letter:

Regarding your editorial “Censors on Campus” (Jan. 18): Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the “rich.”

From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these “techno geeks” can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a “snob” despite the millions she has spent on our city’s homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?

Tom Perkins

San Francisco

Mr. Perkins is a founder of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

 

Could there be a Conservative The Daily Show?

I think yes. I haven’t finished the piece, or even pitched it anywhere, but here is a quote:

I don’t think there is anything inherent in Conservatism that would make it impossible to have a successful Conservative comedy show. The fact that there are Conservative political comedians who are successful would seem to belie the argument. But the real problem with these explanations is that ask the wrong questions.  These explanations fail to explain what’s going on by looking at the supply side. The real question is, “is there an audience for a Conservative version of The Daily Show.”

Any thoughts are appreciated.

 

So, I Twittered with Norm Macdonald for Two Hours Today

I just approved two dicky comments to my blog because I’m not a fascist. One of them complained about pronoun-antecedent agreement. Whatever. The last bastion of people with no argument is to hit you on your grammar. It’s easy, it’s lazy and since I write 1,000 –  2,000 words a day, some shit’s going to slip through. But the point of this post is: fuck you, Norm Macdonald and Andy Kindler like my piece.

Anyways, I have a piece coming out soon about Bill Hicks and it transpired (I use that word in the classic sense meaning, “came to be known” rather than “happened”) that Norm Macdonald does not like Bill Hicks at all.

 

He also doesn’t like Lenny Bruce:

I wish I could have interviewed Norm for my piece on Hicks, but I have a different view on his career [Hicks’s]. It’s tough to encapsulate Norm’s critique (I don’t know if I fully understand it) in tweets, because I still think Twitter is a bad place for debates, which is why, from now on, I’ll be moving these types of debates to here, on my blog. I think Hicks and Bruce were comedians, not journalists, because I think they were funny.

I’m not sure Norm is giving Bill enough credit for how profoundly funny he was. I mean, the guy kills, for god’s sake, my mom likes some of his bits. But there are three stages to Hicks. You have young Hicks, then you have alcoholic Hicks and then you have philosopher searching for meaning Hicks. I think Norm might dislike alcoholic Hicks and philosopher Hicks, but it’s hard to deny that young Hicks was a funny motherfucker. I really don’t think Hicks is derivative of Kinnison, although I know Sam criticized Hicks. I wonder if the same hate that a lot of people have for Leary because they think he stole, Norm might have for Hicks for the same reason. I’d like to see a more fully developed critique.

It is worth noting that Macdonald is a singular comedian. I mean, the guy is honest to the craft in a real way and it’s a shame most people only know him for some Comedy Central Roast. Watch some of his stand-up. It’s killer.  But I think that Norm conceives of comedy in a different way than Hicks does, as something more personal rather than political. He wants jokes and he sees Hicks and Bruce and Carlin as lecturing. That would explain why he likes Stanhope and Pryor, both of whom have an intensely personal brand of comedy (Stanhope got on stage and talked about a friend who had recently committed suicide in his [Stanhope’s] apartment).

But for me a big thing about writing the piece is that it was a personal journey. I learned to appreciate the ways that each comedian conceives of the craft differently. I mean comedians, not the derivative hacks, but real comedians. I honestly started to be able to appreciate things I had noticed before, and I found myself liking comedians that I hadn’t understood before. I also got to talk to people who knew Hicks which was cool because I wish I could have met the guy.

But anyways, long story short, apparently Norm thinks I’m pretty chill. I hope this blog post doesn’t kill that. Also, you may not know this but he’s a fan of Tolstoy and Chesterton.