Humor and Politics: Why Republicans Aren’t Laughing

This year of Trump’s reign has cast an unexpected spotlight on the role of comedians in politics. Many comedians have set aside any illusion of neutrality to actively resist a regime they oppose. Gone are the good-natured political jabs of the Johnny Carson era, which hit both sides of the partisan fence, and in its place stand comics like Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah, to name a few, who are each in their own way tearing hard into this administration. Their own personal politics are not only on the table, but also flags they’re waving for a cause. Pushback from Trump and his staff has become a badge of honor.

So these are no king-pleasing court jesters. The comedian's role in the last couple of years has been twofold: one, liberal comedians, which appear to be most comedians, have in large part led the public resistance against Trump and his followers. Two, comedians have become investigative reporters, who break down political matters for public consumption, and deliver it with enough wit to make it palatable. Many of those with this approach to their comedy are proteges of Jon Stewart, who danced a magical and almost imperceptible line between hard political criticism and comedy on his half-hour Comedy Central hit, The Daily ShowHe moved satire boldly into the arena of partisan politics, though he insisted again and again he was just a comedian. He may have been, but those were some powerful jokes. For some, The Daily Show was their chief source of news, and Stewart’s perspective shaped their understanding.

By the time Trump took office, Stewart had stepped down, but left a small contingent of like-minded comics in the wings to take on Trump and his administration. The attacks have been swift and relentless, and every comedian worth his or her salt was expected to join in. When Jimmy Fallon, who has been clear not to be political by nature, tousled Trump’s hair during the campaign, many of his colleagues publicly critiqued such a softball move. Which raised the question: Is it possible not to be political in Trump’s America? Maybe not. But if most of the comedians given broad platforms are liberal, what are conservatives laughing at? Are they actually laughing?

Google offers a short list of conservative comedians, which includes Larry the Cable Guy, Adam Sandler and Jeff Foxworthy. Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy shared a Netflix special last year, which featured what now seems like safe, old-timey humor: they talked of wives, kids, proctology appointments, fat jokes, and only soft-hitting references to politics of the day. Larry the Cable Guy dismissed global warming. Foxworthy dismissed the presidential candidates running for office at the time as essentially the same, offering people what they neither want nor need. The comics’ decisions to avoid with gusto anything gritty or real — and instead just try to make a mostly-white crowd of middle-aged people laugh — seemed archaic, if cozy, in an era of combative comedy. 

As disenfranchised as liberals have felt lately, they have had one advantage, which is that there have also been plenty of reasons to laugh. Saturday Night Live revived its ratings with brilliant impersonations of Trump and key players in his administration. It helps to know that no matter what ridiculous Tweet emerges or infuriating policy is enacted during the week, SNL will be giving the White House its proper comeuppance Saturday night. It’s also satisfying to know — by way of the president’s Tweeting habits — that the impersonations are landing where they’re intended: right in the soft, fleshy part of Trump’s side.

But the fact that comedy is as politically uneven as it is raises eyebrows — or at least mine. If liberal comedians have lined up for battle, where are the conservatives? Conservatives must at times find liberals funny, with their thin-skinned idealism and mounting hostility toward gluten. They’re the ones who got grocers to proudly announce popsicles and carrots are gluten-free foods, for example, even though they have always been. That’s funny. You could mock what must seem from the other side like our histrionics and outrage. And maybe that is happening, but, if so, it doesn’t get anywhere near the same amount of air time. Why?

Some insights have come from CNN’s series The History of Comedy. On the show, Kent Alterman, the president of Comedy Central, says right-wing comedy tends to support the status quo. If left-wing comedy agitates for change, right-wing comedy would take issue with the agitators, in other words. Or it may avoid politics altogether and concentrate on family matters or daily observations, like Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy. It is possible in this era not to be a political comedian, but, the truth is, those are not the comedians most of us are paying attention to. Colbert, who hailed from The Daily Show before taking over for David Letterman on CBS, has taken on Trump administration with such vigor that his ratings are topping the late-night charts. Jimmy Fallon’s ratings, on the other hand, have fallen since the hair-tousling incident. It is simply no longer enough to be funny.

Stephen Colbert and I go to the same church, as it turns out. We’ve only met once, which was last month during the passing-of-the-peace. After mass I said something to him about taking down the Trump administration, just for fun. All he said was, “They’re just jokes; they’re just jokes.”

But I think we both knew that wasn’t the truth. Not anymore.

Cover Photo CBS