As the Middle East spirals into war, the economic “recovery” continues to enrich Wall Street but skip Payne Avenue, and the national debt stands ready to leap from “OMFG that’s high!” to “OMFFFFFG that’s really murtha-farging high!”, our nation’s political class is deeply enthralled with the departure of cable TV star Jon Stewart from The Daily Show, and What It All Means.
Oliver Morrison at The Atlantic confims my thesis that nobody named “Oliver” who isn’t also named “Wendell Holmes” or “Hazard Perry” ever did anything worthwhile, in this bit of brow-furrowing and navel-gazing over why there’s no “conservative Jon Stewart”.
I’m not going to bother pull-quoting the article a whole lot; the guy’s name is Oliver, for chrissake. There’s really one big thing you need to know about the article.
The One Big Thing You Need To Know About The Article: It’s wrong.
Three Theses: To be fair, Morrison takes a game whack at it; the piece is unexpectedly short on much overt condescension and patronization. Morrison thinks there are three potential reasons that there’s no “conservative Jon Stewart”:
- There are fewer conservative comedians
- “Political humor has a liberal bias”
- Conservatives and Liberals have different senses of humor
None of them is right; one of them is a classic example of self-absorbed tone-deafness. Two of them come close, but not for the reason Oliver “Who The Hell Names Their Child Oliver” Morrison thinks.
The Number Game: There are fewer conservative comics. Indeed, there are fewer self-identified “conservatives” in most “creative” fields; writing, music, art, dance, film, and certainly comedy.
Morrison cites an academic - Alison Dagnes, a poli-sci prof at that home of comedy, Shippensburg University – who says conservatives are less likely in particular to be drawn to the lifestyle involved in getting established in “comedy”; awful hours, lousy pay, a very steep learning curve with rare tangible rewards is just the beginning; “success” adds in endless travel, often crummy working environments, and very long odds of ever being able to support oneself, barring getting that shot at the big time. There’s probably a point there; given a choice between putting in ten years in crappy nightclubs, or ten years at a bank or factory or software company or pretty much anywhere else, most conservatives will take the, er, conservative choice.
And I think there’s something to this.
And I think Morrison and his panel of experts missed an offshoot of this thesis that illuminates the truth a lot more effectively.
We’ll come back to that.
A National Healthcare Plan Walks Into A Bar…: The second theory – political satire fundamentally favors the left – is easier to dispatch. The idea is that the reality of this world is just plain easier for the left to tackle than for the right.
In what I’ll be nice and call “support”, Morrison quotes Prof. Dagnes: “Conservatism supports institutions and satire aims to knock these institutions down a peg,” she wrote.
Which is true in a sense – conservatism supports tried-and-true intellectual, moral and political institutions – and complete baked wind in another; there is no institution bigger than the government, and networks of governments, that liberals support.
Morrison goes a little further – and comes as close to the truth as this thesis gets:
Theorists have been trying to explain humor as far back as Plato. The ancient Greek philosopher said humor got its power from the pleasure people get when they feel superior over others, laughing at their foibles and flaws.
We’ll come back to that one as well.
Teri Gross Is A Gas: The third theory; conservatives and liberals prefer different strains of humor.
One of Morrison’s pet academics trots out the claim that liberals prefer irony while conservatives prefer hyperbole. Morrison’s “evidence”: the difference between Stewart and Rush Limbaugh; against Stewart’s “deft satire” (big talk for mugging and snark – and I’m a Stewart fan) – Morrison cites Limbaugh’s referring to Sandra Fluke as a “slut” as the apotheosis of his sense of humor.
Which is as patronizing a few as one can take; Limbaugh walked back and apologized for the “slut” slur – and Limbaugh’s humor is a lot more subtle than that. Limbaugh has a keen ear for affectation, and weaves his impression of it into a very sneaky, deft satire that sneaks up on you if you hear it, and that’s easy to miss entirely (as liberal critics tend to) if your frame of reference is entirely stereotype (as it is with liberals slumming it and listening to Rush). Camille Paglia gets it - but Camille Paglia is the rare lefty that can park ideology long enough to form a coherent, dissident opinion, and much of the left hates her for it.
But again – there is a grain of truth here. We’ll revisit that grain in a bit.
Funny People: There is, however, one thread that all three of Morrison’s theses have in common, that I believe does explain pretty capably why liberals dominate “comedy”.
If there’s one thing I do in fact like less than Jon Stewart, it’s self-indulgent social-”science” studies that torture often sketchy, minimal and/or out-of-context data to reach a self-serving conclusion, usually some flavor of “liberals are smarter, more enlightened and better people”.
With that in mind, I’m going to cite a bunch of research in that general weight class.
This blog has cited over the years – usually with tongue firmly in cheek – numerous surveys showing that conservatives are happier than liberals; they have better sex lives, they’re less angry, more open-minded and accepting of cognitive dissonance. Again – I mention them tongue-in-cheek…
…while noting that it confirms by (admittedly biased) observations in the real world.
Now, the thing about comedy is is that it doesn’t come from happiness; it comes from pain, anger and hurt. And it shows; many standup comics are among the most dismal human beings you can imagine – although by no means all; I have some very good friends who are comics, and wonderful people. Still, at the time of my life when I spent a lot of time with comics – when I was producing Don Vogel, almost thirty years ago – I noticed it; standup comics were disproportionately angry, peevish, churlish, oversensitive and cranky.
If conservatives are happier – and you can take or leave the studies at your leisure – then it’d stand to reason that they’d feel less desire to use humor to pass the anger on down the comedic food chain to the next less-fortunate sap. Happy people don’t feel the need to pass misery on.
And that, I suspect, is why there isn’t a “conservative Jon Stewart”, and likely never will be. And never needs to be.