Just Asking — Where are Conservative Comics Hiding?

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Bolder FresherAnd now, ladies and gentlemen, the funniest duo to hit the Las Vegas Strip since Waylan Flowers and Madam: Bill O’Reilly and Dennis Miller… a neo-Rat Pack of two, live at Caesars Palace!

Perils of a Malfunctioning Spam Filter

Yesterday, I received what I first thought was the most ill-directed promotional email in marketing history. There in my New Mail, along with announcements from my in-box regulars, MoveOn.org, Planned Parenthood, the Progressive Caucus Action Fund, etc., was an email informing me that Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, and the right’s favorite wry-guy, Dennis Miller, will be appearing as a team at Caesar’s Palace on November 15 at 8 PM as part of their “Bolder and Fresher” tour. Bravely, my mouse and I clicked on the link.

The slick and well designed “Bolder and Fresher” website promised me an evening of so much boldness, freshness and hilarity from these two that I probably would not recover. Oh, and that I should get my tickets early because if I wait and the show sells out, I will be filled with longing and regret.

Disturbingly enough, a sell-out for these guys is a distinct possibility. According to the site, the duo’s Nashville date in October is already sold out and the VIP seating in Las Vegas is also unavailable. In fact, the only show on the three-date tour that still has seating available in all sections is an appearance in Florida.

So, there is a sold out night with Bill O’Reilly and Dennis Miller amid the glitz and gaud of a Sin City showroom? I didn’t think it was possible, but Las Vegas, Nevada has now officially gotten weirder.

What would such a show be like? I wondered. Miller would probably do his usual smug-but-oddly self-conscious brand of politically tinged observational humor. What about his friend, though?  I imagined O’Reilly doing a musical version of his infamous “F… it, we’ll do it LIIIIVE!” on-set tantrum, with plumed showgirls playing the parts of his terrified crew.

Even more frightening, what would the audience be like? I remembered the unruly bunch at the Republican Presidential Debates who gave rousing ovations to the death penalty and people dying from lack of health insurance. Will the audience be those folks—only drunker?

Laugh Imbalance

While the initial absurdity of an O’Reilly/Miller Vegas revue sank in, it made me wonder: why is it that, with the lone exception of Miller, there are absolutely no popular political funny folk on the right?

The left is awash in successful political funny men and women; Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Steve Colbert, Jean Garofalo, David Cross, Lewis Black, not to mention the less political but equally liberal comics, such as Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, David Letterman, Woody Allen and Larry David.

The right has Dennis Miller.

Historically, it was just as lopsided. Mark Twain and Will Rogers, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, all the way up to the casts and writers of “That was the Week That Was” in the 60s and “Saturday Night Live” thereafter– all shared varying degrees of lefty philosophy.

Maybe things were different long, long ago. Legendary right-winger Attila the Hun might have been a real cut-up around the campfire, but in modern history I can’t think of one conservative political humorist who even comes close to the name recognition and success of any one of the above listed names.

The plight of the humorless conservative is not unique to America. The BBC’s Commissioning Editor, Caroline Raphael, admitted in a March 13 Daily Mail interview, “It’s very difficult to find conservative comedians to appear on radio programmes in order to provide political balance.” Apparently, the Beeb had been stung by criticism from conservative listeners that their humor always tilted left. So off they went in search of funny people from the right, but couldn’t find any.

Why?

On its face, this political humor disparity doesn’t make sense. Liberals shouldn’t have a lock on funny. All human beings like to laugh, and despite what today’s House Republicans might have us believe, conservatives are human beings too. In fact, some of my funniest friends are conservatives. A few even make their livings as funny people — writers, radio personalities and stand-up. Very funny, but when it comes to work, they stay far away from politics. The Kelsey Grammer Syndrome, I believe it’s called.

Potential audience couldn’t be the problem. As ratings for Fox News and huge Arbitron numbers for right-wing radio grunters attest, there are plenty of conservatives out there in Mediaville waiting for some quick conservative wit to stick it to we mushy-headed liberals. So, what’s going on here?

Nature of the Conservative Beast

An often-cited reason for conservative unfunny-ness is the right’s traditional siding with those in power. As Jon Bershad noted in a Mediaite article, humor is just naturally on the side of the little guy. “For every one joke, sketch, or sitcom about a competent boss with incompetent employees, there are 50 jokes that are the exact opposite,” says Bershad.

Conservative worship of the powerful just seems to be a natural laugh dampener. For example, laws and organizations that protect people from greedy fat-cats may be favorite targets for conservatives, but imagine trying to get a laugh making fun of consumer protection laws or regulations on big banks when your audience is full of people who have been ripped off by businesses and big banks. Or try getting a few chuckles poking fun at other conservative targets, such as healthcare reform and minimum wage protections. “Hey, heard the one about the minimum wager who couldn’t afford health care and died?” Tough room, indeed.

Self-Deprecation, Marco Rubio’s “Water Moment” and Hyperbole

Another problem for conservatives seems to be a fear of self-deprecation. The humorist’s ability to poke fun at himself was as important to Will Rogers as it is to Steven Colbert today. Not only can highlighting one’s faults be funny as hell, it is also an effective way of putting members of the audience in the performer’s corner. But for some reason or reasons, high-profile conservatives simply do not do self-deprecation. I watch enough Fox News to know that Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity would rather turn their homes into Planned Parenthood clinics than make fun of themselves.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s “water moment” during Rubio’s rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union address was a classic conservative self-deprecation failure… on live national TV.

Anybody who speaks publicly on a regular basis is familiar with the little land mines that can present themselves at the most inopportune times. A sneaky sneeze, a relentless hiccup, a lost train of thought — the list is endless. In Rubio’s case it was dry mouth. That may not sound too bad to those who’ve not experienced this particular public speech impediment. But believe me, when you’re trying to grunt out a syllable and some grout-like substance has glued your tongue to the roof of your mouth, the strange noises emanating from your lips can seem louder than your voice. There is only one solution: Water, stat.

If Rubio had one drop of self-deprecating instinct, he would have stopped speaking, raised his hand in the universal “hold on a moment” signal, grinned an apologetic, “these things happen” grin, then reached for and sipped from the bottle of water. Had he done those things, he would have made many friends that night by transforming his adobe-mouthed embarrassment into a funny and likeably human moment.

Instead, Rubio looked like a shoplifter trying to boost a bottle of Evian from a Stop ‘n Go — furtively trying to snatch the bottle while 30 million viewers weren’t looking, and then inexplicably staring into the camera while he drank, as if he hoped we might think it was all just one long comma and that we hadn’t noticed his predicament and projectile flop sweat.

On the rare occasions conservatives experiment with self-jabbing, as I recently saw Glenn Beck valiantly attempt to do, it comes off self-conscious and stilted. Their hearts just aren’t in it. The same holds true for Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, John Stossel and every high profile conservative I can think of. Plenty of criticism dished out by these folks, very little self-directed.

Exaggeration or hyperbole is another major component of humor  — especially of political humor — that works against the conservative laugh seeker. Taking political people, views and policies to their extremes is funny. A lefty taken to the logical end becomes a tree-hugger, a bleeding-heart dupe, etc. — in other words, someone who cares too much about the common good. A conservative taken to his logical extreme becomes a reactionary, a fascist or greedy oppressor of the masses — someone who doesn’t give a damn about anybody else.  Not much humor in that.

The Basics

Perhaps the reason for this strange comedic disparity lies in the difference between the two ideologies’ foundational beliefs about the nature of man. Which of the following ideas might set a better comedic mood? “With all his faults, man is basically good and will do good under ideal conditions” or “Man is essentially a base, craven creature clawing out an existence apart from his fellow man.”

Or, maybe I’m just over-thinking this whole thing. Maybe the reason there are more laughs and comics on the left is just a matter of material. Although current high-profile Republicans have done a lot of damage, their views are frequently a godsend to liberal comics. Pregnancy-proof rape, trying to repeal Obamacare for the hundredth time, anti-Sharia law legislation, undetected-but-rampant voter fraud, Rand Paul for President, just about everything Louie Gohmert says… The only joke writing problem for the Jon Stewarts of the world:  which will get the biggest laughs? Respectfully

See you in Vegas, baby!

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Editor’s note—we are actively seeking responses from both Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Miller and would welcome an opportunity to interview both or either of them here in L&L, as well as have them comment about this article.

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Russ Buchanan About Russ Buchanan

Russ Buchanan’s work can be found in such disparate publications as the Houston Chronicle, Motley Fool, Op/Ed News, Daily Kos, Midnight Graffiti Magazine and many other lesser-known-but-ambitious publications, including his labor of love, Craving Sense -- the Russ Buchanan Blog. Buchanan, who also works in advertising as voice talent and copywriter, lives in Woodland Hills, CA with his demanding wife, Jessie, and two evil dogs. Buchanan often lies awake at night pondering life’s eternal mysteries, such as: How did Buchanan’s previous career as a huge-haired, singing bass player give way to writing?