At the SXSW Interactive Festival this year, I moderated a panel goofily titled "Political Humor 2.0: Teh Internetz is Leaking." The panel was populated by lovely, funny brilliant people with political points of view: Carol Hartsell of Huffington Post Comedy, Rory Albanese of The Daily Show, and Sara Benincasa of VICE Magazine all who brought their own point of view as performers, editors and creators of politically charged humor content. The panel was an enormous success, with the panel detailing how comedy, even political comedy is best approached not from a political point of view, but rather a point of view of what is funny. Their case was well presented, thoughtful, unbiased and completely subservient to the greater truth that is comedy. Yet the moment that spoke volumes during the discussion was a moment when I asked for examples of conservative humor. Only Dennis Miller was mentioned, the rest was an awed silence.
I knew it would go down like that. Even while prepping for the panel it had become clear to me that the available resources for political humor were, by a huge margin, a ridiculously huge margin, leftist. My desire to be an evenhanded moderator was hindered by my lack of access to comedy or comedians who self-identified as right leaning. Regardless of how deep online I searched, there was little in the way of "Right-Wing comedy" that made any sort of mark on the political spectrum. Not in the enormous ways that Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have been making waves, by tying satire to genuine political action. At best, right wing comedy seemed to be relegated to the notorious conservative radio talk show circuit, where pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter gently dip their toe into satire from time to time and Dennis Miller holds court as the sole comedian who will dive into conservative politics exclusively.
It was at that point in my research that I reached out to Professor Peter McGraw who has been studying what makes people laugh and the nature of comedy and humor in his ongoing series, "The Humor Code."
During our brief discussion, Professor McGraw admitted to me that there was no real research on my chosen subject, and so the best we could do was speculate and hypothesize based on some sincere observations. The conversation that ensued was a frank discussion not on whether or not humor leans left, or whether progressives were just more clever or interesting, but rather a real conversation on why precisely, political humor and comedy does skew left in our day and age, without falling into a trap of motivated reasoning that would skew my panel too much.
Here were my top revelations as to why comedy and humorists skew more liberal, following my brief conversation with Professor McGraw:
1. Comedy is inherently subversive.
You don't see many zingers or one-liners in the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address or the Bible. Why not? I'm sure Leviticus could have done with some Bill Hicks-style self-awareness. Maybe a couple of Jeff Ross-style pokes at King George would have made the Declaration of Independence timeless in a completely different way. Those who hold the power know very well just how damaging and subversive well-placed satire can be, so those in power see little good coming from mocking themselves and the institutions they preserve.
2. Comedy is often a coping mechanism for adverse situations.
You don't have to look too far or too deep to realize that comedy speaks to unfairness and injustice. If you haven't experienced them, if there's no struggle, there's less need to find a redeeming quality to your situation by injecting humor into your life. As Prof. McGraw put it, "If you think the world is great, what is there to poke fun at?"
We can also look at the great traditions of humor that come from places that have endured tremendous hardships. One need only invoke the great European Jewish tradition of humor, the humor of places like Ireland, and currently, the nascent Middle Eastern comedy scene.
3. It is easier to sell to the 99% than the 1%.
Comedy is part of entertainment, and entertainment is a business. As a numbers game, its flat out more profitable to mock the establishment when the rest of us will be buying tickets to your shows. Consider it large target marketing when you shill for the downtrodden masses.
Let's face it, the tradition of Card-Carrying, Left-leaning, Pinko comics is a great one. A kid aspiring to comedic greatness can look to Charlie Chaplin, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Janeane Garofalo, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Marc Maron, if they care to lean left. However, the pickin's are slim on the other side of the aisle. Like it or not, the success of lefty comics makes the leftist tradition of comedy a self-fulfilling prophesy.
5. The Truth
Stephen Colbert once stated that "Reality has a well known liberal bias" and we've all heard the term "It's funny cause it's true" lamely added to punchlines for most of our lives. Comedians have an almost religious belief that what they do is in part truth-telling. In an increasingly transparent and interconnected world, it is difficult not to mock the discrepancies between the day-to-day reality of people and the insane excesses or political pandering of the ruling classes. While the left is guilty of its own propaganda and doublespeak, it is undeniable that the Right seems to be in a high speed dive towards absurdity so transparently errant, that it makes for simple fodder to those looking to mock. As Rory Albanese of The Daily Show pointed out during our panel," Santorum is Anti-College! How can you not make fun of that?" For my part, I've found that the most brazen lies about human sexuality, reproductive rights, health care, the environment, energy, foreign relations, and our president's background, all seem to be emanating from a political party who is having to do cartwheels of logic in order to keep from stumbling on its own silly reasoning. As long as one side of the aisle continues to dominate in a childish form of debate where practicality takes a back seat to weird obsessions over sex and morality based on 1950's sitcoms, then we can rest assured that those who mock and taunt and point out our faults, will continue to hone in on the political right.