Haven’t really done any book reviews on the newsletter so far, which is a pity. So here’s the first: I look at a recent publication on right-wing comedy - something I have not yet tackled directly in here, but that is definitely adjacent to some of the edgier, platform-savvy comedians I have discussed before. Bet let’s do an unrelated link, first.
Some 20 years after Comedian, the documentary that followed post-sit-com Seinfeld as he broke back into the stand-up comedy scene, Marc Maron has finally interviewed the lesser sung (anti)hero of that movie, Orny Adams. Framed by the movie as pretty much an up-and-coming megalomaniac, a much more mature Adams tells Maron all about his career and how Comedian marked it indelibly.
This is my favorite type of WTF episodes - the cathartic ones. Warmly recommend.
Many years ago I was writing a thesis on South Park and, for obvious reasons, I came across a book titled South Park Conservatives. The book was authored by Brian C. Anderson (a conservative) and it praised the decentralisation of media ushered in by talk radio and the Internet as a much welcome sign that the monopoly of liberal media bias in the US was about to end. In terms of comedy and edgy youth culture in particular, Anderson mentioned South Park (more libertarian than conservative, but still relevant to some extent) and Vice Magazine (specifically co-founder Gavin McInnes, who however was not going to be there much longer) as examples of hip cultural phenomena that proved the young were not entirely lost to the leftist ideologies that, by his account, dominated the mainstream. Almost two decades later, it is easy to see how things went: the US mediascape has further fragmented, polarized, and globalized in ways that perhaps Anderson wouldn’t have anticipated (or even wished for?).
That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them, by Matt Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx, addresses the current predicament in far less optimistic terms, and from a diametrically opposed ideological perspective. In a nutshell, Sienkiewicz and Marx dissect what they describe as a “right-wing media comedy complex", to which most liberals remain oblivious because of another type of complex (psychological, this one) that prevents them from even considering convervatives as capable of humor. This mistake, the authors argue, leads to dangerously underestimating the role of comedy in facilitating the transmission of (increasingly more radical) political ideas.
Structurally, the book travels along a spectrum that covers different shades of “right-wing”, each of which the authors examine through 3-4 well detailed examples. From mainstream Fox News political comedy like Gutfeld! we move to boomer paleocomedians that make intentionally old-school, nostalgic humor to reinforce a community identity (Tim Allen, Dennis Miller), and then on to the religio-rational satire of the younger and edgier Ben Shapiro and Steven Crowder; after that, Sienkiewicz and Marx lead us through the familiar territory of libertarian podcasters like Joe Rogan and the slippery slope that are YouTube’s recommendation algorithms, finally landing us into full-blown alt-right troll territory with Sam Hyde, Nick Fuentes and The Daily Shoah.
A merit of the book is the authors take a political-economical angle, looking at the right-wing media comedy complex as a system founded on targeted audience as real-estate and (often digital) media platforms that offer a convenient infrastructure for those audiences to bump into each other and possibly mingle. In this scenario, podcasts like the Joe Rogan Experience serve not so much as strongholds for the conservative community (neither of the Fox News boomer kind or the edgy troll kind), but rather as a conduit that facilitates communication between those spaces, roping in passers by in the process; more moderate libertarians like Andrew Heaton, we learn, are instead failing to emerge because they refuse the “culture wars” narrative encouraged by his employers. The main affordance of the aforementioned complex is, in fact, access to people and revenue: since the era of South Park Conservatives, being a right-wing or right-wing friendly comedian grants access to a wider, algorithmically addressable market, which is increasingly independent and isolated from liberal media (not without some help from the latter).
There are some debatable choices in this taxonomy: Bill Burr is briefly mentioned as a paleo comedian, while his politics are hardly the same as Miller or Allen, and very relevant figures like Dave Rubin (a self-professed former “classical liberal” comedian turned conservative political commentator, who casually interviews white suprematists such as Stefan Molyneaux) are not really discussed. Nonetheless, Sienkiewicz and Marx’s approach is effective in outlining a complex and heterogeneous research object. The focus on media siloing, however, comes with some compromises.
As informative as it is on the key players in this right-wing media comedy complex (some of whom I had never heard of, like Michael Malice or The Babylon Bee), the book has to carry its argument on the back of an uncomfortable binary. Sure, there are conservative and liberal media organisations, as well as conservative and liberal comedians, but the lines between the two can be blurry, and even more so when it comes to the comedy itself. Whether a joke is right- or left-leaning (or offensive or not) often depends on a range of factors - including who says it, to whom, where, when, and in pursuit of what (see Berlant and Ngai’s discussion of Stewart Lee doing an anti-racist racist joke). Some comedians might be racially insensitive at one point (Colbert, Silverman, Kimmel) and then do better years later; others, while inhabiting liberal media spaces (e.g. Bill Maher on HBO), may wind up reinforcing conservative ideas like islamophobia or use the N-word in front of Ice Cube. And liberal comedy has plenty of currency in right- and even far-right-wing milieus, too: as discovered by Larry Charles in his very interesting Netflix series Dangerous World of Comedy, well-meaning (if sometimes ruthless) liberal comedians like Sasha Baron Cohen can be the inspiration for white-supremacist trolls (just like, as detailed by Angela Nagle, avant-garde aesthetics of transgression have generally informed the alt-right).
In my opinion Sienkiewicz and Marx could go deeper into the inherent ambiguity of comedy, which is both its strength and the reason it can be really dangerous. For example: can a non-racist person be caught off guard and laugh at a racist joke? What is the role of self-deprecating humor and self-stereotyping in the right-wing comedy complex? The authors do mention Nanette and the points made by Hannah Gadsby in this respect, but pretty much all of the comedians discussed are straight white men - and predictably so, but is that the whole picture? That I recall, this type of less comfortable questions are not directly addressed in the book. And to be fair, discussing them would have led into a very different project: the premise here is, after all, based on the “That’s not funny” reflex that liberals have when confronted with the idea of conservative comedy. The authors’ real-estate metaphor manages to somewhat resolve this tension by foregrounding traffic, clicks, and potential funding to increasingly radical voices as the material trail we must pay attention to. In so doing, they clearly distance themselves from almost all of the comedy they discuss, only occasionally admitting some of it is funny. The final message is, however, more nuanced:
“Ultimately, comedy scholars, critics, and gatekeepers must nurture comedy and allow it to develop as freely as possible. The pleasures of comedy should raise up political ideas and implications, with plenty of room for good-faith missteps, unintentional offenses, and just plain silliness. If liberals abandon these ideals, ideologically ambivalent comedy fans may well be attracted to a right-wing comedy complex that, if nothing else, celebrates pleasure and dismisses guilt." (p. 187)
Personally I agree with the above, but perhaps discussing the gray area in between the two aforementioned ideological poles a bit more in detail would have helped drive the point home more convincingly.
To conclude, I think That’s Not Funny addresses an important issue within media and comedy more specifically, outlining a clear (if sobering) scenario that both those familiar with borderline comedy and those completely oblivious to it can find useful. It is obviously a very US-centric book (even the globally accessible realm of UK comedy is pretty much absent from the review), but as an Italian consumer of North-American comedy I especially appreciated the contextualization of figures that might be more resonant with a local public. Ultimately, as Sienkiewicz and Marx note, the cultural resonance of right-wing ideas delivered through comedy is not to be underestimated, and even (or especially) countries like my own - where political correctness was never really a thing and conversations about it are often influenced by the less nuanced takes heard in the US mediascape - could learn a thing or two from that.
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Not quite the let down twas hoping for. Good stuff