The Plight of Conservative Comedy: Where's the Right's Daily Show?

Political philosophy isn't what keeps Republican-leaning comics from succeeding—it's corporate hurdles, cultural forces, and the demographics of show business.
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Flipside host Michael Loftus; Red Eye host Greg Gutfeld; The Daily Show's Jon Stewart; The Colbert Report's Stephen Colbert (Michael Loftus; Fox News; Comedy Central)

Fox News has astronomically high ratings. Rush Limbaugh rules talk radio. But liberals dominate political comedy. The few attempts to create a conservative satire show have either not found mainstream success (News Busted, a YouTube series with views typically in the low 30,000s), aired far outside of prime time (Red Eye, filling Fox’s 3 a.m. slot), or been promptly cancelled (Half Hour News Hour, with 13 episodes on Fox). Are right-leaning satires doomed to failure?

The creators of Flipside don’t think so. Their once-a-week program, in the vein of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report but with a generally conservative tilt, hosted by comedian Michael Loftus, will premiere this fall. Can it work?

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Most explanations for why Republican-friendly satire struggles pin blame on conservative philosophy. Comedian Mike Macrae told me in an email,

Most American comedy traditions stem from the concept of resisting or questioning authority on some level. Our comedy is about rascals and rule-breakers. Mark Twain skewered the notion of Europe's cultural hegemony over the rustic New World and its new nation of upstarts. Most Marx Brothers movies are essentially about them evading some arbitrarily deputized authority figure, be it the hotel detective or the sailor in charge of finding stowaways. Cheech and Chong wouldn't be as funny if marijuana weren't made pointlessly illegal by right-wing cultural pressures. The common thread in these and other American comedy staples has been that the foils are generally motivated by values that we tend to associate with conservatism or, in some cases, the Republican Party platform itself.

Alison Dagnes, an academic who examined politics and comedy in her book A Conservative Walks Into a Bar, came away with the conclusion that:

The nature of conservatism does not meet the conditions necessary for political satire to flourish: conservatism is harmonized and slow to criticize people in power, and it originates from a place that repudiates humor because it is absolute.

These theories may sound attractive—especially to liberals—but suffer from deep deficiencies. For one: Humor doesn’t rely on the objective nature of the social structure, but rather, one’s subjective understanding of it, which is often fraught with bias. For instance, majority of Republicans think that racial discrimination against whites is as bad as discrimination against minorities. “During the last four decades the Republicans and conservatives in general have conceded a lot of the progressive premises,” Kfir Alfia, one of the executive producers of Flipside, told me. “I would question that premise that conservatives are in a state of, or a position of authority.”

What’s more, skepticism of authority is a conservative tenet itself. It was the great conservative philosopher was Edmund Burke who said, “The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.” In the Obama era, there are plenty of liberal institutions ripe for mockery. South Park has brilliantly lampooned many of the left’s excesses, from PETA, to race, environmentalism, Al Gore, San Francisco smugness, abortion, tolerance, anti-smoking activists and celebrities, lots of celebrities.

So philosophy isn’t the problem. Indeed, history shows that conservative-leaning comedy isn’t inherently unviable. Half Hour News Hour, for example, did well in its time slot despite weak reviews. Financial concerns, not low viewership, killed it. “Essentially, they were trying to run a broadcast show on a cable budget,” Matthew Sheffield, an executive producer at Flipside told me. “It was a lot cheaper to run Oliver North’s ancient war clip show than it was to do that.”

Before Comedy Central settled on the Colbert Report/Daily Show model, it had Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn, a well-liked panel comedy show with many very funny conservative commentators in conversation with liberal ones. (For a representative segment, watch the famous Giraldo/Leary fight over North Korea.) But Tough Crowd struggled with ratings, especially with younger audiences, so it was cancelled to make room for Colbert. Before Tough Crowd, there was Bill Maher’s Emmy-winning Politically Incorrect, which, unlike his current show on HBO, Real Time, had more equally balanced panels and less demagoguery.

* * *

So if philosophy isn’t preventing conservative comedy from flourishing, what is? Structural, demographic, and financial issues.

Successful comics often rise up out of thriving, crowded standup scenes, which tend to mainly exist in urban areas. Jon Stewart, for instance, spent five years in the New York City comedy world before landing a show on TV. Big cities tend to be liberal, and it stands to reason that so would be the people who attend comedy clubs in them. Funny urbanites who are conservative may decide that there just isn’t much of a market for their political material. One comedian who I was referred to declined to be interviewed because, the comedian said, the conservative label, “has never been good to me.”

Similar impediments exist in the entertainment industry, which has a not-undeserved reputation for being run mainly by liberals. “People always ask why there aren’t a lot of really big conservative comedians but I think the deck is stacked against that and I doubt it will ever happen in my lifetime,” Nick Dipaolo told The Daily Caller, mentioning that he suspected that his politics were why HBO wouldn’t air a recent hour-long special he taped. There just aren’t many outlets for conservative comics. The feeling, as Stephen Kruiser writes on Breitbart, is that “most liberals in the entertainment industry expose themselves to conservatives about as readily as they would a leper colony.”

But the problem for right-leaning televised comedy may also have to do with audiences. Historically, it’s young people who have favored news mixed with humor, and polls have shown young people trending liberal for years. Fox News’ viewership is older, of a different generation than any up-and-coming standup comics, and many of its members hold pretty traditional views. That’s not exactly the audience that’ll help nurture boundary-pushing, conversation-making comedy. On Half-Hour News Hour, for instance, one writer complained that “the best material we wrote was rejected because the network considered it too controversial.”

In fact, the closest thing Fox News has to The Daily Show (Red Eye) is broadcast at 3 a.m. In Fox style, the show primarily takes the form of a panel and doesn’t include the more expensive-to-produce field pieces. Its racy humor might be off-putting to much of Fox’s primetime audience, but it’s doing relatively well with young people.

* * *

Loftus already has had a successful career as a comic and a writer. He has an hour-long special to his name (You’ve Changed) and he can woo a city crowd (he often stops by Hollywood Improv in LA for a set). Though I’m a liberal, I’ve enjoyed his bits before (and was excited to see him hosting the show).

If Flipside succeeds, it might be because in this era where high-quality web videos for niche audiences are thriving, it can avoid some of the structural obstacles other attempts at conservative satire have faced. Flipside’s looking for broadcast distribution, but it’ll also try to build an audience online. One of its producers, Kfir Alfia, has worked in TV before and seen “really, really funny things go through a horrible development process and have the funny squeezed out of them,” he says. “We’re not going to have a board of directors with a stick-up-their-ass network to have battles regarding content.”

The pilot episode of Flipside proves there’s plenty of potential material, though the punch lines could use some tuning. One bit mocks Harrison Ford for warning about the effects of global warming and then “flying his plane to get a hamburger.” It’s a promising setup, but the payoff—Mattera spraying aerosol cans in studio—falls flat. Another bit lampooning the possible Hillary Clinton documentaries is funny, but a jab about her attractiveness stuck me as gauche.

Of course, politically infused comedy from both sides of the spectrum is tough to pull off. As Norm Macdonald put it to me, “The problem with coming to comedy with any ideology is the surprise is gone. We know the punchline.” Marc Maron told me that he moved away from his more overtly liberal jokes, because “when you’re doing ideological comedy, from a point of view that pre-exists you, it’s very tricky not to carry water for someone else’s agenda.” The Daily Show, for example, seems aware of this. Jon Stewart happily mocks Democrats, drawing vituperative harangues from lefty viewers. The first great conservative comedy show will put humor before ideology. As Mark Twain noted, “Humor is never artificial.”

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Sean McElwee is a writer based in New York.

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