They're both exceptionally talented broadcasters. But even more than laughs, the talk radio host wants to ingratiate himself to powerful conservatives.
In May 1994, my colleague James Fallows published a perceptive article about Rush Limbaugh that began by stating, "Most members of the professional class, and perhaps many readers of this magazine, will never take Limbaugh seriously enough or understand his appeal, because they have no chance to see him at his best."
Paying homage to the talk radio host's talent, the piece observed that his popularity couldn't be explained by politics alone -- after all, there are lots of conservative Republicans but very few capable of commanding an audience of many millions for 15 hours per week. "The element that has won for Limbaugh crossover listeners who would never sit still for Pat Buchanan or Jerry Falwell is his fusing of humor and Baby Boom-era pop culture with the conservative message," Fallows wrote. "The power of this approach seems obvious now that Limbaugh has demonstrated it, but before him the only two people who had figured it out were Lee Atwater and P J O'Rourke."
The piece went on to explain the host's brand of satire: "Anyone who has really listened to the radio show knows that Limbaugh is genuinely smart and funny--as opposed to merely shocking, like Morton Downey, Andrew Dice Clay, or the right-wing talk-show host of the 1960s, Joe Pyne ... Liberals who are used to thinking of Limbaugh as another Falwell or Buchanan should instead think of his radio program, at its best, as another Saturday Night Live. What Chevy Chase did to the stumbling Gerald Ford and what Dana Carvey did to George Bush is what Limbaugh threatens to do, day in and day out, to the Clintons, Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and anyone else on the left."
There was, however, a difference:
SNL, too, has a political bias--how many of its cast and crew can have voted for Bush or Reagan?--but it is not always predictable. In its time it has ridiculed Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and other Democrats. Limbaugh, in contrast, has become 100 percent predictable. He has not, as far as I know, said or written anything positive, ever, about Bill or Hillary Clinton. Nor in the past year and a half has he said anything remotely critical or disrespectful about Dan Quayle, Jack Kemp, Clarence Thomas, William Bennett, or other inherently satirizable conservative characters.
Limbaugh earned the crossover part of his following because of his image as a wild man who was not afraid to make fun of anything. (His most notorious and memorable step in this direction was "caller abortions": ending unwanted phone calls with the sound of a vacuum cleaner and a tiny scream. How could liberals say this was in poor taste?, Limbaugh asked straight-faced. Weren't they the ones who said that abortions were okay?) But he is now manifestly afraid to make fun of the Republican Party or its platform. The result is as if SNL and David Letterman were afraid to make fun of Bill Clinton: the jokes get old when they're all the same. For people who don't agree with Limbaugh, his show has always been outrageous. Now it's dull.
In subsequent years, Limbaugh's show would continue to eschew opportunities to poke fun at too many "inherently satirizable conservative characters" to count, until the talk show host was acknowledging, at the end of the Bush administration, that he'd carried water for wrongheaded actions undertaken by the president. The heavy-handed political constraints on Limbaugh's satire is part of the reason that the outrage factor on his show has been ramped up over the years: He is so careful to avoid offending the conservative movement's orthodoxies of thought that to keep from becoming predictable and dull, he must transgress against liberal political correctness in ways so outrageous that it isn't even satire anymore so much as calculated attempts to offend.
The latest example is his monologue riffing on news that Kraft is introducing a new Oreo cookie. Limbaugh, who accuses liberals of being race-obsessed, reacted by suggesting that the company name the cookie, which will include both chocolate and vanilla frosting, the "Or-Bam-eo."
As I read that old Fallows piece, I couldn't help but think about Jon Stewart, another entertainer who owes his success to fusing pop culture and politics and adroitly satirizing the latter. That Stewart is a liberal is obvious enough. The bulk of his audience is liberal too, but he also has a lot of crossover appeal -- like Limbaugh, he owes his success to being a talented broadcaster and a satirist much more than to any particular political or ideological stance that he takes.
Unlike Limbaugh, however, he hasn't encumbered his satire by refusing to aim it at ridiculous characters and hypocrisies on "his own side" -- liberals may have it marginally easier, but they don't get a pass. Recall Stewart's reluctant but devastating skewering of Anthony Wiener, a childhood friend of his and frequent guest on his show. Or any number of segments that explicitly or implicitly criticize the Obama administration. Or to cite an example from this week, consider how he responded when MSNBC host Ed Schultz absurdly claimed that Rick Perry was talking about Barack Obama when he said in a stump speech that there was "a black cloud" hanging over the economy. Stewart addresses the story, defending Perry, in the latter half of this clip:
In a subsequent segment, "The Daily Show" piles on, satirizing the larger habit of reading racism into metaphors where none exists -- just the sort of absurdity that Limbaugh might target (with less humor and more vitriol).
Here is that segment:
Why is it that Limbaugh is unwilling to skewer conservatives, while Stewart, a liberal, is apt to go after any target so long as it's likely to get a laugh? It isn't that Stewart loves the craft of what he's doing more. Any longtime Limbaugh listener knows that his love of the radio medium isn't a put-on, and that he takes great pride in being good at it. Perhaps Limbaugh understood that there was more money to be made and larger audiences to be won by championing one team. But I don't think that's it either. Indeed, I think that Limbaugh could've conducted himself more like Stewart and made as much money over the years, though we cannot really know for sure.