The Babylon Bee, an online satire publication that launched in 2016, has become a popular destination for Christians disaffected with megachurch culture and right-wingers who crave clever commentary about the hypocritical left. Kyle Mann, the website’s editor in chief, sometimes gives talks on college campuses. For conservative students, he told me, “It’s like they found their underground cabal of secret comedians who agree with them.”
Mann came to the comedy world almost by accident. He had a high-pressure job in construction sales before working at The Bee; he first got involved with the site by cold-pitching a joke. Although political humor drives much of The Bee’s web traffic, the publication’s signature hits focus on what the writers see as shallowness in the evangelical world. Christian humor is a big part of what drew Mann to the site: As a young man, he left the megachurch in which he was raised and moved toward more theologically conservative circles—”my rebellious teen stage,” as he put it.
Listen to Emma Green’s interview with Kyle Mann on The Experiment, a podcast about people navigating our country’s contradictions.
In his new book, The Babylon Bee Guide to Wokeness, co-authored with Joel Berry, The Bee’s managing editor, Mann includes a cartoon of a church with its steeple replaced by a raised fist, a symbol of Black Power and the Black Lives Matter movement. I wanted to understand whether Mann sees his jokes as part of a crusade against the left or as something else—and how he reconciles mocking people with the tenets of his faith. “Just being completely honest and vulnerable with you, there’s a level where you have to stop yourself and say, ‘This isn’t good for my soul,’” he told me.
Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Emma Green: Do you remember the first Babylon Bee story you ever read?
Kyle Mann: I remember the day The Babylon Bee launched. I was like, “I have to get involved with these guys.” There was an op-ed from a Christian who says, “There’s a fifteen, maybe twenty percent chance I’ll remember to pray for you, brother.” It probably didn’t even do well on social media. But there’s something about a good joke where, even if only a few people get it, it just connects with their soul.
Green: What spoke to you about it?
Mann: A lot of good comedy has a kernel of truth in it. It’s an unspoken truth in Christian circles that everybody has this veneer of spirituality at church. That always bugged me—people who were like, “Yes, brother, I’ll pray for you. The Lord bless you.” You wonder if they’re being real or fake. “I'll pray for you” just becomes this nicety. He’s saying what we all are thinking, and yet nobody’s really put it into words.
Green: Who is the audience for The Babylon Bee?
Mann: I’m always amazed when we get emails from overseas missionaries who are underground and can’t reveal where they are, being like, “Hey, you guys are keeping us sane.” The Boomers love us. We got the Boomer-humor market locked down.
Green: Are you proud of that, or a little ashamed?
Mann: Gen Z humor sucks, so I’m cool to be called “Boomer humor.” And every time I go and do a speaking engagement, there are a lot of college students who are maybe the only conservative in their class. In a lot of areas, being the conservative is punk rock, you know?
For them, it’s like, “You guys are writing comedy that doesn’t hate me.” It’s like they found their underground cabal of secret comedians who agree with them.
Green: It sounds like your audience is more likely to be the red dot in a sea of blue than the red dot in deep-red territory.
Mann: That’s a lot of it. We’ve got a large audience in Texas and the South too. But most of us are in Southern California. For us, life is being that red dot.
Green: Do people ever pitch headlines that are too offensive for you to publish?
Mann: Yeah, for sure. All the time. And we know there’s a sizable portion of the internet that would love to dogpile on us if we tell a joke that can get misinterpreted. As an editor, I have to think along those lines. Like, “I know exactly what lefty Twitter is going to say as soon as we publish that.”
Green: Are you scared of lefty Twitter?
Mann: They’ve hated us for five years. It doesn’t really matter that much. But at the same time, we want to be careful. I don’t want to make it easy for them.
We did this great joke where we said, “AOC accidentally strangles herself with her shoelaces.” And then we put in the headline, “Because she is so stupid.” We’re making fun of stupid Boomer jokes about [Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]. We’ve reposted it to Twitter a few times. Every time, lefty Twitter gets so upset. They’re like, “I can’t believe they wrote this joke. It’s not even funny.” And every single time, we say, “We apologize for this joke. We just want to clarify that the joke is that she strangled herself tying her shoes because she’s so stupid.” And then they get mad at that. It’s hilarious. We’re the only ones in on the joke.
Green: You guys wrote an article in January 2020 that was shared roughly 3 million times, claiming that Democrats called for the American flag to be flown at half-staff when the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was killed in an American strike.
What makes this funny? I know that’s the worst question to ask somebody who writes jokes.
Mann: It’s funny because General Soleimani died and then they called for flags to be flown at half-mast. Get it?
Green: But that’s what I’m saying. Besides just saying the joke again, what makes it funny?
Mann: Do you want me to explain the joke to you? Because the joke is that General Soleimani died and Democrats were sad.
If you don’t know why that’s funny, then you’re not the audience for the joke. The funniest part is that it got fact-checked because it was so believable that Democrats would do that. That’s a real honor.
Green: It sounds like this is a Supreme Court and pornography thing: You know it when you see it. You either laugh or you don’t, and if you’re in the don’t category, we can’t help you.
But I want to ask about the fact-checking part. I don’t think the reason Snopes fact-checked it was because it was so plausible. I think it’s because it was being shared millions of times. What if people did believe it was real? Do you worry about that, regardless of how many times you make it clear that you’re a satire publication?
Mann: Not really. Comedy has been mistaken for reality for years. We write for Facebook and Twitter. What makes the comedy work is that when someone’s scrolling through their newsfeed and they read a Babylon Bee headline, they’re not prepared to laugh. They’re prepared to consume a news article or an editorial or an op-ed. Then they do a double take and go, “Wait a minute …”
Green: Does that impose any ethical responsibility on you?
Mann: Not any more than any other comedian whose joke gets mistaken for reality. Does SNL bear responsibility because people still think Sarah Palin said she could see Russia from her house?
Green: You feel like you get slammed for it more because you lean conservative.
Mann: We absolutely do. I don’t want to sound like, “We’re so persecuted.” We have a popular website that’s done very well. But we’ve seen this time and again with fact-checkers who accuse us of intentionally muddying the waters or spreading misinformation, versus the way they would fact-check other sites. I leave it up to people to determine if that’s political or not.
Green: I want to talk about one of the drawings in your new book—one at the beginning of Chapter 2, which is about race. It has three little stick figures: one that’s peach-colored that says “bad”; one next to it that’s gray that says “better”; and one to the right that says “best.” That one is black.
Why do you think that is funny?
Mann: Well, it’s because being peach is not good. Being gray is better. And being black is best.
Green: Right, but you’re not just talking about stick figures. You’re making a joke about how progressives think about the hierarchy of race.
Mann: I’m not going to sit here and deconstruct and explain every joke to you. We’re taking this ridiculous position in order to mock something—to make fun of this idea that your skin color matters in setting up a hierarchy of the oppressed versus oppressor class. If you really don’t get the joke, I can’t help you.
Green: You were saying before that you think part of what makes jokes work is that they tend to hold a seed of truth. Do you think the mentality you’re describing is actually true to progressives in America?
Mann: Absolutely. Obviously, not everybody on the left thinks like that. What satire does is it takes this extreme position and exaggerates and stretches it to the point of absurdity. There are crazy racists on the far right. And there are crazy racists on the far left. To find the humor, you have to play on those fringes. If we said, “Well, there’s some nuance here …” you’re not making a joke anymore. Now you’re just writing a think piece.
Green: Do you see your role as a comedian as standing up and fighting the left?
Mann: Not particularly. I don’t see us as culture warriors. There are a hundred Onion knockoffs out there. We could’ve come out with another one that makes jokes that Trump is bad and the right is racist. Nobody would know who the heck we were because there’s already a hundred sites doing that. For us to be the one site that punches the other way is where we really found our audience.
You have to make fun of yourselves. We do that fairly often. It’s just that there’s this huge need and desire for people to mock the left. Every single late-night show is run by a liberal. They’re all saying the same jokes every night. Why not joke in the other direction?
Green: You’re describing a market opportunity. I wonder if there’s any part of you that earnestly believes the woke mentality you’re skewering in your book needs to be opposed and made ridiculous?
Mann: Absolutely. What satire does well is it deconstructs something. It exposes it. It’s shredding something. Wokeness is a very easy target for us—it’s self-parodying. And we believe it is worthy of being mocked.
Green: Do you feel like your work at The Babylon Bee helps you live out what you see as the image of Jesus in the Bible?
Mann: Sure—the Jesus who is flipping over tables and calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers. There’s a long pattern in the Bible of prophets and preachers who mock folly. My hope is that we can do something similar through The Babylon Bee.
I think what you’re really asking is, “What is Christian about mockery?” There is a place for that in the Bible. But I do think there is a danger to it. Just being completely honest and vulnerable with you, there’s a level where you have to stop yourself and say, “This isn’t good for my soul.” Take a deep breath, step back, and write some church jokes or silly jokes about husbands and wives or everyday life. I don’t want to be online, looking at stuff, and saying, “That person is on the right team and this person is on the wrong team.” Writing too much satire can put you in that mode.
Green: But there’s a big difference between prophetic voice and mockery. Isaiah is a pretty humorless dude. Jesus certainly calls out those who are powerful and strong, like in the Sermon on the Mount, but that doesn’t feel the same as taking a swipe at people who are weak and vulnerable.
Who do you think Jesus would mock? And do you feel like you take on the same targets Jesus does?
Mann: Well, for one thing, Isaiah is funny! He mocks sinners who worship idols, everybody from the poor to the rich. But I reject the punch-down, punch-up dichotomy. The main litmus test of comedy is, “Is it funny?” We’re going to continue to make fun of people, no matter if it’s seen as punching up or punching down.
Would Jesus joke about the things that The Babylon Bee jokes about? Yeah, I think Jesus would make fun of the most powerful man in the world, the president of the United States. I think he would call to repentance the LGBTQ community. I think he’d make fun of major corporations. I think he’d make fun of universities. The real irony right now is that the left controls a ton of our cultural institutions and still thinks they’re oppressed.
Jesus was here to call sinners to repentance. Jesus wasn’t a socialist, nor was he a Republican.
Green: He wasn’t there to get Facebook traffic.
Mann: He would not have had a Facebook account, that’s for sure.
Green: How do you check in with yourself about whether the work that you’re doing is Christ-like?
Mann: C. S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man that we can’t keep on seeing through things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. There are things worthy of mockery, but there are also things not worthy of mockery. We’re trying to deconstruct things to get people to see something else.
Why don’t we make fun of Trump all the time? Why don’t we make fun of Biden all the time? Why don’t we make fun of the American political system all the time? It’s because there’s no hope there. Ultimately, I think that’s why the left gets so upset when you make fun of progressive beliefs. The left believes they’re going to create utopia on Earth through their politics. They believe that in some way, politics will save them.
We don’t believe that’s what’s going to save the world. We have a hope that goes beyond this world, and we want to point that out. That is where we see satire fitting into a biblical worldview. Let’s mock people who hold cultural power and let’s communicate truth to a culture that many times does not believe in an objective, universal truth any longer.
Now what that’s doing for my soul … That’s something that each writer has to [evaluate] on their own.