Since it was first tweeted in 2018, “The right is starting to get better at comedy and it’s making lefties nervous” has remained a meme used to mock the idea of conservative comedy. But in spite of constant disregard, conservative comedy has thrived. From the ratings smash Gutfeld! to Patreons earning $200,000 a month appealing to this new audience, con-com has gotten too big to ignore. In their new book That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them, academics Matt Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx capture exactly how we got here and how the right-wing comedy ecosystem works. As they explain in the book’s introduction, “The ways in which people discover new comedy today — algorithmic suggestions on YouTube, retweets on Twitter, cross-promotion on podcasts — provide a set of pathways that connects more banal right-wing humor to the truly evil stuff, up to and including actual neo-Nazis comedy spaces.”
On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Sienkiewicz and Marx discuss the book and how the figures featured in it — from Tim Allen to Joe Rogan to Holocaust deniers — are all connected. You can read an excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Your book’s called That’s Not Funny, referring to how often this topic, when it comes up in mainstream-media sources, is treated: “This is not funny,” implying “so it doesn’t exist.” It becomes this thing where larger and larger cultural phenomena are dismissed.
Nick Marx: The bigger argument of the book is that liberals have been burying our heads in the sand for the last five, ten years. This happens on a number of fronts. Matt and I started in the academic realm, and we noticed fellow researchers miscategorizing what was pretty clearly stuff meant to make you laugh. They would call it something else — “outrage programming” or “news infotainment.” This in turn gets picked up by mainstream publications that run headlines like “Why Don’t Conservatives Like to Laugh?” and “Why Is There No Conservative Jon Stewart?” It’s this kind of self-perpetuating thing that’s like sticking your fingers in your ears going, “La, la, la, I’m going to pretend it’s not there.”
There’s a taste-based argument that we’re making when we call the book That’s Not Funny, because we’ve been judging this on its admittedly kind of clunky, bad joke writing. One of the bigger-picture issues, though, is the extent to which the social-media universe has siloed audiences from one another. The algorithms of Facebook and social media feed us things that it knows we want to see, and in the event that something from outside of that bubble breaks through, it’s probably going to be something that we as liberals react to with a visceral, I don’t like that. That’s not what I find funny. It doesn’t align with my taste. And it keeps the cycle going of, That doesn’t make me laugh. Therefore, it’s not comedy at all.
The book is broken down into levels of a “complex.” The first chapter is called “Fox News and Mainstream Right-Wing Comedy” and focuses on the Fox News careers of Jesse Watters and Greg Gutfeld. Gutfeld seems to be emblematic of the trend at large your book is talking about, in that Gutfeld! is often dismissed online, but has surpassed The Late Show With Stephen Colbert as the top show in late night. How does Gutfled! work on and for Fox News?
NM: Importantly, Gutfeld has been with Fox News for the better part of two decades, and he’s always had a dry, ironic sensibility — totally something that most liberals would’ve missed because you’re not watching Fox News at three in the morning. If you watch an episode of Gutfeld!, it is, we think, impossible to call it anything other than a late-night comedy talk show. It begins with a monologue. He has a panel of guests on, with whom he riffs about the day’s headlines. He’s got a stable of, for lack of a better way of putting it, sketch players, in much the same way that Conan O’Brien did — people who occupy the Fox News offices and do these clumsy parodies of James Bond, bathroom bills, and whatever’s in the days’ highlights. The studio-audience laughter can be sparse at times, if it’s even happening. But Gutfeld is always laughing. Tyrus — his former professional wrestler co-host, the sort of Ed McMahon to his Carson — is there to say, “Yes, that was a good joke.” The cues are there over and over again to prompt people watching, people performing in the show, and people viewing Fox News at home to laugh. Even if it’s not in a pure setup-punch-line construction, it is a laughter that is “owning the libs.” It is targeting our political enemy: “Let’s scoff at them, even if it’s not a conventional joke construction.”
Matt Sienkiewicz: Part of what makes it work is that they don’t just deploy Gutfeld during Gutfeld! They don’t just deploy Jesse Watters in Watters’ World. They bring them in as pundits and commentators throughout the day. So The Five is their sort of afternoon-roundup-y, chatty, extensively newsy show, and Gutfeld is there. He’s introducing the idea of making light jokes, doing some of this scoffing stuff in the news block. They’re getting audiences ready throughout the day to eventually transition into a space of laughter and comedic mockery and irony, which is something that they weren’t doing back when they failed in 2007 with The 1/2 Hour News Hour. That also points to just the thing that Fox does so much better than anybody else, which is mix stars. They have a cavalcade of stars, a stable. It’s like an old movie studio — they’re able to produce them. They’ve really embraced the idea that these boundaries can be blurred.
Gutfeld! being explicitly a comedy show brings up a question that comes up with a lot of the comedy you talk about: What is done ironically, what is an act of cruelty, and do the comedians or the audience care about the difference? To you, how does someone like Gutfeld differ from someone like Donald Trump, who often says he’s just joking, but obviously is never being ironic? And how does irony function on, ostensibly, a news channel?
MS: Trump is impossible to read. You think, This has to be ironic, but then, it’s often proven not to be. If it’s just mean, it’s mean in such a brutal and unusual and surprising way that makes some people laugh. The relationship between Gutfeld and Trump is one of the more interesting things we looked at in the book. In many cases, what Gutfeld is doing is adding light layers of irony to Trump. Gutfeld tries to find ways to make jokes and absurdities out of what people who don’t like Trump see as absurdities right away, but in ways that are more palatable or interesting.
Take how Gutfeld will use a Trump speech. One of the many things that define a Trump speech is that they range across a bizarre and unfathomable range of topics that have nothing to do with each other. From a Trump opponent perspective, you’re like, Yeah, that’s because this guy is ridiculous and has no logic. He shouldn’t be in charge of a reality TV show, let alone a country. That’s one reading of it. The other is, Oh, he’s a master troll. Gutfeld conveys this by cutting up the illogical parts of the speech and emphasizing how wacky and crazy it is. He’ll do this ping-pong, two-man routine with Trump, where he’ll ask a question out loud, like, “What do we think of umbrellas?” And then they’ll cut to Trump in a speech saying, “Umbrellas work.” Back to Gutfeld: “Ah, umbrellas work. But, what about trucks?” Then it cuts back to Trump saying something random about trucks. You could see it as making fun of Trump, but you could also see it as taking the parts of the speech that are wacky, crazy, and totally against political norms and emphasizing them to a point where it becomes this crazy refrigerator poetry. Then Gutfeld will laugh and tell you, See how silly this is? This guy’s a master troll. This guy is playing everybody. Isn’t that hilarious? Whereas if you listen to the whole speech and you fill in the parts about immigrants and all the racist stuff you’re going to hear in it, it’s not funny.
The fourth chapter you call “The Legions of Libertarian Podcasters.” You focus on Joe Rogan and Legion of Skanks, but there are tons of really popular comedians thriving in podcasting, especially on Patreon. It’s really hard to put a finger on their politics. Rogan especially has a tendency to bend one way or another depending on who he’s talking to or about, but generally has supported things like universal health care.
MS: The argument we make is that Rogan doesn’t have politics, he has demographics. He has a set of ideas and empathies that tend to attract a certain audience. It’s very male, it’s very young, and it’s very interested in, I guess, buying pubic-hair shavers and boxes of raw meat and the kinds of things that he sells. To be clear, the way that social media works is you can be part of the right-wing comedy complex and also part of a liberal space, because you can hack up an episode. You have these four-hour shows that can be broken up into pieces, and each can appeal to different people. It need not be exclusive.
There’s two things at play. There is actually really well thought-out — even if you don’t like it — libertarian philosophy. [Legion of Skanks co-host] Dave Smith will talk about Murray Rothbard, who’s a major libertarian thinker, as far as I can tell, very knowledgeably. I’m not a Rothbard scholar, but he seems to know what he’s talking about. He makes, to many of us, these outlandish libertarian arguments that there should be no driver’s licenses or no drunk-driving laws, and then he’ll explain why, based on the libertarian theories of liberty and whatever else. That is one approach into places like Legion of Skanks — this really well thought-out thing about fundamental principles of politics. But then, when you get in there, that mostly plays out on this one issue, which is free speech, which is taken to mean I should be able to say anything I want no matter what, which is not argued against. But then it’s an attempt to take offensive speech and say, I can say that, and that’s good. And all of a sudden, using slurs is like a political statement toward free speech as opposed to anything else. So that’s the major transition.
NM: If the imperative is I’m a comedian, I ought to be able to exercise my free speech, it very quickly becomes, If I’m not exercising my free speech to the most offensive degree possible, then I’m not doing comedy anymore. Then I’m pussing out, or whatever. The lesson that I think the Skanks take from Rogan is one of demographics: I think they very quickly learned that this lucrative young male audience was something that they could shave off from him and hold onto by going a step beyond Rogan — by being an even filthier, meaner, more crass version of what Rogan does.
A bit we discuss in the book is one in which they’re showing a news clip of a young Black woman reporter talking about use of the word “you guys” to not be a polite way to talk about a mixed-gender group of people anymore. The Skanks cut the video off and go in hard on this young Black woman, saying the most awful things about how they want to sexually assault her using racial slurs, doing these in-group callbacks to other long-running jokes on the show that are all meant to appease their young male fan base. But again, it’s not just a mechanism for selling boxes of meat or off-brand Viagra or whatever it is. It’s this flag-waving of I am the free-speech champion because I’m the most extreme.
MS: That’s the key move: to take that and then turn it into something other than just that. Not to get too theoretical, but a lot of ways to think about comedy is sometimes described as “benign violation theory” — the idea that you have to break a taboo, but there has to be a reason that breaking that taboo is okay. It’s certainly a taboo to talk about sexually assaulting the woman in the video, but the thing that makes it not just that is that, oh, what they’re doing is that they’re expressing an important political thing that you need to get behind and sign up for because it’s part of your political identity. It’s not just slurs; it’s slurs for free speech. And the violation, it remains a violation, but it has this greater purpose, which turns into something more than just a slur.
What context do you wish more people had to understand Joe Rogan and his influence?
NM: Rogan’s got a huge audience. Although his politics are diffuse and maybe a little tougher to nail down than some of the other figures in the book, he is a gateway to much more nefarious voices. It may start with Rogan; your nephew may be excited about listening to Rogan because he’s exposed to Jordan Peterson or whatever the case is, but it’s not all that far of a leap to get from Rogan to much more bad-faith actors in the right-wing political world.
MS: If you study media, this is one of the places where you have to start with the money. You have to start with the way these things are supported via changing industrial structures. Why is Fox News right-wing? Because that’s how they found a way to make money; they could have gone another direction. MSNBC is the greatest example of this. It moves all over the place until it finds its niche. So the fact that Rogan is very hard to place politically is a good way to say, Oh, well, he’s confusing and we don’t understand him. But what he’s doing is he’s aggregating an audience with different approaches that can cut across traditional understandings of politics, and he can bring people from across the spectrum into this space — people who identify themselves as liberal but are curious in this way or that way, or simply nonpolitical people who like the free-ranging-ness of it. It’s not for a political purpose. It’s not some project of indoctrination by any sense. It’s just that once you’re in this space, there are then other routes that one can take.
As Nick pointed out, they can go to some pretty ugly spots. But think of this as an industrial model, a media model, a way to make money by being a personality and a comedian that will bring people in in a somewhat neutral sense in that it’s just about aggregating that audience, but then there’s different places to go within it: Okay, he’s trying to get my nephew into this space. He doesn’t really care where he goes after this, but where might he go after this?
To that point, the fifth chapter you call “Trolling the Depths of the Right-Wing Comedy Complex.” A lot of the people you write about might be called racist or anti-Semitic, depending on who you ask, but these are people that identify as such — people who proudly would be like, “This is an anti-Semitic podcast.” Can you explain this world and how it fits under comedy?
MS: Legion of Skanks, I have trouble listening to the slurring, but that is in one space. There is another level to this. The Legion of Skanks have high-minded ideas and don’t consider racism the goal outcome. It’s a by-product. It might be a strategy to make money, but it’s something a little bit different. The word “Nazi” should never be used lightly, but people who produce a comedy podcast called The Daily Shoah, these are Nazis. These are actual, literal Nazis. Even if they like to put a spin of irony on it, it is that. That’s the bottom that we end up in this book. Just to be clear, “shoah” is the Hebrew term for the Holocaust, and they’re making a direct reference to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show.
It’s formatted in a way that’s very similar to all your favorite comedy podcasts. It starts with banter about the news of the day, just with these horrible … you name the hatred, but particularly anti-Semitism is obviously a very big part of that story, as is various racisms and misogyny and homophobias. But then there are song parodies, where they will do Oasis songs with anti-Semitic Holocaust stuff in it. They will do sketches and bits and the kind of things you would expect on a comedy show, just about and through the lens of these horrible racisms and other hatreds. It’s built on in-jokes; it’s built on developing a vocabulary that people in this world can reflect on and understand and feel like they’re building a community. And then they will also be very overt in their politics and political theories of it. You can listen to The Daily Shoah, and they will say their goal is to make people think the Holocaust is a joke, because then they’ll know not to trust the Jews. They’ll just say that, and then that obviously leads to all these other racisms they’ll work in. But on a format level, it’s all the standard comedic playbook, but deployed in this very specific way.
We want to be very clear: We are not saying that Greg Gutfeld equals this. But what we do want to put forth is that these things do connect in ways. You can get from point A to point Z here and end up in this basement — not by force, but by options.
I wanted to underline the men-ness of it all. These are safe spaces for men. And obviously it’s not only 11 million men listening to Joe Rogan, but these comedians are tapping into a young male audience that until fairly recently so much comedic cable TV was exclusively geared toward. While working on this book, what did you learn about the state of young men?
MS: When you write an academic book, it is an imperative to look for diverse subjects to make sure that you’re not falling into blind spots and only writing about a demographic group you will relate to. That was impossible in this book. It really is a world that is dominated by white men — just overwhelmingly so. It’s just striking. If you’re trying to study something, you want to look for the things that go against it, but there’s very little there, and that is remarkable.
NM: We tried to look for the women, the non-white folks, and with the rare exceptions of Diamond and Silk, and maybe Dave Chappelle in a few years, it’s tough to come by. If the last five to ten years of identity-based political movements have taught us anything, it’s that the more that you insert non-men into the public sphere, the more the politically conservative universe is going to retrench to draw in ranks and say, No. You’re okay here. Don’t be scared by Black Lives Matter. Don’t be scared by this trans controversy. We’re always going to provide you with a safe space here.
MS: There’s a big question in your question, which is whether or not this is revealing a piece of the largely American male demographic that’s always been there, but the media system wasn’t able to be fine-tuned enough to get to them, or is there an emerging sense of masculinity that is coming through this? And the answer is that often it is both. But I think we want to keep our eye on both of those — that on the one hand, primarily the progress that’s been made to diversify politics and cultural spaces can stir up this identity retrenchment. But there’s also just the fact that, when you were running network TV, certainly targeting white men was very important, but you had to at least target that group broadly and in a way that wasn’t alienating beyond it. So maybe we’ve got cultural shifts that Legion of Skanks listeners really point to. But, additionally, aside from live shows, you couldn’t have media targeted just toward that space until fairly recently. You’ve got two things going on at once.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.