book excerpt

A Downward Tour Through the Right-Wing Comedy Complex

An excerpt from That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them.

Photo: Omar Vega/Getty Images
Photo: Omar Vega/Getty Images

Humor seems to naturally veer to the left politically. Satire has traditionally been about speaking truth to power or taking sacred institutions down a peg, and the powerful have historically been conservative and hostile to change. The people on the fringes mock and tease their oppressors because it’s often the only weapon they’ve got. Because they’ve got all the power, right-wing things — and right-wing individuals — can be perceived as utterly humorless. They’re just not equipped.

But that’s the view from the outside looking in. A sense of humor is an innate part of being human; conservatives and the American right just comedy in a different way, spreading their own dogma and forcing their will via their own insidious and bullying brands of joke. For example, corny, old-fashioned “dad jokes” subconsciously harken back to the “simpler times” conservatives so love to romanticize and want to go back to, while being purposely politically incorrect makes their worldview quite clear, hammered home in traditional family-values-spewing sitcoms like Last Man Standing.

Communications professors Matt Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx were curious about the whys, hows, history, execution, and development of conservative comedy, and they researched and wrote the fascinating, provocative, and insightful new book That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them. They dive deep into the structure and theory of right-wing comedy and provide a look at the conservative comedic “complex”: There’s a huge network out there of similarly voiced mouthpieces for this brand of entertainment-meets-rhetoric well beyond memes, Twitter trolls, post-9/11 Dennis Miller, Gutfeld!, and the Babylon Bee. Below is an edited excerpt from the book’s introduction outlining this complex and why liberals who ignore its growing influence do so at their own peril.

Excerpt From 'That's Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them''

“That’s not funny” is a powerful, complicated thing to say. It can be an opinion stated as a fact. It can be a motion to dismiss. It can be, and often is, a moral judgment aimed at others or even at one’s self: a tsk-tsk for laughing when you shouldn’t. When liberals discuss right-wing comedy, “That’s not funny” is always lurking around the corner, ready to deploy one or all of its potential meanings in conversational combat.

Often, liberals use “That’s not funny” to express a bored disinterest in conservative attempts at humor. This book will introduce a number of new, odd, and sometimes terrifying right-wing comedians doing reactionary jokes. Nonetheless, a lot of mainstream, high-profile right-wing humor is simply stuff from the past dragged into the present, a beat-up old Cadillac trying to turn heads with a new coat of paint. Think of Tim Allen, star of the 1990s sitcom Home Improvement, resurrecting his macho-dad shtick with the MAGA-fied, Trump-friendly sitcom Last Man Standing. Politics aside, the retread nature of much right-wing comedy just isn’t funny to people with less Paleolithic tastes in humor.

There is also, however, a blithe, dismissive way in which “That’s not funny” frames right-wing comedy. If something does not or, even better, cannot exist, then surely no one needs to worry about it being funny. And then there is, of course, the moral approach to “That’s not funny”–ing away right-wing comedy. This book delves into the depths of right-wing humor, taking readers into comedy crevices that make traditional dirty jokes look like kindergarten curriculum. And it’s not much better at the surface level of the right-wing comedy world. Even Tim Allen’s banal brand of broadcast-television humor trades in jokes based in racial stereotypes, smug sexism, and barely disguised homophobia. If something is morally abhorrent, why should liberals allow the possibility that it is also, for conservatives, funny?

But closing our eyes doesn’t make the monster go away. Dismissing right-wing comedy with any species of “That’s not funny” means overlooking the growing influence of conservative comedians, and it encourages a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of contemporary politics and entertainment. Take Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld, for example. For years, he hosted The Greg Gutfeld Show, a weekly conservative Daily Show knockoff featuring cheaply produced satirical sketches, strained right-wing monologues, and celebrity guests unknown to most readers of this, or really any, book. It sounds, we admit, dismissible. The show’s ratings, however, tell a different story. By the time he transitioned to the nightly Gutfeld! in 2021, he was consistently outperforming liberal late-night luminaries such as Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert. Clearly, Gutfeld’s comedy appeals to a considerable audience, expanding Fox News’ content and offering new ways for people to understand their identity as a conservative in America. Furthermore, as we show throughout this book, Gutfeld is ensconced in a constellation of right-wing comedy that goes well beyond the confines of Fox News and wields considerable cultural and economic power. For people who disagree with Gutfeld politically, his jokes are not funny at all. In fact, they should be taken quite seriously.

The comedy institutions we examine in this book are not forgettable footnotes regardless of their moral or aesthetic failings. They are established, viable elements of the world of contemporary comedy as well as, in some cases at least, innovation hubs for truly pernicious right-wing ideologies. Greg Gutfeld dismisses racism and dabbles in sexism. He celebrates the most egregious actions and uncouth sentiments uttered by the likes of Donald Trump. And Gutfeld is one of the more innocuous ones. It gets worse, so much worse. The ways in which people discover new comedy today — algorithmic suggestions on YouTube, retweets on Twitter, cross-promotion on podcasts — provides a set of pathways that connect more banal right-wing humor to the truly evil stuff, up to and including actual neo-Nazi comedy spaces. In a few clicks, one can move from Gutfeld on Fox News laughing at a story about immigrants to a libertarian comedy podcaster interviewing a race scientist to a song parody on YouTube of Oasis’s “Wonderwall” featuring the line “Today is gonna be the day / that we’re gonna fucking gas the Jews.”

This book maps the robust, financially lucrative, and politically impactful world of right-wing comedy in the United States. Certainly, much of this humor fails the tests of comedic quality and moral probity that many (ourselves included!) wish to apply. And just as certainly, the cultural pervasiveness of right-wing comedy pales in comparison to that of long-standing center-left institutions such as Saturday Night Live. In the fractured world of contemporary media and culture, however, right-wing comedy need not dominate or even cross into the mainstream in order to shape American society and politics profoundly. In fact, it may be all the more effective because it goes nearly unnoticed by the liberal world. Right-wing comedy has reached a point of economic sustainability and significant influence. The future of liberal politics, we argue, depends in part on facing right-wing comedy, recognizing its economic success, and acknowledging its aesthetic appeal for conservative viewers. “That’s not funny” is a perfectly fine way to express one’s tastes and moral principles. It’s just not a very good political strategy.

This book warns readers not to bury their heads in the sand. We confront right-wing comedy with two specific goals in mind. The first goal is to avoid taking for granted the left’s significant recent advantage in the comedy arms race. For years, left-leaning comedians have had serious impacts by pushing boundaries and attacking norms, shaping conversations around racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, and other liberal political objectives. Such comedic efforts also inevitably, occasionally, invite criticism for being too incendiary or edgy. If liberals believe that only they possess the power of comedy, it is tempting to overpolice humorists in order to reduce the risk of insensitivity. Our second goal, then, is to urge liberals to foster the freest possible space for the best comedic talents to work in. Understanding the potential appeal of conservative comedy should motivate the liberal world to be excited for, and forgiving of, good-faith comedic experimentation, even if it pushes against the mores of the moment. The left must overcome the impulse to respond to conservative comedy by saying “That’s not funny.” Instead, liberals must understand how right-wing comedy has expanded its reach and embrace the need to combat it with new, progressive comedic weaponry.

Right-wing comedy is a complex: a networked structure of conservative, comedic TV shows, podcasts, streaming media, and websites that work together, directing viewers to one another and circulating them throughout intertwined ideological spaces. It is robust, growing, and profitable. Acknowledging this fact reveals a different kind of complex — one of the psychological variety — that leaves the collective liberal world defensive and eager to repress the increasing influence of right-wing comedy today. The growth of this type of complex among liberals is also robust — and profitable, but more for our therapists — as liberals move further into a defensive state of denial about the growing popularity of right-wing comedy. Many of today’s young liberals, whose comedic tastes matured in a post-9/11 era when celebrated satirists such as Jon Stewart defined so much of left-wing identity, understand comedy to be central to their own political and ethical selves. Consequently, within liberal discourse, there is an instinct to deny, obscure, or ignore any political comedy coming from right-wing people and media institutions.

These two types of “complexes” — one of which is a metaphor for the contemporary media industry, the other for a liberal psychology — have jointly allowed for right-wing comedy to emerge in recent years, engage large portions of the American public, and go mostly unnoticed by the left. This denial of right-wing comedy among liberals, we argue, is not only comforting but also a mark of good taste, allowing everyone from pundits to professors to gain cultural capital by assuring fellow liberals that they are the only ones who know their way around a joke. But ignoring the prevalence of right-wing comedy means more than just missing the conservative joke. It also means overlooking the tools that conservatives use to reshape the cultural and political landscape in America.

Imagine entering a representation of the contemporary mediascape of the United States. Envision it not as the boxy virtual reality of a 1990s erotic thriller but as a city or community like the one in which you live. Hundreds of buildings dot the landscape, representing all your favorite content on a given night. As evening approaches, you walk by an office park of familiar sitcoms, and Dunder Mifflin’s Jim Halpert gives you a knowing look out the window. You navigate toward several towering skyscrapers, each marked with the iconic logos for Marvel movies, Sunday Night Football, or Netflix. As night falls, you retreat toward a cluster of modest bungalows, the voice of Rachel Maddow or Anderson Cooper beckoning you home. Of course, this serene scene contains hundreds of back-alleys bustling with social-media chatter, variously distracting you from or driving you toward more-established neighborhoods.

For much of the 20th century, the mediascape was less densely developed and chaotic than it is today. There weren’t as many destinations then, and they were all on the same few major thoroughfares. The map was not yet organized around specific demographics, identity groups, or political affiliations. Studios, networks, and advertisers — the construction outfits that produce and sell media — provided broadly appealing attractions that were only marginally different from those of their competitors. For instance, the Hollywood system of the 1920s to ’50s played it safe with powerful studios producing formulaic films that, given meager competition, beckoned large, undifferentiated audiences. The classic network era of American television from the 1950s to the ’80s took a similar tack. During this stretch, the three broadcast networks of NBC, ABC, and CBS controlled what viewers watched and when. Sure, they competed with one another, but they did so by producing similar programs aimed at similarly widespread audiences. Even a famously contentious sitcom like All in the Family (1971–79) enticed people from across the political spectrum, resolving disputes between the conservative Archie Bunker and his liberal son-in-law, whom he called Meathead, through humanizing, nonpartisan dialogue. For the most part, then, 20th-century audiences wandered the mediascape along well-worn paths, with each storefront taking a “come one, come all” approach to potential customers.

As the 21st century approached, the media map got messy. Two trends, media convergence and audience siloing, motivated a whole new approach to developing media real estate. With convergence, both creators and consumers stopped emphasizing traditional media content categories. Once-distinct media forms such as film, TV, and radio began to blur as the internet brought all sorts of digital content onto single devices. In the past, The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah would have been just a TV star. Today he is a multimedia presence, moving viewers from place to place, bringing them from his cable program to streaming social-media clips to podcasts and so on.

Media convergence coincided, perhaps ironically, with increasing divisions — or siloing — among media audiences. The advent of digital media radically reduced the cost of construction for new media spaces. Creators produced new content at an unprecedented rate. For example, in 2019, American television produced a record 532 scripted shows, more than double that of just ten years prior, to say nothing of the countless options available on YouTube and beyond. The inevitable consequence of this construction boom is that each unit must be built for a smaller, more tightly defined target audience. Nowhere has this effect been more profound, and perhaps more alarming, than in the realm of news and political media. Since the collapse of network-news broadcasts, audiences have increasingly taken up residence in ideologically divided cable-news outlets like Fox News and MSNBC. From there, even more interest-specific division awaits on social media, where news from professional journalists struggles to stay afloat in a morass of disinformation and distraction. Podcasts and YouTube channels further slice up audiences into razor-thin segments.

Whereas once both Republicans and Democrats got their news from Walter Cronkite, today’s consumer can pick a precise point on the political spectrum and find something that seems made just for them. This politically motivated audience siloing is both economically useful and democratically problematic. Smaller audiences, in order to be attractive targets for advertisers, simply must become more ideologically and culturally homogeneous. At the same time, this dynamic contributes to an increasing possibility that your real-life next-door neighbor spends their time in a media zone full of opinions and facts you barely recognize. Audience siloing can also, we argue, create a world in which entire subgenres such as right-wing comedy are invisible, or at least ignored, by those who are not targeted by them.

As media both come together and pull apart, the fundamental order of the modern media landscape can be difficult to recognize. The metaphorical “complex” discussed earlier in this introduction provides a start: Right-wing comedy is an integrated structure of TV shows, podcasts, streaming media, and websites that work together, developing a shared audience and keeping them contained as a relatively homogenous, easy-to-advertise-to grouping. As a means of comparison, think of the sort of modern mixed-use real-estate complex found in many of today’s American suburbs. Built just off the highway on an old industrial site or vacant lot, these complexes try to do it all without actually doing very much. Centered around an ample parking structure, you’ll find condominium housing, retail shopping, a few entertainment venues, a Chili’s, a more expensive place that’s basically a Chili’s, and so on. The logic of the space is to provide a sense of convenient familiarity and, most important, to keep the residents and shoppers on site. Sure, there’s probably a more interesting restaurant to visit somewhere downtown, but who needs the traffic, and what’s wrong with Chili’s anyway? Today’s mediasphere operates in a similar fashion, creating comfortable, interconnected systems of content that allow audiences to flow among related, if disparately owned, programming while ensuring they remain in the complex as much as possible.

Liberal comedy’s version of this media structure has been going strong for decades. Viewers have shuttled between broadcast-network fare like Saturday Night Live to slightly edgier cable programming such as The Daily Show to blue-light HBO specials and back again. For example, you might become a fan of Chris Rock on SNL, come to appreciate echoes of his comedy on The Daily Show, anticipate his HBO specials, and return to watch him host SNL, all the while enjoying similar programming along the way. Like the stores in the mixed-use complex, these shows are not owned by a single entity. Nonetheless, they work together, in this case sharing talent, program formatting, and comedic sensibilities in order to keep their consumers in the complex and foster greater predictability in an unstable media market.

For years, right-wing comedy struggled to put together a coherent, profitable complex. As noted above, the aesthetic subtleties of comedy and entertainment have proved challenging for the right. Perhaps most important, there simply was not as much real estate for developing a right-wing comedy complex in the past. The dominant comedy structure was of a more center-left orientation, and the right-wing media world focused on the purer political spaces of news and talk radio. However, over the past several years, the media industry has moved toward providing more options, with each geared to more narrowly defined groups of viewers. When traditional media boundaries were just beginning to fall toward the end of the 20th century, attracting a wide range of conservative viewers with comedy may have been difficult. Today, however, as media producers have grown adept at targeting very specific audiences, and as production costs have fallen, focusing on a smaller, politically engaged cadre of right-leaning consumers with comedy has proven to be a viable business strategy.

The right-wing comedy complex, perhaps surprisingly, consists of a range of media properties that embrace a number of ideological positions. This reality sits uneasily with liberals’ received political wisdom, which, until recently, tended to emphasize conservative Republicans as uniformly ideological in contrast to the more flexible, coalitional nature of the liberal Democratic Party. The rise of Donald Trump, however, has shown that today’s American right can succeed in coalescing despite significant internal disagreement and even utter logical inconsistency. A club inclusive of both strict Christian moralists and a man who brags about infidelitous sexual assault is certainly diverse, if only in the worst possible way. And so, perhaps, are the media we discuss throughout this book. Ranging from cold-hearted libertarianism to red-hot regressive nationalism, the television shows and podcasts we consider are united not by a single set of beliefs but by a series of connections to a common enemy: liberalism.

In this book, we define “right-wing media” as that which participates in the conservative fusionism most influentially articulated by the political philosopher Frank Meyer. Traditionally, fusionism has meant combining individualistic free-market fiscal policy with traditional, often religious value systems. Full of tension to begin with, this uneasy conceptual marriage has become all the more complicated since Trump’s rise in the Republican Party. The latest evolution of American right-wing politics has added an additional fusionistic element whereby crass populism somehow coexists with individualistic economics and an ostensible dedication to cultural conservatism. The Trump era has also forced us to consider the growing connection between the mainstream conservative coalition and more intensely reactionary politics steeped in extreme nationalism and overt prejudice against minority groups. Of course, not all forms of conservatism are the same in either political or moral terms, and we are careful to distinguish the different ideologies — mainstream Republicanism, libertarianism, fascist white supremacy — that make up the contemporary American right. However, we contend that comedy serves as a lubricant that helps audiences slide among these disparate aspects of right-wing ideology with a certain gravity pulling them down into the lower, dirtier depths of the complex.

This book is a tour of the right-wing comedy complex. Like any good trip to a shopping center, it starts with a well-known big-box store. In today’s right-wing comedy complex, that’s Fox News. For years, right-wing media outlets failed to create a mainstream comedy around which other conservatives could gather. The ½ Hour News Hour failed, as did a half-dozen other lesser-known efforts. But just when no one was looking, Fox News built a quiet hit in Greg Gutfeld’s Gutfeld!, a late-night political-comedy program that, as we discuss in more detail in chapter one, represents the complex’s Walmart or Target. Though old fashioned and off-line, Gutfeld nonetheless provides a consistent, legitimizing presence in the complex and lets customers know there is plenty of ideologically similar content to explore elsewhere. In chapter two, we visit the gathering place for dads who were cool in the ’90s — let’s call it the complex’s cigar shop — where a style we dub “paleocomedy” flourishes. This type of right-wing comedy centers mostly on aging white men like Tim Allen and Dennis Miller who, once upon a time, may have been considered edgy. Today, though, their reactionary jokes are designed to take down woke culture and provide a template for a new generation of old voices such as Bill Burr. In chapter three, we stop by the right-wing comedy complex’s religious bookstore, where Ben Shapiro and Steven Crowder punch up their pseudo-intellectual arguments with jokes that punch down on liberal and particularly minority voices. It is also where the Babylon Bee does the apparently impossible, producing a profitable, conservative, religious (!) version of the news-satire website the Onion. Though not quite reaching the popularity of that liberal satirical publication, some of the Bee’s stories receive millions of social-media shares and attention from the likes of Elon Musk, stuffing mailboxes with circulars advertising the broader right-wing comedy complex. Then, in chapter four, we visit libertarian comedy podcasts like The Joe Rogan Experience, the complex’s extremely popular, dusky bar that, although inclusive of a range of political perspectives, uses comedy to introduce listeners to right-wing personalities ranging from alt-right trolls to elected Republican politicians. We even sneak you into the bar’s backroom, where the hedonistic, libertarian Legion of Skanks overindulge in racist epithets and retrograde sexism under the guise of comic freedom and free expression. Finally, we give you fair warning before descending to the ugliest of places in chapter five: the hidden basement of the right-wing comedy complex, where white-supremacist figures such as Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes and neo-Nazi programs such as The Daily Shoah and Murdoch Murdoch beckon consumers not satisfied with the reactionary jokes of Gutfeld or the messy libertarianism of Rogan. Perhaps most important, we’ll show you how all of these forms of right-wing comedy connect through a complex series of algorithms, recommendations, and appearances by notable right-wing personalities across media platforms.

Our tour through the right-wing comedy complex will be, at times, disturbing. Many of the figures we discuss in this book create comedy steeped in and celebratory of racism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hate. Right-wing comedians normalize these virulent ideologies. What first breaks through as a joke may well show up later as part of a political platform or a rallying cry among violent extremists. No, we do not think that listening to Joe Rogan or chuckling at the Babylon Bee is likely to turn a listener into a fascist. We do, however, argue that the centrality of fascist humor to the increasingly influential world of right-wing comedy provides cover and succor to those inclined toward the ugliest of ideologies. You don’t necessarily need to recognize this type of humor as funny, just acknowledge and stand guard for its potential to support true evil. Doing so, we believe, is a crucial step in freeing ourselves from comforting but ultimately incomplete understandings of what comedy is and how it relates to politics.

The goal of this book is not to convince you that right-wing comedy is funny. And even though early on we warned against ignoring it with the “That’s not funny” dismissal, we don’t want to deny you that visceral reaction to it either. Instead, our hope is to contextualize the “That’s not funny” reaction in order to understand why it is common among so many like-minded on the left (including ourselves) and to show how it is bound up in bigger cultural and political factors beyond personal taste. Comedy — right or left, edgy or tame, punching up or down — is always contextual, urging viewers to connect what they see onscreen to the historical moments that both produce and situate particular jokes. In the case of right-wing comedy, scholars and critics have failed to fully account for what’s out there and why it lands with right-wing audiences. For both intellectual honesty and political strategy, That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them takes up this important project.

Excerpt adapted from That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them, by Matt Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx. Reproduced by permission of the University of California Press. Copyright © 2022

Yes, we know, it didn’t really work out that way, but bear with us. Koblin, “Peak TV Hits a New Peak.” Adler, “Frank Meyer: The Fusionist as Federalist.”
A Downward Tour Through the Right-Wing Comedy Complex