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This fake memoir perfectly parodies the failed-comedian-to-conservative-pundit pipeline

Author Mike Sacks on the real-life inspirations for his new book, ‘Passing on the Right,’ and the grievance culture that has created its own archetype.

This fake memoir perfectly parodies the failed-comedian-to-conservative-pundit pipeline
[Book Cover: Design by Anna Huff, Photographs by Lisa Whiteman]

Mike Sacks started writing his COVID-project book well before January 6, 2021, but that was the day he figured out how to end it.

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The work-in-progress was a fake memoir centered around a bitter comic whose quest for acceptance takes him to unexpected ideological places. As Sacks watched the carnage unfold on TV, he knew that his main character, Skippy “Batty” Battison, absolutely had to play a leading role in the Capitol riot. The premise of the book subsequently became that a major publishing imprint had cancelled the supposed memoir’s release due to the narrator’s J6 participation, forcing him to self-publish. Only two months later did it emerge that a real-life bitter comic—Jay Johnston of Mr. Show fame—actually had participated in the attack, and it cost him a recurring voice gig on Bob’s Burgers.

It wasn’t quite a case of life imitating art, especially since the art in question hadn’t technically happened yet, but rather the result of someone paying close attention to which way the heady winds of comedy and conservative content were blowing.

If anyone can see comedy currents forming, it’s Sacks. A veteran humor writer who has broached the topic from both the frontlines and the sidelines, he published a book of humor pieces, many of which appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and other such publications; along with two collections of interviews with legendary comedic minds. For the past five years, he’s been on a tear of writing book-length parodies of esoteric movies, like the monkey-sidekick romp, Stinker Lets Loose!, and class-conscious ’80s teen dramedy, Passable in Pink.

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Now, Sacks has channeled both his penchant for long-form parody and his insider comedy knowledge into the cumbersomely titled Passing On The Right: My Ups, My Downs, My Lefts, My Rights, My Wrongs . . . and My Career (So Far) in this Bizarro World of Comedy.

Guys Like Skippy

You already know Passing On the Right’s antihero, a meteor shower of mediocrity. His credits include selling one joke to Bruce Vilanch, and the spurious claim that he wrote the first draft of the Trump episode of The Simpsons. But even those who haven’t been keeping track of hangers-on in the comedy world over the last several decades should recognize Battison’s off-putting traits.

He’s mad that it’s no longer socially acceptable to crack the kinds of jokes he did in the good old days, at least not without inciting a protest petition. He doesn’t understand why his peers became way more successful than he did by using shtick he finds too similar to his old material. And he resents that he seems to be losing jobs now because of comedy-world affirmative action.

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In other words, he’s consumed by grievances. Perhaps the only people whose lives revolve even more around grievances than a bitter comedian, though, is the average modern conservative.

No wonder the line between the two has begun to blur more frequently.

“It used to be very, very rare in comedy to be conservative and be successful enough to be known,” Sacks says. “But that changed with Trump and with the advent of Twitter and Parler and Instagram. It quickly became much easier for these people, who wouldn’t have been known for their comedy, to get their viewpoint out there.”

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Prior to Trump, the main model for conservative comics was Dennis Miller, the stand-up and former SNL star who pivoted politically after 9/11 and ended up becoming a Fox News stalwart. (Indeed, 9/11 is such an oft-cited inspiration for conservative awakenings that Sacks subverts that cliché in his book.) But beyond faded comedy stars gone conservative—like Miller, Adam Carolla, and Jim Breuer—there’s a new contingent of alt-right folks, such as Dave Rubin and Owen Benjamin, who never quite made it in comedy in the first place before diving headlong into enraged political commentary.

Skippy Battison sort of splits the difference between both archetypes.

A Member of Any Club That Will Have Me

In the book, Battison develops his conservative persona practically on a whim, in order to stand out on the competition show, Last Comic Standing—and it ends up changing everything for him. This rightward lurch reflects the reality that comics who lean conservative have a better chance at being a big fish in this particular pond. It’s a lot easier to create a name for yourself as a funny personality, after all, when your competition isn’t John Mulaney and Ali Wong but Ben Shapiro and Dennis Prager.

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Battison’s switch is also a canny comment on how the slide into conservative comedy seems likely to be a matter of circumstance or convenience, rather than bedrock beliefs. “Skippy blames the world for his failure, and it pushes him further right, where he’s accepted,” Sacks says. “I think that’s the case with guys like Jim Breuer. These fans now are so into them, and they’re so over the top about it. They do these shows, and the applause is coming, not necessarily for the strength of the joke, but for their political position. And it becomes more and more addicting. Why would you not want that, after so many years of performing for audiences that were lukewarm to what you were saying?”

During the Trump years, many liberal comics, and every Jimmy and James on late-night TV, got seduced by the prospect of clapter—the easy, chortling applause that accompanied even the corniest Trump jokes.

But clapter has no political affiliation.

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It prominently figures into the recent comedy of Dave Chappelle, for instance, where the comic’s declaration that he considers himself a Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist hits like a thunderous punchline. Even easier than giving liberal audiences an excuse to affirm their hatred for Trump is giving conservative audiences permission to be mad about things society currently says it’s wrong to be mad about.

And the Kicker Is

Obviously, grievance remains a fine starting point for comedy. It just depends on which grievance. In crafting the character of Skippy Battison, Sacks wanted to trace the difference between which targets some of today’s comics choose to go after and those of their comedic ancestors.

“To me, the greatest humor is always going after those who are making the world worse,” Sacks says. “You saw this goodness in George Carlin and Richard Pryor, just a basic decency that I’m seeing less and less of. Now it’s a lot of this meanness and this sense of entitlement; this tremendous anger, but not aimed at those who would typically be called out, but almost for previous fans or vulnerable people or people who don’t agree with them about vaccine mandates or this or that. That is something that I think is new.”

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Perhaps it’s a trend that is on its way out. Perhaps not. What’s truly disturbing about the real-world existence of guys like Skippy, though, is that, after transitioning from mean comedy to mean political commentary, there seems to be very little preventing them from crossing the Rubicon into actual (mean) politics. The frayed congressional landscape of 2022 does indeed seem ripe for the Republican equivalent of a Senator Al Franken. (Well, the comedy background part, not the other stuff.)

Considering that folks like Rep. Matt Gaetz and Senator Ted Cruz now seem more interested in podcasting and shitposting than doing anything else, the occupation of “online comedian” may be more prized than “actual politician” in conservative circles these days, anyway.

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