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Why you need to take right-wing comedy seriously

From Joe Rogan to the Babylon Bee to Steven Crowder, the new book ‘That’s Not Funny’ deconstructs their appeal, and why it matters.

Why you need to take right-wing comedy seriously
Joe Rogan. [Source Images: James Gilbert/Getty]

It was one of the more spectacular TV flops of the 21st century. Late in the second term of President George W. Bush, in 2007, Fox News decided that it had the right-wing alternative to Comedy Central’s popular and influential The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The 1/2 Hour News Hour would puncture liberal pieties and media bias in the fashion that Stewart and his cast of fake correspondents fired barbs at conservatives and right-wing media like Fox News. The show tanked—hard—more or less after the pilot aired in February 2007. And with its failure, modern progressives (and future leftists) had all the evidence they needed: Conservatives weren’t funny.

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For the last 15 years, that take—frequently informed by one failed late-night show—has stuck among anyone who isn’t a conservative. But all the while, right wingers were making comedy—and succeeding. Some of it flew under the radar in subterranean clubs and YouTube channels, but there were also the popular sitcoms of Tim Allen and Kevin James, the shows of Dennis Miller, the “owning the libs” content populating your dad’s Facebook feed from Ben Shapiro and The Daily Wire, and most notably, the rise of Joe Rogan.

While liberals lost their way doing “Orange Man Bad” comedy during the Trump administration, a new ecosystem emerged of right-wing comedians—on podcasts, YouTube, and, yes, Fox News—that’s been growing increasingly popular for their transgressive (and anti-trans) humor. Matt Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx, media studies professors at Boston College and Colorado State University, respectively, spent untold hours consuming right-wing comedy to produce their new book, That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them, which was published earlier in May. The two came back from their deep dive into the right-wing comedy swamps with a deft understanding of what its inhabitants are doing, why it’s working, and why anyone who’s not immersed in this world might not get it. As someone with my own perverse fascination with right-wing media, I interviewed Sienkiewicz and Marx via phone as well as email to explore the themes of their book and why it’s essential for understanding at least one aspect of today’s culture war. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

What initially pulled your attention toward this topic of right-wing comedy?

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Nick Marx: From the moment [Matt and I] met, we shared an interest in studying comedy and its political import. Over the last two decades, we noticed this tendency to stay in the lane of celebrating liberal satirists, your Jon Stewarts and Steven Colberts and Samantha Bees. But really, since Trump age, we noticed something else happening. It wasn’t just those late-night satirists who were using comedy, but the Greg Gutfelds and Joe Rogans and Steven Crowders of the world. We noticed it and took it seriously before anybody else was able or willing to, partially because liberals have been so tunnel-visioned into believing this is ours. Comedy is comedy if it serves politically liberal ends. If it doesn’t do that, it’s something else. It’s outrage programming.

Matt Sienkiewicz: We have a section of the book looking at this Daily Show interview clip where the cast is asked what a right-wing version of their show would look like. They sort of sit there dumbly, like they’ve been asked some impossible puzzle. Eventually they get to saying, Oh, there’s this guy, Greg Gutfeld, we’ve heard of him. Lo and behold, he’s beating them in the ratings shortly after they say this. That was where I [became] convinced that this is really something that should be addressed, [if] the people who are in that world don’t even seem to see this thing that’s so adjacent to them.

How did you go about doing the research? How much of this stuff did you have to watch?

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Marx: Once we latched onto a half-dozen key personalities that form the core cases of the book, we spent basically the pandemic consuming anything and everything we could. If you can imagine our mindset for 2020 and early 2021, it’s not only listening to Legion of Skanks podcast and some pretty adjacently nasty stuff, but we’re also dealing with all of that. [We were] routinely watching Greg Gutfeld’s show, every new episode of Joe Rogan, the sitcom Last Man Standing. It also involved reaching out to many of these folks, seeing if they’d talk to us about their process and really taking them seriously as creative in an industry that generally doesn’t have space for them.

Sienkiewicz: I would add the dark underbelly of, of that: I listened to—I didn’t count, but well, over 100 hours of The Daily Shoah, for example.

Wow. After all the research you did, you have just such a better understanding of the texture of these shows and podcasts, more so than the people who dismiss them out of hand, only knowing one or two viral clips. Do you think that people who do dismiss these shows when they characterize them with one sentence, do they have a point? Do you think the general characterization of what these shows are like is at least somewhat accurate?

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Sienkiewicz: It’s always hard to sum up any sort of long-running thing with a tagline, from an aesthetic level, what people enjoy and what they think is funny. I think the thing that is probably missed most is the way in which each of these different spaces create comedic communities within jokes and a sense of togetherness. That sounds romantic; it’s not meant to be. There are certain examples where some of the ones we find more palatable, they create joke systems and ways of humor that once you get into it, it can be nice. But then also—The Daily Shoah does this—with these elaborate in-jokes and ideas. It’s hard to miss what the headline is for The Daily Shoah. That’s obvious. Legion of Skanks, it’s pretty obvious the misogyny in the title, and if you listen to it, you hear what you hear. That stuff’s probably characterized correctly.

The problem, or the difference, is that the way that this is actually layered and produced over time with jokes that—I’m not gonna say that they’re sort of carefully crafted, so much as they’re just built over time to make people feel like they’re part of something. When they’re listening to these and being involved and then there’s the way that they connect to the other spaces in the right-wing world. That’s the thing that you really get from listening to it. That doesn’t change any of the moral or ethical elements. But if you listen to it and understand the way that they develop things, you get a better sense of why somebody who doesn’t see themselves necessarily as being in some horrific space on a moral level could feel part of these communities.

Talk to me about arriving at your five main categories of right-wing comedy. Did these patterns jump out at you early on?

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Marx: We started with a focus on what is going to be the most known to non-conservative readers of the book: Fox News. We use the metaphor of a shopping complex to describe the interconnectedness of these different forms of right-wing comedy. Think about Fox News as the Target or Walmart, where everybody can find something if you’re a conservative political junkie. From there, you’re introduced to other brands of right-wing comedy, like Gavin McInnis’s form of trolling and his alt-right and white supremacist-adjacent comedy. The other forms, we just tried to think of the most prominent spaces representing conservative worldviews in comedy. Tim Allen and Dennis Miller had been around for a really long time. We talk about them as resuscitating a form of paleo-conservatism through comedy. The lib-owning comedy of Steven Crowder and Ben Shapiro shows up as a separate case study, because it’s grounded in religious-first principles.

Joe Rogan is very top of mind for a lot of folks because he attracts such a powerful and large following, at least compared to other podcasters, even though his politics are a little bit muddled. Then that world, especially of libertarian comedians, very much plays footsie with some of the more nefarious voices that Matt described, in the form of The Daily Shoah, Michael Malice, and Gavin McInnis. They hang out with Nazis and associate with at least Nazi-adjacent voices. That form of trolling can be described as the depths of this world of right-wing comedy, the lowest of the low.

Is the bigger threat of Joe Rogan that regular listeners will come to wholly adopt his quasi-libertarian ideology, or that they will be sent scuttling down any number of dark rabbit holes filled with even worse opinions and ideologies where some of his guests live?

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Sienkiewicz: From a moral standpoint, it’s the latter. From a political-strategic standpoint, the former. Rogan clearly has the power to speak to—and mobilize—a voter base that tends not to be highly engaged in mainstream electoral politics and thus can have an impact.

You write a lot about the digital ecosystem of comedy on the right, these connected systems and pathways. Are some of the connections that it produces surprising?

Marx: Matt and I always like to share how easy it was for us to literally just Google two seemingly disparate names like [Tim] Allen or Gavin McInnis or something, and they will have appeared together on a talk show. It literally became a game of just entering in two disparate names, and the algorithm will push them together, or they will have conversed with one another on Twitter, or they would’ve appeared on one another’s podcast. That happened to us way more times than we could count.

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Lots of people on the left say that conservatives only have one joke. You mentioned it in the Babylon Bee chapter, the viral post about the motorcyclist who identifies as a bicyclist; the idea that people can identify as whatever they want and that pronouns and other gender-based words have an Orwellian effect on language. Why do you think these seem to be such rich veins to mine in that world? They just keep coming up over and over again, and almost every time it’s as if the joke had never been made before.

Marx: It is the sort of button to push, to—forgive the word usage—to trigger a response from the liberal commentariat online. The reason they keep going back to that well is because they know it gets retweets and engagement on Twitter and Facebook. There’s some truth to what you point out that it is kind of their only joke, and it’s sort of lazy, and they don’t have many other avenues to go on. At least subconsciously I see it as a bit of an economic ploy. Having said that, I don’t think that’s the only thing many of the folks in our book are capable of joking about, especially in the case of more liminal figures like Andrew Heaton or even Greg Gutfeld. There’s a real sort of formal adventurousness to their comedy that isn’t always directed at liberals, but can be, and sometimes is a poke at folks on the right, and the sort of discourse or language play that can happen on that side of the political spectrum, too.

Sienkiewicz: All [liberal social media spaces] see from the Babylon Bee are these transgender jokes. But there’s a whole website there, which does a lot of different things that are not gonna make it [to liberals]. Like when they make fun of Joel Osteen, the mega preacher, which they do incessantly. I’m not an evangelical Christian, so I try to be humble, but it seems like it’s sharp satire. That’s just not gonna make it to your Facebook feed. You’re not somebody who cares about making fun of Joel Osteen’s yachts, or whatever they’re doing, with some reference to New Testament scripture.

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Babylon Bee went through a semi-scandal recently, tweeting an anti-trans joke and refusing to take it down . . . .

Sienkiewicz: The “man of the year” joke. [The “joke” is about Rachel Levine, the transgender person who serves as assistant secretary of health in the Biden administration.]

Is that different from something like the CNN spin joke? [Babylon Bee posited that CNN runs all of its news through an industrial washing machine to spin it, which Facebook then flagged to limit its reach.]

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Sienkiewicz: It is, because the accusation’s different, right? So the CNN spin joke, the accusation is misinformation because otherwise it’s hard to find the offense. It has to be, you can’t put fake stories on Facebook, whereas this is about the offense of misgendering. Previous moments, where people have overreacted to stories like the CNN spinning story, give a sense that there’s something more going on than in the case of the man of the year joke. But they wanna push that button. They know that that button gets them clicks, so slightly different, but they get to sweep it up into their weird, being-oppressed kind of narrative.

It’s a twofer. They get the attention for the joke, and then they get the cancel culture thing, too. Speaking of cancel culture, is the environment we’re in leading ostensibly left-leaning comedy fans to the other side? Or were some of those fans maybe not-so-left-leaning to begin with?

Marx: Part of the broader argument we make in the book, which we presume is going to be a largely liberal audience, is a warning, saying, Hey, look over here, take this seriously. It’s also a call to arms, to fortify our own comedic weaponry and not forget that, Hey, we owned this space. We have owned this space for the better part of several decades. Let’s not get so caught up in intramural disputes about what is and isn’t okay to joke about on the left that we start ceding ideological territory to the right. So it is, in part, a request to our liberal brethren not to get overly censorious or consumed with what we as a political body should be and should not be joking about, because they’re doing whatever the hell they want on the right. And I think they are winning over increasingly right-curious young men, especially.

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Sienkiewicz: I grew up with a sense that young people tend to be liberal, and that’s how comedy’s liberal. That is false. As people are acculturated into this new media environment as they come of majority [age] and become voters and engage to whatever extent they are politically, the appeal of real free spiritedness on the right can be an appeal to younger voters.

Marx: Risk-taking and adventurousness, right? We exhort liberals not to lose that spirit of risk-taking because we see it pretty vibrantly on the right, for better—or worse.

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