In the United States, comedy seems to be dominated by the left as exemplified by shows such as The Daily Show and Full Frontal. While there are conservative comedians, they tend to avoid political comedy and instead seem more likely to comment on red necks rather than red state politics. As might be imagined, there has been considerable speculation about this political division in the art of comedy, one that mirrors the political divide in the arts in general. While I do not pretend to offer a definitive answer, it is certainly interesting to engage in some speculation.
Smug liberals might be inclined to avail themselves of the hypothesis that comedy requires intelligence and that conservatives are generally less intelligent than liberals. Conservatives might counter that liberal stupidity is what causes them to be amused by stupid liberal jokes. While comedy can be an indicator of wit; there does not seem to be a meaningful intelligence gap dividing the political spectrum; although people always think that their side is superior.
A rather more plausible explanation is that the difference does rest in psychology; that the same traits that draw a person to liberalism would also make a person more proficient at comedy. In contrast, the traits that draw a person to conservatism would make them less capable in regards to comedy.
Sticking with the classic definitions, conservatives want to preserve the existing social order and tend to have a favorable view of the established social institutions. Liberals tend to want to change the social order and regard the established social institutions with some suspicion. Since political comedy involves making fun of the existing social order and mocking established institutions, this would help explain why conservatives would be less likely to be engaged in political comedy than liberals.
It is worth considering that while conservative comedians would not be very inclined to attack conservative targets, there is still a target rich environment. There are obviously many liberal groups and organizations that would be ideally suited for conservative comedy—in fact, liberal comedians have already put down the foundations for mocking many of these groups. There are also numerous liberal individuals that would be suitable targets; they have already been softened up a bit by liberal comics.
Conservatives, such as Rush Limbaugh, do engage in mockery of institutions and social orders they regard as tainted with the left. However, this mockery tends to be more of an attack than an exercise in comedy: while some regard Limbaugh as a clown, he is not seen as a comedian. Or particularly funny. Given the abundance of targets and the willingness of conservatives to go after them, it is something of a mystery why this ecological niche of comedic liberal mocking has not been filled.
One possible explanation is a variation of the victim narrative that conservatives typically reject or condemn when it is used by the left to explain, for example, why women or minorities are underrepresented in an area. The narrative is that comedy is controlled and dominated by the liberals and they are using their power and influence to suppress and oppress conservatives who want to be comedians. If only conservative comics were given a chance to get their comedy out to the people, they would succeed.
Some might be tempted to reject this argument for the reasons typically advanced by conservatives when the narrative involves racism and sexism, such as claims that the failure of the allegedly oppressed is due to their own defects, to simply deny the disparity or to advance the bootstrap argument. While this approach might be satisfying, it is certainly worth considering that conservative comedians are the victims of oppression, that their voices are being silenced by the powerful, and that they are victims. The dearth of conservative comedians, like the dearth of minorities in the highest positions in society, does suggest that an injustice is being done. If conservative comedians are being oppressed, then steps should be taken to address this oppression, perhaps beginning with an affirmative comedic action program to help them get established in the face of a system that has long been stacked against them.
While this is certainly the sort of thing leftists love to do for the oppressed, it is also worth considering whether conservatives want to be comedians. As with other cases of alleged oppression, it might be the case that the reason that there are few, if any, conservative comedians is because few, if any, conservatives want to be comedians. If this is the case, then there is no oppression to address—things are as they should be. Another possible explanation lies in the nature of comedy, at least as it is defined by Aristotle.
As Aristotle saw it, comedy “is a subdivision of the ugly” and “consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.” Political comedy typical involves mockery across the lines of power, because politics is all about power relationships. Liberal comedy typically involves mocking upwards in regards to power. For example, female comedians making fun of the patriarchy is mockery originating down the power curve that is aimed upwards at the established institutions and norms. Since the mockery is going up the power divide, the comedy generally will not be painful or destructive—after all, the power advantage rests with the target and not the comic.
Since conservatives tend to support the existing power structures and established social values, the target of conservative comedy would tend to be people and organizations outside of those structures or those with different values. As such, conservative comedy would tend to be going down the power curve: the stronger going after the weaker. For example, a white comedian mocking Black Lives Matter would be shooting downward from an advantageous social position. While comedy can go down the power curve and still be comedy, this becomes rather challenging because it is very easy for such attempts to become painful or destructive, thus ceasing to be comedy. Trump provides an excellent example of this. While he often claims to just be joking, his enormous power advantage means that he is almost always punching downwards and thus appears bullying and cruel rather than comedic. This, I think, is a plausible explanation for the dearth of conservative comedians: mocking those who occupy positions of social disadvantage seems more cruel than comedic.
There are many self-help books on the market, but they all suffer from one fatal flaw. That flaw is the assumption that the solution to your problems lies in changing yourself. This is a clearly misguided approach for many reasons.
The first is the most obvious. As the principle of identity states, A=A. Or, put in wordy words, “each thing is the same with itself and different from another.” As such, changing yourself is impossible: to change yourself, you would cease to be you. The new person might be better. And, let’s face it, probably would be. But, it would not be you. As such, changing yourself would be ontological suicide and you do not want any part of that.
The second is less obvious, but is totally historical. Parmenides of Elea, a very dead ancient Greek philosopher, showed that change is impossible. I know that “Parmenides” sounds like a cheese, perhaps one that would be good on spaghetti. But, trust me, he was a philosopher and would probably make a poor pasta topping. Best of all, he laid it out in poetic form, the most truthful of truth conveying word wording:
How could what is perish? How could it have come to be? For if it came into being, it is not; nor is it if ever it is going to be. Thus coming into being is extinguished, and destruction unknown.
Nor was [it] once, nor will [it] be, since [it] is, now, all together, / One, continuous; for what coming-to-be of it will you seek? / In what way, whence, did [it] grow? Neither from what-is-not shall I allow / You to say or think; for it is not to be said or thought / That [it] is not. And what need could have impelled it to grow / Later or sooner, if it began from nothing? Thus [it] must either be completely or not at all.
[What exists] is now, all at once, one and continuous… Nor is it divisible, since it is all alike; nor is there any more or less of it in one place which might prevent it from holding together, but all is full of what is.
And it is all one to me / Where I am to begin; for I shall return there again.
That, I think we can all agree, is completely obvious and utterly decisive. Since you cannot change, you cannot self-help yourself by changing. That is just good logic. I would say more, but I do not get paid by the word to write this stuff. Hell, I do not get paid at all.
But, obviously enough, you want to help yourself to a better life. Since you cannot change and it should be assumed with 100% confidence that you are not the problem, an alternative explanation for your woes is needed. Fortunately, the problem is obvious: other people. The solution is equally obvious: get new people. Confucius said “Refuse the friendship of all who are not like you.” This was close to the solution, but if you are annoying or a jerk, being friends with annoying jerks is not going to help you. A better solution is to tweak Confucius just a bit: “Refuse the friendship of all who do not like you.” This is a good start, but more is needed. After all, it is obvious that you should just be around people who like you. But that will not be totally validating.
The goal is, of course, to achieve a Total Validation Experience (TVE). A TVE is an experience that fully affirms and validates whatever you feel needs to be validated at the time. It might be your opinion on Mexicans or your belief that your beauty rivals that of Adonis and Helen. Or it might be that your character build in Warcraft is fully and truly optimized.
By following this simple dictate “Refuse the friendship of all who do not totally validate you”, you will achieve the goal that you will never achieve with any self-help book: a vast ego, a completely unshakeable belief that you are right about everything, and all that is good in life. You will never be challenged and never feel doubt. It will truly be the best of all possible worlds. So, get to work on surrounding yourself with Validators.
When it comes to hunger, people often desire particular types of food. For example, suppose a person finds she has a craving for something sweet. Conveniently, the aisles of her local grocery store are organized so that she can find her sweets. It is, of course, easy to imagine her disappointment if she buys a box promising a “crispy chocolate taste sensation” and instead gets a “mushy broccoli taste sensation”. When it comes to aesthetic appetite, people often desire a particular type of aesthetic experience. For example, imagine someone gets a craving for horror. Conveniently, the aisles of her local book store and video shop are organized so she can find works of horror. It is, of course, easy to imagine her disappointment if she buys a book whose jacket speaks of “ mind-blasting cosmic horror” but actually delivers an insipid romance set in Dayton, Ohio.
The point of this is to illustrate and argue that genre distinctions matter because they make it significantly easier for people to satisfy their aesthetic desires.
Last, but perhaps most importantly, genre classifications are needed so that it is possible to assess and criticize works fairly. While a developed argument for this is beyond the scope of this work, it seems reasonable to hold that art, like competitive sports, is a purposeful activity. It also seems reasonable that works of art, like athletic performances, can be assessed on how well they fulfill their intended purpose. Naturally, a fair assessment of a performance requires knowing the nature of the intended purpose. For example, during one track and field competition a paper plate blew into the area where the javelin throw was taking place. The plate landed in such a way as to appear to be a target and this confused a bystander. After one extremely long throw, the bystander commented that the throw was terrible, since the javelin landed no where near the plate. Of course, he had gotten it all wrong. Once it was explained that the javelin was thrown for distance, not accuracy, he realized why what he had thought was a terrible throw had been an excellent through after all. The same is true of the arts. For example, it would be an obvious mistake to claim that The Haunting [i]is a poor film because it does not cause the reader to laugh. This is because The Haunting is not intended to be a comedy. Hence, its failure to be a comedy is not a mark against it.
Thus, genre classifications are important because without them it would be difficult, if not impossible, to fairly and justly criticize and assess works, including cases in which the creator of a work is assessing his work in progress.
[i] The original film, not the remake. The remake was much more a horrible work than a work of horror.
I recently heard a bit on the radio about comedy and Obama. The point was raised that white comedians are tending to avoid making fun of Obama out of fear of seeming racist. It was also said that the Obama victory has helped bring greater opportunities for black comedians-they will be needed because they can make fun of Obama without seeming racist. This does raise interesting issues about race and comedy.
I teach a class on Aesthetics and have included a discussion of race and comedy for the past several years. Naturally, when I teach the class this spring we will no doubt be discussing this issue as it relates to Obama.
The general consensus in the class has been that race is quite relevant when it comes to the question of who can make fun of whom and in what manner. Content is, of course, relevant and presumably any comedian could cross the line into racism. Put roughly, I’ve found that the majority of students think that comedians can “mock up and across”, but that “mocking down” is not acceptable. “Mocking up” means to make jokes towards those who are seen, as a class, to have more power. Or, as one student put it, “towards the oppressors.” For example, women making fun of men could be seen as “mocking up” as could blacks making fun of whites. “Mocking across” is to mock other groups that are seen as being at the same level. Obviously, one’s own group would be included here. For example, a Hispanic comedian making jokes about Hispanics or blacks might be seen as “mocking across” because Hispanics and blacks are seen as being oppressed by whites. “Mocking down” has often been seen as being unacceptable by my students, mainly because such humor can be seen as part of the tools of oppression. For example, it might be regarded as belittling or condescending.
In contrast, “Mocking up” can be regarded as an act of defiance against the oppressor classes and “mocking across” could be seen as comradely. Obviously enough, this sort of view takes the notion of oppressors and oppressed very seriously (even in comedy).
This view does have some plausibility. However, the fact that Obama is the President elect does change the power dynamic. Any comedian making fun of Obama would be “mocking up”, unless the comedian also happens to be a world leader as well. In this case, she would be “mocking across.” As such, it would seem to be fine for white comedians to make fun of Obama.
Then again, it might be the case that the direction of mocking (up, down or across) depends not on the individuals but the status of the classes they belong to. Since Obama is black, for white comedians to make fun of him would be “mocking down” because whites as a class are above blacks as a class on the power curve. So, until blacks and whites are on equal footing, white comedians will need to be careful in what they say about Obama (and the next black President).
Race can also be taken to matter in ways other than in terms of classes and power. I have heard people argue that it is acceptable for the members of one race to make fun of their own race, but not others. This has often been based on the view that a person cannot be racist to his own race. For example, David Alan Grier can present comedic pieces on Chocolate News based on black stereotypes without being racist because he is black. Some people extend this privilege to all minorities in terms of comedians from one minority making jokes about another minority. Not surprisingly, whites are fair game for everyone.
Of course, it seems obvious that a person can be racist towards his own race and that being in a minority is not proof against racism. This can easily be shown. Imagine you heard someone expressing all the hateful stereotypes about blacks and his hatred of blacks. You would no doubt think “what a racist.” But, suppose when you saw him, he turned out to be black. Would you then say, “well, I guess he is no racist after all”? Obviously not. Naturally, I have in mind the fictional blind black racist from the Chapelle Show.
In the case of why a minority can be racist, simply imagine that the white population became a minority and that people in the Ku Klux Klan and other such groups still held the views they do now. It would be absurd to say “well, since whites are a minority, the KKK is suddenly not racist.” Mere numbers, one suspects, is not a decisive factor in defining what is racist.
It might be thought that race provides a person with a special status that allows certain behavior between members of that race that is denied to others. An obvious example is the use of the N-word. I sometimes hear black students using that term when referring to each other and people generally do not take offense (there have been some rather notable exceptions). Obviously, if a white student started throwing the word around, things would be just a bit different. Perhaps the same applies to comedy.
Of course, the view that race grants such special comedic and language privileges does seem to be a bit racist. This is because it is based on the assumption that racial distinctions are real and that people are to be granted certain privileges because they belong to a particular race. So, to think that white comedians cannot make fun of Obama without being racist and that black comedians can safely do so because they are black would seem to be a racist view. After all, race would be the deciding factor rather than the content of the comedy. Obviously, there can be racist comedy-but the color of the comedian should not be the determining factor.
So, everyone should be free to make fun of Obama (within the limits of comedic taste, of course). He is the President of all Americans and we have a God given right to make jokes about whoever sits in that oval office regardless of race, creed or color.