“Conservative Humor”: Why It Bombs

The great right-wing scheme of world conquest involves invading, conquering and totally subjugating every sphere of human influence. This has included government, education and religion; it probably shouldn’t surprise us that it would include entertainment as well. And ultimately, that had to lead to right-wing attempts at comedy. Unfortunately, watching right-wing endeavors at humor is just as excruciating as watching everything else right-wingers do.

We’ve seen intimations of this for years, of course. Rush Limbaugh (Anybody remember him?) and his precursors and successors in trash radio blanketed their outpourings of bigotry and bile with a pretense of humor. Cable TV equivalents, when they have come under fire for spreading hate and disinformation, have defended themselves by insisting that they are “just entertainers” protected by the First Amendment, and no one should take them seriously — even though they constantly urge their viewers to do just that. But despite their claims to the mantle of humorist, their rantings are rarely if ever humorous except to the most jejune of audiences.

The cold, hard fact is that “conservatives” just don’t get the concept of humor; and it’s highly unlikely that they ever will. There are three very fundamental reasons for this.

  1. Humor is supposed to be funny.

Don’t laugh, because this is something about humor that certain people often forget: its primary purpose is to make people laugh, or at least smile a little. Granted, it often has another important function — to make people think/ reflect or look at reality in a fresh light. But if it doesn’t make people laugh, at least inwardly, then by definition it’s not even humor to begin with.

With right-wingers, however, humor is a means to an end. Their first objective is to preach. And any kind of entertainment that strives to be preachy is not likely to produce much of value, particularly if its objectives are political. This goes for liberal as well as conservative undertakings; Al Franken’s little skits for the now-defunct Air America Radio fell as flat as Greg Gutfeld’s cringefests at Fox “News”. Well, almost.

Saturday Night Live has produced some masterpieces of humor over the years, and a great deal of it has been political; but little if any of it has been preachy. And although it is often characterized as a “liberal” program (which is probably a fair assessment overall), it takes shots at politicians of all stripes, and has had both Democrats and Republicans as guests.

2. Humor is not mere ridicule

Most conservative “humor” is specifically intended to be satire, which is humor that targets particular individuals or groups of people — sometimes even society or civilization as a whole. The problem is, the right-wing perception of satire is stuck in the schoolyard taunt stage.

Genuine satire highlights foibles through exaggeration or grotesque but appropriate analogy. To be successful, it must be based on at least a kernel of truth. But conservative “satire” generally just belittles people that right-wingers don’t like, often resorting to tasteless personal attacks (e.g., mocking President Biden’s stutter). Rather than building humor around a factual observation, conservative “satire” concocts observations that it tries to pass off as fact; it often resorts to straw men and bad faith narratives. This is why the Babylon Bee, a “conservative Christian satire” site (just try to wrap your head around the concept of “conservative Christian humor”) intended to be a right-wing counterpart to The Onion, is still struggling after all these years to produce its first real joke.

It certainly isn’t to be found in a post referencing the Supreme Court’s end-run to overturn Roe vs. Wade, titled “Democrats Enraged They May Have To Drive A Few Hours To Commit Murder”. Nor in another on the same topic beginning:

Leaked reports indicate that Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown-Jackson spent all Monday night poring over biology textbooks to learn what a woman is so she could defend a woman’s right to abortion on Tuesday.

This probably elicited plenty of guffaws and chortles from those who believe that woman is strictly defined as a baby-generating machine. But anyone else would just find it unspeakably dumb.

A representative specimen of “conservative satire” is the torturously bad film An American Carol, which takes aim at Michael Moore with a thinly veiled fictional version of him whom the filmmakers portray as anti-American — an absurd and false narrative that the Right routinely pastes upon the Left. Hamstrung out of the starting gate with this patently dishonest premise, the film lumbers on for 84 minutes trying to milk some humor out of a single hollow gag utterly ungrounded in the real world.

In contrast, a superb example of successful satire consists of a single line that was delivered on Saturday Night Live by Tina Fey portraying Sarah Palin. Lampooning Palin’s assertion that she was qualified to handle international affairs by dint of merely living in a state that’s a few miles away from another country, Fey responded to an inquiry about her qualifications by saying “I can see Russia from my house.” Absurd words that accurately summarized an absurd notion.

Another crucial point about satire is that it should be directed toward the powerful; but right-wingers are more interested in defending, protecting and championing the powerful, even to the point of trying to shield them from comic barbs. Their “satire” is more likely to be aimed at the oppressed and marginalized, and those who defend them. In one highly criticized post, the Babylon Bee denigrated transgender assistant health secretary Rachel Levine as the “Man of the Year”. It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t clever, it wasn’t imaginative, it wasn’t intelligent, and it wasn’t adult. It was just another malicious, juvenile attack against a demographic that already has been subjected to so much of it. (What’s that? You’re detecting a recurring motif of transphobia in “conservative humor”? Surely you’re just imagining things.)

3. Humor requires perspective

You’ve no doubt heard it said — and maybe you’ve even said yourself — that it takes a comedian to get a good grasp on world events these days. That’s not a terribly hyperbolic observation. Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert have more astute commentary to offer than just about anyone classified as a straight reporter. Humorists have always been among the wisest souls on the planet. Where would we be without Mark Twain, Will Rogers, or George Carlin? Such individuals have the knack for taking a panoramic view of the world, noticing its ironies and absurdities, and expressing them in uniquely memorable language. To use a popular metaphor, they are playing 3-D chess. In Technicolor.

“Conservatives”, on the other hand, live in a two-dimensional, black and white universe in which you’re either “pro-life” or “pro-abortion“, killing people will discourage people from killing people, guns make us safer, and prayer solves our problems. Their universe is utterly missing in perspective, nuance and awareness. Thus, “conservative humor” is often indistinguishable from “conservative journalism”. And it’s no laughing matter.

The only joke to be found in the attempts of right-wingers to be funny is the fact that they consider themselves funny.


  1. While I don’t disagree with you about the current wretched state of right-wing humor and/or satire–the Babylon Bee at any rate stands as an object-lesson for present-day “conservatives” who might want to try their hands in a field they’re obviously unsuited for–it wasn’t always like this. Conservatives of the past who were also brilliant humorists or satirists include Aristophanes, George Canning, and Ronald Knox. Aristophanes looked back nostalgically to the days when the lower classes followed orders without questioning them, a virtue he saw exemplified in the plays of Aeschylus and subverted in those of Euripides, leading to his brilliant satire The Frogs. (Aeschylus does not emerge unscathed in this piece, by the way.) Horrified by what he perceived as the excesses of the French Revolution George Canning took on such friends to humanity as Thomas Paine, William Wordsworth, and Robert Southey in a series of sharp parodies and humorous attacks intended to counter such dangerous ideas as representative democracy. Ronald Knox, after his conversion to Roman Catholicism, keenly satirized the inclusiveness of the Anglican church in such pieces as “Reunion all Round”, an inclusiveness that (in his view) took the Brotherhood of Man way too far.

    Traditionally humor and satire have been all-too-often on the side of the wealthy and the powerful (I say ex cathedra); the present situation in America seems to me anomalous. Certainly, the satire of the Anti-Jacobin (Canning et al) was “aimed at the oppressed and marginalized, and those who defend them” and still managed to be both sharp and funny. I personally find the traditionalism of Aristophanes and Ronald Knox abhorrent, while enjoying the literary forms they cast their views in. I don’t know why the American right wing couldn’t do the same sort of thing. I suppose it’s a consequence of having declared intellectual bankruptcy back in the eighties.

    • Thanks for the historical perspective. Certainly, if we look back to the distant past, we can find plenty of outstanding humorists who would be considered conservative — at least judging by their body of work, lacking anything else. Although in some cases (Shakespeare comes to mind) it’s hard to know to what extent the body of work reflects the creator’s views — or whether it’s just a matter of his knowing which side his bread is buttered on. Anyway, my focus in this article, as you’ve suggested, is exclusively American conservatism of the past half century or so. Which as we know goes far beyond actual conservatism.

  2. Does anyone share with me the perception that the current “entertainers,” on Fox News are really a collection of snide and hateful beings whose insider har-de-har-har attempts at humor, drown out the truth, via “anti-intellectual,” attacks based on the idea that Dems don’t even know the difference between conservatives who pre-judge what they say, and conservative’s made-up controversy used to portray Dems as being so evil that they would create a false flag news story aimed at poor misunderstood “Trumpers” while members of the Repubican far right soon denied that the Insurrection really was (violent) and that the entire number of Newtown’s primary school causalities were really parts of an elaborate hoax, which Republican claimed were fake news reports, that were used by nefarious Dems in the hopes of creating support for laws which will “take away our guns?” Apparently Repubs seem to think that using unbounded lies will win the games they are playing, while actually their own brand of fake news is based on the same rules which have been used by Brutal tyrants throughout time!

  3. First of all, no one can just have humor banned unless he or she is a dictator who controls every aspect of his cohorts and his countrymen, and even then humor will not just cease.

    It’s true that often humor involves laughing at pain and folly, such as in the “Three Stooges”–a slapstick comedy trio that was popular in my childhood. But humor can also be the result of outrageous and absurd punchlines that are the result of truly sad or dangerous situations, which are so unanticipated that one feels the urge laughs at them. But when humor is used in a dishonest and politically contrived way to dismiss reality (in order to peddle unproved lies as truths), then, all who differ from the jokers, may experience their characters being assinated in hurtful ways, most of which are lies, or are based on lies–such as making fun of Biden’s very well controlled stutter or selling bizarre rumors only for the sake of ones own political enhancement i.e. Trump calling Rosy O’Donnell a ‘fat pig” at a presidential debate, or putting down Ted Cruz by stating in a scandal rag that his wife is not good looking (while also claiming that Cruz’s father assassinated Kenned)– not just for fun, but with dead seriousness–in order to create the impression that Trump’s enemies are some how too stupid to vote for–even if the words and actions Trumplicans use are easily called out for involving their snide tones, or their school ground bully-like motives!

    In my experience way more conservatives create crude or offensensive humor to embolden their snide and/or vindictive attitudes–just to invoke political favors. One of the few cases in which Dems are patently gross or innapropriate, is in the words of a female comedian who was televised holding what looked like Trump’s decapitated head in her hands–holding a knife while blood [ketchup] dripped out of its neck. However, Kathy Griffin was quickly fired by CNN and eventually apologized for her actions, but not before the FBI investigated her, and after she was put on a no fly list.

    Will Fox News ever tell their employees to apologize for the many bizarre and distasteful lies told by its commentators (or ask them apologize)? I have never heard a single apology from Fox New or any of its employees!

    If you think any kind of humor should be given free rain to insult, slander, and even endanger those who we don’t like, I suggest you start making up jokes to put down disabled veterans who paint with their teeth, or perhaps the many beautiful children who help fundraise for charities like St. Jude’s.

    Just like anything else, there are appropriate and innapropriate kinds of humor, the later of which is frequently used to get back at people or groups that someone else hates!

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