Alison Dagnes, a political scientist at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, has a curious affliction: she thinks the comedian Dennis Miller is really, really funny. She wanted so badly to meet him and discuss his craft that she contrived to write an entire book on the subject of comedy and politics essentially as a professional excuse to fulfill this desire. Dagnes was working as a production assistant at C-SPAN in 1991 when she discovered Miller, who was then at the apex of his career, fresh off a successful run on Saturday Night Live and famous for his knowing, referential brand of humor. As she moved on to academe and he to HBO, Dagnes kept up what she calls her “steadfast devotion.”
Walks Into a Bar: The
Politics of Political Humor
by Alison Dagnes
Palgrave Macmillan, 255 pp.
Miller styles his act as a stream-of-consciousness rant that is heavy on cultural allusions and was, back then, laced with an acid scorn toward the unenlightened — especially hicks, rednecks, culture warriors, and other right-wingers. Here’s the flavor of Miller’s comedy circa late 2000:
And on Monday, movers went to the governor’s mansion in Austin, Texas, to transfer Bush’s belongings to Washington. The move itself took very little time once workers discovered that Bush had nothing upstairs. Now, I don’t want to get off on a rant here, but as a comedian, with George W. Bush coming into office, I feel like the owner of a hardware store before a hurricane. I hate to see it coming, but I have to admit it’s good for business.
Then something odd happened. The attacks of September 11, 2001, turned Miller into a fawning admirer of the same president he’d once held in contempt. The change was striking not only because Miller was supporting a Republican, but because he lost his sense of irony and adopted the full complement of Fox News- Republican vices: the chest-thumping America-first bravado, the angry paranoia, the presumption of treasonous bad faith in anyone who didn’t share his views. This was especially jarring because the latter included most of Miller’s fans, who didn’t know what had happened to the guy. Dagnes, confused like the rest, watched her friends turn on Miller, and then watched the long arc of his career decline, from a failed stint hosting Monday Night Football, to a short-lived show on the financial network CNBC, and finally to his current role as comedian in residence at Fox News. Dagnes, who describes herself as “fairly liberal,” is touchingly devoted to her hero but also somewhat blinded by her fandom, because she attributes Miller’s shrinking audience to his reversal in politics. In A Conservative Walks Into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor, she sets out to discover why conservative satirists number so few and whether this is something that we, as a country, ought to be concerned about.
Dagnes is a pleasant guide and companion, whose accessible (sometimes chirpy) prose helps the lay reader to grasp what I suspect is a punishingly dry canon of scholarship on political humor. Most of us, for example, would prefer her synopsis of the Norwegian psychologist Sven Svebak’s attempt to quantify and measure the sense of humor in 54,000 Swedes by administering his “Sense of Humor Questionnaire (SHQ)” than to read the unabridged Sven for ourselves. (Trust me, I Googled it.) Another frustrating aspect of the scholarship is that it seems awfully haphazard and contradictory. One set of scholars studying The Daily Show accused Jon Stewart of “unbridled political cynicism” and cultivating distrust in his impressionable viewers. But two other sets of scholars concluded that satirical comedy increased viewers’ political awareness.
Do these hyperaware cynics even vote? And do they vote differently because of Stewart and his ilk? “The answers,” reports Dagnes, “are wildly divergent.” Some scholars have concluded that cynicism discourages participation, others that satire fosters enlightened engagement. One study determined that viewers of late-night comedy shows are more inclined to cross party lines (seeing politicians from the opposing party yukking it up with Letterman presumably casts them in a more favorable light). But Dagnes’s own earlier research concluded that such personalization “encouraged superficiality,” thus trivializing the discourse. Whole shelves groan with academic treatises on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report — stuffed with typologies, program analyses, monologue exegeses — but they don’t seem to have proven much or illuminated anything particularly interesting about the audience.
In fact, much of the scholarship feels like it was primarily motivated by the authors’ desire to study something cool, and then retrofitted with exaggerated significance to justify the endeavor. Take the conclusion of two academics who studied Will Ferrell’s Saturday Night Live presidential debate skits in 2000: “Voters seeking to understand the substance of ideas in the debate may have found the parodies of the debate to be a useful organizing tool for their inherent complexities.” Only a Will Ferrell character would rely on a Will Ferrell debate skit to parse the complexities of modern presidential politics. An academic herself, Dagnes doesn’t avoid some of these pitfalls. As she explains in her introduction, she examined political humor to gauge the bias, studying the content of satirical shows, columns, and drawings.
I examined the guest lists of programs and explored other data on the target of political jokes, and surveyed the long and impressive history of American political satire from its founding until today. I analyzed the satirists, their skill sets, political ideology, liberalism, conservatism, and the goals of the entertainment industry.
In other words, she is attempting, like Sven Svebak, to quantify and measure something that doesn’t lend itself to quantification and measurement. Humor is subjective; an academic’s tool kit—scrutinizing joke targets, sniffing out “bias” in guest lists — doesn’t yield much insight about why there aren’t more conservatives on late-night television. Her dutiful slog through the litany of gripes from right-wing commentators and media organizations is likewise unilluminating (they blame nefarious Hollywood liberals).
What redeems Dagnes’s book is that she also interviewed a ton of comedians and television writers, who are amply and colorfully quoted throughout. This provides a real-world grounding absent from most other studies, although much of what she’s told goes against her thesis that these shows are a vital part of the political process — in fact, the interviews undermine the whole idea of academics parsing Daily Show transcripts. As the comedian Marc Maron explains, “The one thing I do know is that 90 percent of the time if you’re going to talk about politics the audience’s eyes [are] going to glaze over and not know how to take it in because they don’t fucking think about it.” When Dagnes cites the studies about how satire affects political behavior, the comedian Lewis Black replies, “Well, first, tell those academics to fuck themselves.… Really, tell them it is bullshit … satire doesn’t have that effect. If satire was really that important as a way to get things done, then, you know, more shit would be getting [done].” The common thread running through all these interviews is that professional satirists are almost exclusively concerned with being funny, and while many hold liberal views, they don’t expend much effort trying to impose them on others or imagine that they’d succeed if they did.
Dagnes isn’t having it. “Modern political humor,” she writes, “has become a powerhouse of cultural influence and Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and their brethren wield an immense amount of sway among voters, especially young ones.” And elsewhere: “As our news media soften considerably in their changing work environment, satirists (whether they like it or not) are filling some of the watchdog functions that journalists used to carry out.” But the notion that journalism has become so impoverished that hungry minds have turned to The Daily Show for news and moral guidance doesn’t hold up. Not only is there more and better national political journalism than ever before, spread across more platforms and easier to share, but it supplies the subject matter for The Daily Show and other shows like it, which don’t produce journalism, but riff on that produced by others.
So why do conservatives fail to turn political news into entertaining satire like liberals do? In 2007, with the Republican Party in tatters and Jon Stewart splashed across every magazine cover, Fox News Channel began broadcasting ,em>The 1/2 Hour News Hour, which was billed as “a conservative Daily Show.” It was a spectacular flop, because it put politics before humor. “It was mostly just loud and complainy with not a whole lot of basis in fact or reality,” says the Saturday Night Live writer Alex Baze. A writer for The 1/2 Hour News Hour told Dagnes that Fox News censored the best material because it was deemed “too controversial.” Surveying this landscape, Dagnes concludes that conservatism is philosophically incompatible with satire. “The nature of conservatism does not meet the conditions necessary for political satire to flourish: conservatism is harmonized and slow to criticize people in power, and it originates from a place that repudiates humor because it is absolute.” Any member of the Obama administration would heatedly disagree with the first claim; and there’s plenty of conservative humor if you know where to find it. Conservative satire flourishes in places like the Weekly Standard, particularly in the essays and articles of Matt Labash and Andrew Ferguson, and the cover art of Mark Fredrickson and Thomas Fluharty, whose paintings travestying braindead hippies and aging radicals are dead on and piercingly funny.
It’s true that late-night television is largely bereft of conservative humor — Fox News’s late, late-night (3 a.m.) Red Eye w/Greg Gutfeld being a notable exception. To me, the conservative inclination to put politics before humor goes a long way toward explaining this disparity. It’s one reason why talk radio has been such a successful format for conservative entertainers (and such a challenging one for liberals, who have failed in their attempts to match it). You can’t cultivate a national television audience for a comedy show if being funny isn’t the first order of business. Throughout the time she was researching her book, Dagnes was toiling to convince Miller to talk with her, at first by touting her academic credentials and finally by approaching him through an intermediary. He declined every advance. This wasn’t very sporting of him, but on the other hand, the prospect of his career being rigorously examined couldn’t have held much appeal.
There’s something karmically fitting about the fact that Miller, whose act requires an audience with deep cultural fluency and a finely honed sense of irony, has wound up performing for the boobs who watch The O’Reilly Factor. His fall has been long and precipitous, from the comedy flagship of Saturday Night Live to the graveyard of Fox News. Miller is too sharp not to recognize this himself.
To Dagnes, the explanation lies in the complicated interplay of political philosophy and cultural climate. But what killed Dennis Miller’s career wasn’t that he became a conservative. It’s that he stopped being funny.
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