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Episode Summary

Like beauty, humor is in the eye of the beholder. That’s especially true in regards to political humor, where many on the left and the right seem to think that the opposition is literally incapable of being funny.

Right wingers say liberals are too caught up in diversity and inclusion to take a joke. And left-wingers say that reactionaries are so enthralled with stupid ideas that they can’t really make fun of others. The truth, however, is that jokes which you don’t think are funny can still be comedy, and they can still use comedic techniques.

While it may seem absurd to study people cracking jokes, there’s a lot that can be learned from that study, because comedy, especially in politics, can be a binding agent, a critical ingredient that can hold together coalitions that might otherwise hate each other. And in an age of negative partisanship where people vote less on who they like than what they don’t, political comedy can make a big difference.

Joining the show to discuss all of this is Matt Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx. They’re the authors of a new book called That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them. Sienkiewicz is a media scholar, filmmaker, and professor of communication at Boston College, and Marx is an associate professor of film and media studies at Colorado State.

The recorded live video stream of our conversation from May 5, 2022 is below. The transcript of the edited audio follows.



Transcript

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here, guys.

MATT SIENKIEWICZ: Thanks for having us, Matthew.

NICK MARX: Thank you.

SHEFFIELD: All right, so let’s just put the book up on the screen again. So I think your cover art is actually very illustrative of the content of the book. So just for those who are listening, walk us through it here. We’ve got somebody who I assume as a politician at the top there at the beginning of the cycle, it’s a cycle you’re showing of messaging on the political right. So walk us through that, please, if you could, Matt.


SIENKIEWICZ: Yeah, sure. So the politician or stand-up comic, or is there some in-between there? I mean, I think Donald Trump is something you have to talk about when you talk about the content of this book, contemporary right-wing politics and also comedy.

And then of course, Fox News. It’s not where it started in some sort of originating sense, but where the sort of full embrace of comedy as a political tactic on the right was sort of developed, particularly in the character of Greg Gutfeld. And of course we move on to new media, we move on to podcasts, we move on to YouTube web forums, these sorts of things.

And ultimately, it comes back around to that GOP elephant. The idea just as you noted. The comedy plays this role as a binding agent, that it pulls together the Republican and right-wing American coalition. And it gives them something to clap about.

SHEFFIELD: Or you could see that as praying hands as well, perhaps, because that’s another part of the coalition that you’re talking about.

So overall, you two are both admittedly, as you say, in the book are on the political left. And one of the reasons you wrote the book is that you believe that people who are progressive have just totally missed this world that has evolved and been created around them. And because they’re not aware of it, they think it’s not important or influential. Is that right?

MARX: That’s right. And it really takes two different forms that we discuss in the book. One is this definitional dance that our colleagues, other academics, mainstream political pundits, and just regular run of the mill Democratic voters have done in the last 20 years, thinking that comedy has an inherently liberal bias, or that something can’t be funny unless it’s fulfilling a liberal or progressive political project.

So we cite lots of Atlantic headlines, scholarship claiming that the version of comedy that the right is trying isn’t really comedy because it doesn’t take these progressive aims. It’s outrage programming, or it’s some other form of political infotainment. The second thing that we wish to highlight with the sort of left’s role in this– that we are currently overlooking comedy as a potential recruitment tool for many of us.

So while we very correctly have our sights fixed on the daily news headlines, like the Supreme Court leak and whatever the next iteration of that is going to be in the coming days, in the background is this sort of cultural work that the right has steadily been doing over the last five, ten years to gain the interest of especially young men via these new media comedy formats that Matt pointed to, all the way up to the established media outlets, like Fox News that are running out and out late night comedy shows.

SHEFFIELD: And so basically this is the metaphor you guys go with throughout the book, this idea of a storefront, multiple storefronts of different brands of comedy. And I should emphasize that this idea that just because you don’t think something is funny, doesn’t mean that it’s not using comedic techniques.

That’s something you guys return to again and again. As I said in the introduction, if you look at the way that a lot of right-wingers discuss comedy, they think that progressives are incapable of being funny. Let’s maybe discuss that argument a little bit.

As you said, Nick, there were a lot of articles and books that have been written making that argument, that conservatives or reactionaries can’t be funny. But now the reactionaries have kind of flipped the script. You want to talk about that for a second, Matt?

SIENKIEWICZ: Yeah. A hundred percent. That, that has been an overt strategy, both in comedy then also just general sort of punditry on the right. If you look at take Greg Gutfeld, he’s sort of the big box store. He’s the established brand that–

SHEFFIELD: And who is Greg Gutfeld for those who don’t know who that is?

SIENKIEWICZ: Which is an amazing thing, right? So Greg Gutfeld is often the highest rated late night comedy host in America, not every day, but some, some evenings. He’s on Fox News. He’s been there for a long time and he has a show called Gutfeld with exclamation points, that is a late night talk show, more or less in the style of a Kimmel or Fallon, whatever reference point you use there.

And he is doing comedy for one, but he’s mixing it with politics and news because it’s on Fox News, sort of directly integrated. And part of his approach and his perspective is to say: ‘We can be funny over here. Here on Fox News, we not only can make a joke and take a joke, but we can incorporate that into our news coverage, into the way that we talk about the world. We can connect politics and culture through comedy.’

And the other side of that coin is the accusation that the left can’t. That there’s censoriousness, that there’s over seriousness, that the fear of offending is so much greater on the left that comedy can’t be done there.

Of course that’s not true. There’s plenty of amazing progressive comedy out there. But it’s a narrative that the right spins very successfully. It’s able to find key examples and moments where there is a censoriousness cancellation, these sorts of things. And you see that across the spectrum that we talk about in the book.

The evidence presented is always very limited. They talk about ‘oh, this one thing happened and therefore the left can’t tell jokes anymore.’ But it serves as a narrative more than anything else, and gives us a way that binds together all the different forms of right-wing comedy.

SHEFFIELD: Before we go further, talk about sort of the different storefronts, the different types of humor that is marketed toward people on the political right.

MARX: So following our complex metaphor, we have the cigar store, the sort of place where dads go to hang out while the wife and kids take care of the rest of the shopping and they kind of talk shop with other dads about how high their property taxes have gotten or how their niece went off to Oberlin and came back as a social justice warrior.

So these are older boomer comedians like Tim Allen and Dennis Miller, who may have had their time in the sun in the 80s and 90s. But the comedy tastes movement has passed them by a bit. And they sense that they’re out of touch with it. And they joke about that.

It’s a very sort of reflexive, knowing, dad joke type of humor, perhaps best manifested by former Arkansas governor and frequent right wing media pundit, Mike Huckabee. So we talk about a bit on Kimmel where Patent Oswald sort of rehashes Mike Huckabee’s jokes as bad, knowingly bad stand up.

The other areas of the complex we address are the sort of bookstore where one can go to get a lecture from someone like Ben Shapiro or Steven Crowder. This is what we call religio-rational satire. So this is a kind of lib owning facts don’t care about your feelings– to borrow Shapiro’s turn of phrase –drawing a reaction out of a liberal opponent by debating them into a corner.

So this is something that Steven Crowder does in his YouTube viral videos, that “Change My Mind” series where he goes to college campuses and says: ‘There are only two genders, change my mind.’

Perhaps most of interest to folks who’ve heard of some version of this are the libertarian podcasters, Joe Rogan and the Legion of Skanks. So there we address their sort of nakedly economic drive to court a young male audience, this very lucrative listenership that is also appealing to the Republican party’s growth and hold on power– trying to attract young male adherents.

And finally we point to connections among all of these storefronts, to the basement, the dank, dirty place where trolls dwell and here is where we caution, especially liberal readers. This sort of above ground stuff– Gutfeld, and Rogan that might be more familiar in everyday to folks– has very explicit connections to some truly nasty, evil stuff that we can’t pretend is not there, simply because it doesn’t show up in your Facebook feed or it doesn’t make the same headlines as a Rogan does.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Something that’s important to note is that a lot of people, because the way that social media does recommendations now, everybody is kind of siloed in their algorithmic world, whether they realize it or not. Unless you’re consuming opposite side political content on Twitter or YouTube or whatever, you are actually living in that. They want you to live in it, because they feel like it makes you stay on their site more and keep coming back for more.

And so, as a result of that, there’s a lot of people on the political left who think that these figures who you mentioned like Crowder or like Shapiro, that they’re just irrelevant, stupid morons. And why would anyone pay attention to them? Because they’re obviously dumb. They don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re irrational. And so therefore they don’t matter.

And that’s really not what the numbers show, do they?

SIENKIEWICZ: No, not at all. And you completely, that’s correct that things are sort of out of sight, out of mind. And often what will happen is people start off suspicious of a Steven Crowder, I think for pretty good reasons. They’ll watch a little bit of it and say: ‘Oh, this doesn’t seem this stuff kind of comedy that I appreciate, or that I even recognize.’

And then it’ll be dismissed. How serious, how impactful could it be? But the numbers are clearly in the other direction, I’d mentioned that that Gutfeld can beat the Daily Show basically whenever he wants. And can beat the late night shows on occasion.

Steven Crowder, those YouTube numbers. Enormous millions and millions. Ben Shapiro, who is not a comedian himself, although we argue that he makes part of his project to incorporate more comedy and culture into the right wing world, is a dominant voice in both podcasting, but also short form media YouTube, TikTok shorts, these kinds of things.

So there’s no question that you could actually spend a lot of time if your feed is set up in a certain way and miss these things entirely. But they are being drilled in over and over and over again for people who have that other version of the feed.

And so to dismiss them based on sort of your taste preference, it’s fine, because you don’t want to engage with it. You don’t enjoy it. But you can’t pretend it’s not going to have impacts in terms of a culture. And then eventually politics.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, exactly. And there are lots of aspects of this, but just to go back after that little overview, let’s talk about some of the specific markets here that we’re talking about.

So, the first one, which does tend to skew older, as Nick said, is this idea of what you guys call the paleo comedy. That is comedy that is deliberately designed to be antiquated almost. And in many cases, literally making jokes, rehashing jokes from the 1970s, talking about Caddyshack or talking about “Laurel and Hardy,” really ancient stuff.

What’s the appeal for that audience? What’s the appeal that people see in that, that watch that stuff from Tim Allen and others?

MARX: Well, I think that in an immediate sort of media industry sense, Dennis Miller and especially Tim Allen are creatures of a broadcast television era. They are used to sort of casting a wide net with sort of family oriented– and less so in the case of Miller, he was very famous for his kind of hyper literate, referential humor on SNL and into his podcast. But it is deliberately old in the sense that it is for an older segment of the demographic, boomers.

But it is also something that hearkens back to a paleo conservative ideology. So we’re very deliberate to connect paleo comedy, to the sort of nativist, anti interventionist sort of ideas that we need to put America first, a slogan that you heard a lot in the Trump era. And you hear that a lot in this type of paleo comedy.

The show that Tim Allen starred on for a decade, Last Man Standing, Tim Allen doesn’t want to be bothered by anyone, whether it’s a Mexican migrant or his daughter coming to ask him for some money. It’s a sort of ‘leave me alone, I’m comfortable in my upper middle-class wealthy suburb here. I don’t want to be bothered with any of these social issues.’

And I think you kind of see a direct reflection of that in some of the ongoing paleo conservative thoughts that just focuses on material comfort and wealth among an already privileged section, especially of the older conservative wing of the Republican party.

SHEFFIELD: (Mmm-hmm) The other thing about it is that a lot of those jokes, they were cutting edge at some point in time. But they’re not anymore. And people want to keep hearing them. They thought they were funny when they were 20 and they still think they’re funny when they’re in their seventies, basically, right?

MARX: Yeah, I think that’s right. It’s nostalgic certainly it’s a, a sort of warm patriarchal embrace of: ‘Oh, if the world outside is too scary and there’s a Black Lives Matter protest going out in the streets, come on home and you’ll hear jokes about take my wife, please. And how miserable your family life makes you.’

The important part there is that it’s a knowing it’s a referential joking that you alluded to. So it hearkens back to a kind of comedy culture that was almost exclusively white, for and by men in comedy clubs. And didn’t yet have a sense of the exterior world of social unrest that would soon come to bring folks of color and women more and more into the comedy scene in the eighties and nineties.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And this is something that it has in common with the other styles. So all the styles have differences, but they also have commonalities. And one of them is what you were just talking about, this idea that the political consensus is lost now.

But really what it is is that that’s based on an implicit assumption that, well, I don’t want to have to hear what women have to say. I don’t want to hear what African-Americans have to say, I don’t want to hear what lesbians, gays, transgender people, and bisexuals have to say. Things were just easier when we didn’t have to care with what they had to say. And that’s, I think that’s a commonality between all these formats you’re talking about. Would you say that, Matt?

SIENKIEWICZ: Yeah, I think so. That is particularly underscored in this paleo comedy that we were talking about where in some ways, the comfort is thinking of a world of comedy that was not inclusive of those perspectives that you’re describing, that there were very few comedians from minority backgrounds, certainly very little LGBT representation, it’s talking back to, the seventies, eighties, and I think that is super explicit in the world of the paleo.

But then the demographic sort of homogeneity of all of this world of comedy is pretty striking. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t have female audiences. I’m sure there are, but is it overwhelmingly, aimed at men. And with very little diversity on any other demographic sort of access either.

So, yeah, I mean, that part of it is the heart we argue of the paleo old school comedy, but it runs through the whole strain. I think that’s right.

SHEFFIELD: And then there’s a close connection to what you guys are calling the religio-rational brand of comedy, which is the type of content that Crowder or other people like Ben Shapiro will put out.

They don’t want to actually talk about their ideas anymore in terms of where they come from or why they believe them. Because the answer is ‘well it’s because my religious views tell me that these political ideas are true.’ And that’s why they believe them. They don’t believe them because they think that they’re rational, but they say that.

And for me as somebody who was raised as a fundamentalist Mormon, that was the viewpoint that I had for a lot of my life when I was in that tradition. I wanted to think that my beliefs were something more than fundamentalist recitations of things that other people told me.

And a lot of people, they want to hear that. They want to think that they’re rational and smarter than these godless, communist lesbians. And so that’s what the format really kind of boils down to, ‘here’s me destroying some loser snowflake who’s not part of this category of white religious person.’

SIENKIEWICZ: Yeah. I mean, that is right. And it’s, it’s a complicated thing because, they’re mixing modes here. So on the one hand they’re there are bringing forth ideas about the world that come from, often faith traditions literally, or sometimes it could be political faith traditions, but mostly we’re talking about actual religious traditions here– which is fine; that’s not something where we’re attending to critique. Although it’s a little more complicated. They’re going to deploy that in these sort of arguments that you can’t possibly disagree with, right?

And Crowder will play this game where he comes in with a set of ideas about the world drawn largely from his religious background– which is sort of fine– but then take unsuspecting people, foist those pre accepted ideas on them and then argue with them, showing how their logic is flawed simply because they have not had the chance to think through first principles. But they don’t walk around with a fact sheet in their pocket. And these sorts of things create comedy by beating them in these arguments.

This is the “own the libs,” own them with facts and logic idea, where if you want to have a serious discussion about it, then you would go back and question how do we define life? How do we define? These are very complicated questions, right?

But they sort of start with with a granted premise. And then if you accept that, the fact that they are ready to argue, they have all the debate club tricks, and it sort of can be funny to watch people fumble and try to respond. But it’s all based on the not terribly good faith form of argumentation made to make people look ridiculous because they’re not prepared for it.

And because maybe they don’t want to sit there and debate with your conceptions of the metaphysics of the world.

SHEFFIELD: They don’t seem to be trying to debate people who are scholars or pundits on the political left or the atheistic left.

They’re not interested in that and they seem to actually be afraid of them. There was that video where Shapiro just walked out of an interview against somebody who was not going with all of his assumptions. It seems kind of fragile, which is ironic considering how they make that critique of others. What do you think of that, Nick?

MARX: Yeah. I want to reframe that, that thought, I think you’re spot on. Part of what they are intending to do for their confederate viewers is to make them laugh. That this is a strategy not only meant to build sort of political ideological affiliations. But it’s meant to be a humor of superiority, of laughing down at their political opponent.

Crowder, especially I think, does this. If you watch any of his kind of ambush videos, if you remember the MTV show “Punked” from the early two thousands, he’s ambushing Mexican migrants and talking about how they’re living high on the hog by not paying taxes, or especially those “Change My Mind” videos. Very often they’re on college campuses and Matt and I, as college professors can attest to the fact that 21 year old undergraduates aren’t walking around with a fact sheet about the civil rights movements and are likely going to lose in debates to somebody who’s prepared.

And when that happens, when Steven Crowder bests them with a twist of pretzel logic, it draws laughs from onlookers. Over and over again, this has meant to have people walk up, watch the fight going on, and have that live sort of comedy club feeling of improvisation danger. Anything can happen. And more often than not, what Crowder seeks is to draw a sort of nervous laughter of superiority from people that agree with him, and to make the libs very often well-intentioned, but perhaps unknowledgeable college students look bad and feel that and be the object of that derisive laughter.

SHEFFIELD: It’s a different way of doing Jay Leno’s old “JayWalking” segment.

MARX: That’s right.

SHEFFIELD: That’s really all they are. And people enjoyed those and thought they were funny. But yeah, as a form of political praxis, it’s not very good. And in terms of understanding the opponent’s position, or even understanding your own position, this is a failure I would say, even though it can be funny, I think.

SIENKIEWICZ: Yeah. I mean, I think it, this is also a space which, more and more, and I think I’ve noticed this more since we’ve completed the book, this it’s been really embraced in a virtual way with people who are not comedians, so Shapiro or like a Michael Knowles, right? They will spend a lot of time looking at the Libs of TikTok thing. Essentially, trying to find the most edge case outrageous or unusual representations of what they’re going to describe as some sort of a liberal argument, and then destroy it while laughing at it. I think this is a really, and you saw all the uproar regarding the Libs of TikTok and the whole story.

I don’t know if you want to get into it, but the idea of finding these characters that the right is going to mock and then try to use as representation of the liberal world, it’s the same thing. Instead of going to the college campus, they’re trolling through and trying to find the perfect person to beat in unfair arguments via social media.

SHEFFIELD: And the other thing, it seems like it’s like a response to the way that The Daily Show kind of pioneered that format. But what’s different is that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was doing it with the speeches of the President and the speeches of the Speaker of the House or top senators or multimillion dollar TV hosts. Whereas Libs of TikTalk is based on just random people who posted something to 50 followers or less.

And trying to say that this is the same, these are not, you cannot say that these people are representative of anything, they’re just randos on social media.

SIENKIEWICZ: And that’s true, but I would caution, I do think that that is a tool that has been in the liberal comedy playbook. I think Jordan Klepper at Trump rallies is a really good example of that, of finding these sort of fringy characters. It does happen. I, I agree. I think there’s a general tendency the other way, but this idea of finding outliers and people are going to represent themselves badly is hard to resist.

I think we look back closely at the the early Daily Show. We see some of that, but it’s around it in multiple spaces, I think a general you’re right on that trend.

And certainly it’s more central to the work that a Shapiro or Knowles does, but it’s something, you, you should be kind of careful of, regardless of where you are on the spectrum.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. Let’s get into the next segment here, which is the libertarian podcasters, the libertarian bros, if you will. And they actually, explicitly use that phrase that they say that they’re an “irony bro.” And they’ve gotten a lot of attention recently with the explosion of Joe Rogan on podcasts and all the controversies that he’s had.

But one of the interesting things that is, I think that is sort of central to that persona is that they don’t want to be seen as on the political right. And on Twitter a couple of months ago, I posted a list showing different Joe Rogan political guests, and I noted that several people on there.

That they basically are on the political right, such as Tulsi Gabard, who literally is a CPAC speaker or this guy named Tim Poole, who just is this right-wing pundit who pretends he’s a centrist or liberal or something. Or this guy named Dave Rubin, who is a YouTuber podcaster, former Young Turks correspondent or whatever you want to call him. They don’t want to be seen as on the right, but they obviously are.

SIENKIEWICZ: All I would say is that their branding is about being outsider, right? Their branding is about not being part of some established political institution.

So yeah, it’s trying to say: ‘Oh, I never voted for a Republican, I’m not on the right.’ But it, at least in some of the cases, and again, I’ll let Nick sort of flesh out the case studies, often, what they want to do is take a piece of libertarian ideology, largely around free speech and emphasize that and make a move from saying there should be rights to free speech to, we ought to be using as offensive words as possible, being as hurtful and over the top and distasteful as we can in order to prove that point. And they want to say that’s not right wing, but it’s taking a very specific view of libertarianism and foregrounding that in a way that makes them money.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and actually, sorry, before we get into the test cases, I just wanted to read this quote from Ronald Reagan who said this to Reason magazine before he was president, he said: “If you analyze it, I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference, or less centralized authority, or more individual freedom. And this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.”

So in terms of understanding libertarianism, I would place my money on Ronald Reagan’s authority rather than some low information podcaster. But they don’t want people to know the history. But go ahead, Nick.

MARX: Well, what I think that quote shares in common with what Matt just described is a baseline economically driven imperative. Anytime I see individual freedom from a right-wing thinker, whether it’s Ronald Reagan or somebody further to the right, I read that as the freedom for me to pursue material gain and comfort at the expense of others, however much and to whatever extent I want to.

And I think we see that play out in the case of these libertarian podcasts precisely along the lines of what Matt just described.

They take the libertarian principle of free speech and think that if I’m not doing it in the most freest speechiest way possible by taking it to the most dirty racist, sexist type of verbiage that I can, then I’m not fulfilling this libertarian ideal, then I’m not serving my targeted audience of young men who desire this content. And I’m not being true to the brand that I’ve created for myself, whether I’m a Rogan or a Legion of Skanks.

I’ll give just a, a quick example. So the Legion of Skanks, a group of podcasters who regularly appear on Rogan have as one of their members Dave Smith, who has ties to the libertarian philosophical world that Matt can speak to a little bit better, but on their comedy podcasts, their twice weekly Legion of Skanks comedy podcast, they play games such as ‘who’s more justified’ in which they watch viral internet clips of non-black folks using the N word and debate about who is more justified using the N word in a sort of hyper ironic, comedic, bros just giving shit to bros type of vibe.

None of the folks on Legion of Skanks are black. Not that that would allow or excuse any use of it, but you’ve got the cast members of the show and their guests comics just throwing the N word around, right? Because that’s free speech, bro. We’re just being extreme.

Another version of this game watches viral internet videos of women getting in fights or sometimes men getting in brutal fisticuffs with women, and they debate who’s more justified in punching a woman, always again, under this sort of heavy, heavy veil of irony. If I can’t joke about this extremely kind of upsetting act, then I’m not exercising my true right to free speech.

SHEFFIELD: I would say also that libertarianism itself has the doctrine of non-aggression, which is the idea that no acts are permissible unless they are not aggressive to others. So basically, if somebody doesn’t like what you’re doing, you can’t do it. That effectively is what it means. But of course, if you have a political system in one particular race has accrued the predominance of economic power or social power, then therefore any anti aggression principle is going to automatically favor that race by definition.

And then the same thing would be true with regard to women or with regard to people who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. If you have a system which is oriented in favor of heterosexual norms, then therefore any attempt to change that by modifying laws or structure as well, that’s going to be wrong. It’s going to be inherently wrong. And so it’s just an alternative way of phrasing right-wing cultural arguments and you keep seeing that over and over.

SIENKIEWICZ: Yeah, 100%. That’s really interesting about it is the content. This over the top aggressive, offensive content but it also does have this philosophical sort of a veneer to it.

Legion of Skanks that Nick was talking about, Dave Smith is a comedian and a guy who knows libertarian theory . He knows it to the extent that he can be featured on serious libertarian websites seriously discussing Murray Rothbard and Milton Friedman and a variety of thinkers, sort of making these extensively serious arguments about how drunk driving laws should be banned or these kinds of things.

And so that, that’s one way to enter this space is to think, oh, I’m doing something serious and political here. I’m advocating for the important cause of personal freedom and freedom from government repression and these sorts of things. But then the actual product for sale, racial slurs and misogynistic violence, right? It’s a good way to sell things, but obviously for some of us, we’re going to, we’re going to find reasons to be less than, less than thrilled about the packaging.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, so now why do you guys think that they get so angry when you say that they’re on the political right? Why does that trigger them so badly?

MARX: I think it’s because they don’t like being affiliated with the paleo comics. They think that conservatism is a dusty, old, white man’s game. And I’m the hip edgy club comic who tosses around the N-word openly and freely, where the paleo comics might do that behind closed doors.

Among these folks, especially Rogan, Rogan’s been on mic enough in his career that he could plausibly claim or deny any sort of political affiliation. He endorsed Bernie Sanders. And then when he dropped out, he switched to Trump, and you’ll frequently hear fans of the show say, oh, he’s, he’s never voted for a Republican. And he favors drug legalization and gay marriage and all these things. But our book is about the connections he has to these more avowedly right-wing spaces that star comedian like a Dave Smith, like Milo Yiannopoulos, like a Tim Poole, and Jordan Peterson, and some of the other sort of semi-serious right-wing thinkers who also appear on and have connections to other far right, more extreme groups that we talk about in the “basement” of the complex.

SHEFFIELD: And he explicitly does not invite provocative lefties on his show. He simply does not. In fact, he had said Sam Seder, who is a left-wing YouTuber, has said Rogan has refused to invite him on his show because he said he’s too mean. And meanwhile, he’s inviting openly fascist Milo Yiannopoulos. You think that’s not too mean? Clearly, that’s not what the criterion here is.

SIENKIEWICZ: I would only add to your question. It’s just off-brand for these libertarian spaces to be associated with something as dusty as the Republican party and conservatism broadly.

But there, there is a desire amongst listeners in these spaces to not feel like they’re tied into institutions. And so libertarianism as an ideology is good: a) because it allows for all this content that for various reasons people are attracted to. But it also does not have an institutional backing.

I mean, if you’ve seen videos of a libertarian convention, to call that an institution is probably too much. It doesn’t have any of these sort of stodgy connections and allows people to move around. I mean, Joe Rogan does flip-flop around. And libertarianism’s range of perspectives, the fact that it does not map onto bipartisan American politics is helpful for people who, part of their self identity want to be apart from institutions.

SHEFFIELD: An independent thinker.

SIENKIEWICZ: Well, it’s the idea, even though it’s a very doctrinaire form of political ideology actually. So it’s a weird thing to be. It’s independent of institutions, but not necessarily of strict ideological ideas.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I think libertarianism in the United States and actually outside of the United States, there were forms of it that existed on the political left. And there were people who had those tendencies. But what we’ve seen in recent years as sort of religious conservatism has become less popular among the populace– opposing thinking that homosexuality is sinful or thinking that the Bible is a hundred percent true– these are all beliefs that have declined pretty drastically in the recent decades. But what that’s done is it’s led to a bifurcation of libertarianism that, whereas before they kind of did have their own little space where they were off in the corner, saying how much they hated everybody.

But now you’ve had people kind of migrate toward the tendencies where they began. And I think an example of that is a show that you guys didn’t talk about too much in your book, South Park.

There was a book that came out in, I think it was 2005 called South Park Conservatives. And the thesis of the book was that there’s this new generation of conservatives out there who are tired of the liberal media and are tired of stodgy right-wingers. And basically it was effectively an argument for the libertarians are taking over the Republican party in the United States. And South Park kind of leaned that way for a long time, actually.

I forget which one of the creators, it was either Matt Stone or Trey Parker said explicitly, we hate Republicans, but we really fucking hate liberals. But they changed over time and went with that bifurcation, but to the left.

And most famously, they had constructed a character Al Gore who was hunting this mythical animal he called Man Bear Pig. And everybody in the show just regarded him as a total loser and conspiracy nut. And it was supposed to be a sort of parable for global warming and climate change. And then subsequently more recently they said, oh, wow, man, bear pig actually does exist. And Al Gore was right.

MARX: I think first I’d, I’d maybe ask for some consideration of context, the political environment in which Trey and Matt Stone are making South Park in 2004 is radically different than the one we’re experiencing today.

But I think what they have in common, or at least the version of libertarianism that they’re articulating then as now is a suspicion of institutions and especially politics as they are institutionalized in the Democratic and Republican party. My feelings on the South Park fellows are complicated and perhaps too boring to get into, but I just think they enjoyed commenting on not events themselves or political discourse itself, but reactions to it.

So it’s not necessarily that they were hunting Al Gore and his climate change activism, but they were more suspicious of the sort of hyperventilating liberal reaction to it that said, if you don’t get a hybrid, you’re doing climate change and you’re ruining the earth. So I think they eventually came on board with Al Gore and probably with many liberal political causes, but their target to me has always been reaction to what politicians are doing and saying, the sort of virtue signaling pearl clutching liberal that now is waiving a copy of Robin DiAngelo around and saying that if you’re not using the correct sort of a social justice mechanisms, you’re doing a racism with every breath that you’re taking.

SHEFFIELD: And it’s interesting that this idea of DiAngelo in particular, these are not theories that are that influential in terms of policy circles, or even in academia, like you can go right now and do a search on Google Scholar. People are not citing their works. They just simply are not because they’re not scholarly works. They are their opinions. And obviously they have a certain cachet among Atlantic readers and editors. But that’s a very small percentage of America as it turns out.

Did you want to respond to that matter? Or should we go on to the next point here?

SIENKIEWICZ: Let’s move on.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. All right. Before we get into the last comedy storefront here, I do want to say that it is interesting and notable that when you look at the way that comedy works on the left and the right what’s fascinating, is that on the left– just as in almost all of left-wing media– it’s commercial, it’s for-profit. So whether that’s a Vox or whether that’s MSNBC or whether that’s New York magazine, almost without exception, all large leftish media is for profit. It’s owned by commercial entities.

Whereas if you look at right-wing media, it tends to be much more diverse in terms of how it’s structured from a business standpoint. So either it’s individuals doing stuff, either it’s nonprofit organizations paying for stuff and very, very rarely is it actual commercial entities. And that’s a dynamic that I don’t think has been remarked upon a lot, would you say?

SIENKIEWICZ: Yeah. So what you mean to say is that it tends to not be corporate. Tends to not be a, a sort of a large publicly traded or, or, or widely–

SHEFFIELD: Except for paleo comedy, except for that.

SIENKIEWICZ: Well, Fox News would be the other would be the other major exception. But I think in broad strokes, you’re right. That in the corporate world, as it comes to media in general, it’s still stuck a bit in a previous era where it’s still targeted towards the old, broader notions of audiences a default notion that comedy is a center left activity more than anything.

So I think there’s something to that. And what it does is it makes a potentially much more influential on the right, individually operated things are. Legion of skanks, for example, is on something called the Gas Digital Network, which is a small thing run by one of the hosts of the show owns the platform and they run it like a little business.

And I think that is a good chunk of right wing comedy. Of course we have the equivalence of those on the left, but because the big corporate entities are still doing sort of center left stuff, they’re they’re less important. So I think that that’s probably something we see a market correction for over time.

But at the moment, the entrepreneurial, somewhat smaller scale, even like a Ben Shapiro or whatever, which is fairly big, still much smaller than a big publicly traded company is more present there, 100 percent.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and I think it has an impact in terms of what the message is, so that if you look at what left-wing comedy is, it’s actually centrist left comedy–

SIENKIEWICZ: Tends to be.

SHEFFIELD: –in many cases, anti socialist comedy.

So, especially like Jon Stewart, I mean, you see it now, John Stewart has attracted some controversy in the recent years for him. So like for me, I always had seen him as sort of an establishment Democrat centrist. Because that’s what he is. But a lot of people who were further left on the political spectrum, they didn’t understand that that’s what he was.

Because all they did was talk about how he hated Republicans. But now that he’s not structured, in that format structure, he can now say what he believes and he’s just a garden variety, centrist Democrat.

And that’s it’s kept left-wing comedy to be more centrist, be less interesting, more white bread, corporate. And that’s a contrast, especially with this last group on the right that we’re going to talk about here, which is basically the fascist comedy. And you guys do a good job of noting how a lot of the other more established, so-called respectable right-wing media outlets and commentators, they’re taking inspiration from these people, and that’s not something that is discussed nearly enough, I feel like.

SIENKIEWICZ: Yeah, it’s one of the more controversial, perhaps, things that we want to argue in the book. And we were careful to say, we don’t mean you flip on Fox News, see Greg Gutfeld and all of a sudden you’re giving money to The Daily Shoah. We’re not sort of making that slippery slope, everybody ends up in the worst place, possible argument. But we are saying that there’s really tangible connections from sort of more acceptable parts of the right-wing comedy world into these really ugly, ugly spaces.

And we’ve got some of this rather concrete. I think I’ll let Nick talk about Gavin McInnes who’s a character who’s very well tied into sort of mainstream spaces. And we’ll see if we have time to get into it, but you’ll see connections from that really sort of extreme right-wing world also being guests on a Fox News show. The connections are there. You don’t have to follow them, but they are there to be followed.

SHEFFIELD: Then there’s also Trump himself, Donald Trump. His campaign in 2016 literally lifted memes taken from the neo-Nazis board /pol/ on 4chan, they got them from there. And this was a semi-regular occurrence, that they would get memes that were generated on these neo-nazi message boards and say, huh, that’s funny. I’m going to steal it. And then they would.

But it makes more established conservatives angry to point that out. But why don’t we, Nick, if you could just give an overview of some of the outlets that we’re talking about here.

MARX: Yeah. I mean, the fifth and final chapter of the book is focused on trolling, a version of a comedy that’s likely very familiar to liberal readers of the book. It exists on both left and right sides of the political spectrum.

And it’s simply the arts of turning your comedic opponent into their own worst enemy, twisting them in knots, reacting to something that you don’t sincerely mean. However, we make the case that you can only take that trolling logic so far before you actually start to mean some of it. And it has real world, violent consequences.

So the figure of Gavin McInnes is perhaps a really good example of this. So he got his start as a co-founder of Vice magazine, sort of at the very birth of the modern day, 21st century hipster movement. That magazine was sort of the leading edge of that, wrapping everything they did in a pretty thick veil of irony.

So he’s, well-versed in literate, hyper ironic speak already, but as his personal politics kind of evolve, the more he sort of circulated through the New York media universe, he goes further and further to the right, frequently appearing on Greg Gutfeld’s first Fox News program, a sort of extremely late night, experimental comedy talk show called Red Eye.

McInnes would appear as characters of a liberal beta male, or as a character of a hyper-masculine, right-wing alpha male who was there to chastise the libs. Eventually McInnes very famously forms the alt-right street gang the Proud Boys, which are responsible for some real violent acts of hate, perhaps most notoriously told by president Trump to stand back and stand by.

So it’s something that doesn’t necessarily have an active sort of Republican party political presence, but is always there via these pathways that we describe in the book .

McInnes is pals with Gutfeld. Gutfeld frequently has the ear of prominent figures in the Republican party. It doesn’t take that much effort for a right-wing curious young man to be attracted to the irony of getting beat into the Proud Boys, before you can name five breakfast cereals or whatever, the sort of joking version of their initiation rites is to some of the more sort of mainstream institutions that we described in the early part of the book on Fox News.

SHEFFIELD: And trolling, there’s that saying “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” I would say that trolling is the last refuge of the irrational. And I mean it in the sense that when you can’t argue, when you cannot construct data-driven or philosophically consistent or historically consistent reasons for your beliefs, then you’re just going to want to degrade debate in order to push them.

That’s the only way you can really do it, by trying to make your opponents become verbally angry, to make them angry because you can’t defeat their arguments. And you see that over and over. And Donald Trump is another example of that. Donald Trump is a political troll. He’s an insult comic.

And I think, you could make the argument that he really did sort of bring this right-wing comedy mentality to be a center point, and almost the dominant pose of right-wing media.

SIENKIEWICZ: Yeah, no, I think that that’s right. And the point of it is to both dress things in an irony so you can’t tell what is serious and has to actually be confronted with, but then also to force people to answer ridiculous charges that you shouldn’t be taking seriously.

I mean, we talk with the character of Michael Malice in the book, who is sort of a troll theorist, and troll practitioner. And he’s tremendous at putting out something that clearly he doesn’t believe, just to see how people he doesn’t like will respond over the top of it, and out themselves as being over emotional or irrational, these sorts of things, in order to annihilate debate.

I think that’s really what you’re getting at there. Donald Trump isn’t going to beat anybody in a rational debate, but what he can successfully do is just annihilate the terms on which we could debate. Just sort of burned down the field so that nothing can grow. And in that space, it becomes anybody’s game.

And in some ways that’s the story of Trump and the contemporary Republican party, burn down all these traditional, mutually understandable ways of doing it, and see what comes next.

SHEFFIELD: To that end, there’s an entire network of podcasts out there called The Right Stuff, which it’s a group that I’ve monitored for a number of years. I exposed their founder is actually being married to a Jewish woman. And he didn’t want that gotten out needless to say. But they’re not the only one out there, there’s tons of these what could be called, truthfully, post libertarian white nationalism. That’s what it is.

Because they have said, almost without exception that we started off as irony bros. And then we decided that maybe a white nationalism is right. Because libertarianism wasn’t strong enough for them.

And that’s really what happened with McInnes and, as you guys noted, that Gutfeld himself said that McInnes was one of his best friends. And obviously, Gutfeld isn’t going out there and hanging out with Neo Nazis and saying racial epithets, but at the same time, he’s got that same brimming anger underneath everything that he says and does. He’s so pissed off about everything all the time.

MARX: McInnes is the one holding your fist and punching your face with it and saying, stop, hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself. He constantly inspires these horrific acts. And as soon as somebody does it, he says, well, I disavowed the Proud Boys long ago. I’m no longer affiliated with them.

SHEFFIELD: And the other thing is that, so while the more establishment Republicans like Gutfield or Shapiro, they don’t like the open racism of these figures like McGinnis it’s tough to argue that this is not something that they welcomed into their political perspective. I mean, Ben Shapiro himself, has gone on a white nationalist podcast and said how Jews control the media and are waging a war on Christianity. He said that to this white nationalist podcast network called Red Ice. And I wrote about it in Washington Monthly in 2019.

So for him to say that antisemitism is bad and you shouldn’t engage in that type of reactions. Well, you shouldn’t be saying that Jews are waging a war on Christianity, but limited to ‘well, I’m only talking about secular Jews. There are the evil ones, the atheist Jews.’

Because you can’t draw that distinction. It is a distinction without a difference ultimately. And that’s why it’s so hard for them.

So another figure you guys talk about is this guy named Nick Fuentes, who is another white nationalist activist and commentator and troll. And he’s made it a point to follow around and sort of try to do battle with Charlie Kirk, who is this very well-funded right wing activist who has this group called Turning Point. And they don’t really have the tools to counter these people, do they?

SIENKIEWICZ: I’m not sure to the extent they– I mean, they want to, in terms of making sure they remain dominant in that space, but in terms of a coalition, I think that Nick Fuentes is part of it.

It’s this, I’m not sure if it’s enemies or frenemies, I’m not exactly sure. I mean, Fuentes, he’s, calls himself an irony bro, right? That is, that is where he’s at. But what he’s, what he’s offering is a very lightly veiled, intense anti-immigrant sentiment and an intense antisemitism, particularly Holocaust denial. So he’s particularly aggressive on those grounds with the implied reason being that that’s the last taboo, right? Making a Holocaust joke.

And he’ll offer these arguments that he calls irony. But then if you listen to the Daily Shoah, which is different, but they make the same argument and then they do it the same way, and they’re not being ironic.

They’re being 100% serious about it. So that tie in there is fairly clear and concrete for me. Whether or not at some point TPUSA, Charlie Kirk’s organization, is going to want to fully clean up and will view that as, as really an enemy space. But in the meantime, you’re looking at a alliance of sort of anti liberal voices.

And I’m not sure how much it’s truly a rivalry as this thing that they all generally agree on, sort of a battle for that.

SHEFFIELD: Mm. So it’s fighting for the same audience, but just doing it in different ways.

SIENKIEWICZ: Yeah, that’s right. So if it’s about, if it’s about audience share, then I agree entirely, but it’s not ideological necessarily.

SHEFFIELD: Well one thing that you guys document very well, I would say is that there was so much cross-pollination across all of these different right wing media commentators, they’re constantly having each other on as guests, they’re constantly interacting with each other’s content, supporting each other on social media.

And that’s something that is kind of different on the political left. On the political left, because it’s more commercialized, the left is more capitalistic ironically enough, it’s more commercialized. And so there’s the sense that I don’t want to help XYZ because that would take money out of my pocket.

And then there’s also left wing commentators tend to be more interested in having disagreements with each other. And so if you’re a Bernie Sanders supporter, then you’re not gonna ever want to have a Hillary Clinton supporter or vice versa. And that’s a real problem on the political left media spaces, I would say.

MARX: I’m not sure if it’s a necessarily an unwillingness to have a conversation, but certainly the tendency we identify on the right is that they are much better at overcoming those intramural differences and mobilizing toward a shared political outcome. Owning the libs. Winning, maintaining a minority rule in a country where they are they’re outnumbered.

We on the left tend not to take our political disagreements and still at the end of the day mobilize behind political aims. Now there are a whole host of reasons for that. There are more of us. Our coalition is broader and more inclusive of lots of different types of identities and strains of liberal thoughts.

But I think part of what you identify is correct that there is a sort of economic impact driving a conflict and keeping it at that sort of localized scale and preventing it from getting anything done politically.

SIENKIEWICZ: I think your point about the sort of more developed capitalism on the comedy left is entirely true.

There are these big long-standing legacy center left, generally comedy institutions that get passed down from one person to another: late night shows, SNL, these sorts of things that remained. They are protective . They own a space. They make money there. They have a lot of prestige, cultural capital.

And they’ve got a clear brand they’re going to stick with. On the right, you don’t have those comedy institutions, you don’t have a long standing thing that everybody wants to be a part of. And that once you’re a part of, you want to keep other people away from. What they have is this constellation of often rather ideologically different, small institutions, these podcasts, these YouTube channels.

Even Gutfeld as big as he is comparatively, is nothing compared to old school late night shows or SNL, or even the Daily Show from the early two thousands. So they have strength by joining together. They’re the Power Rangers turning into the Super Power Ranger, right?

They don’t suffice in their own. The Babylon Bee has nothing really to do with Michael Malice’s ideology, but they’re on each other’s shows. No problem, all right? They’ll join together. They’ll overlook that, because their strength comes from linking together, their audiences passing between each other, right-wing people from different parts of that world and helping them find the place that they’re most comfortable. As opposed to saying, ‘I own this big chunk, stay away from me. I’m going to push you away.’

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I would say maybe the one exception of that is Fox, where they do actually, actively ban people who work for Newsmax or places like that. But otherwise, yeah, definitely that is the case.

All right, well, I appreciate you guys joining the show today, and there’s a lot to talk about here in the book. So the book is called, That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them, and it’s by Matt Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx. Thanks for being here, guys.

MARX: Thank you.

SIENKIEWICZ: Thanks for having us. Check out the book and let us know what you think.

SHEFFIELD: So that’s our program for today. And I wanted to remind everybody that Theory of Change is part of the Flux Media network. So go to flux.community to check out more articles and podcasts. And then also you can support us on patreon.com/discoverflux. I’m Matthew Sheffield. Thanks for being here today, and we’ll see you next time.