Over the past decade or so, as the world lurched ever more to the right, it seemed to me that those of us identifying as on the left needed a robust sense of humour. How else to cope with the alarming realisation that Malcolm Fraser now stands to the left of the ALP? So it came as a bit of a surprise to find that we are all humourless according to John Birmingham.
Apparently John believes the left “has indulged for so long now in the guilty pleasures of relativism, protected by a value system that says discussion of certain topics is off limits, that any sense of confidence they might have had at one time has now entirely disappeared. And with it their sense of humour“.
Pretty damning stuff. Mind you, in the article he doesn’t cite any instances to support this statement and at his blog the closest he comes to an example is, “I first came across the problem twenty years ago when i was writing humor for student magazines. I regularly got my drafts returned with huge chunks excised because they contravened policy about sexism, racism, homophobia etc. The worst part of it was that I was satirizing hyper conservative opinion, but the big left wing dummies didn’t recognise that. It left a sour taste that still lingers.”
Strangely enough, it was about twenty years ago that PJ O’Rourke published Republican Party Reptile, which according to John, “inspired a generation of conservative satirists to begin poking fun at the sacred cows of the left.” And again, according to John, “What is surprising is just how successfully the new right, for want of a better tar brush, has been at colonising this outpost of public discourse.” (ie comedy)
So John is telling us he couldn’t get published at the same time O’Rourke was publishing his masterpiece. Furthermore, he couldn’t get published while a generation of satirists inspired by PJ were being published (how else to explain their unequivocal success?). Something doesn’t add up, and I believe it’s probably significant that “the sour taste still lingers”.
The idea of a conservative satirist piqued my curiosity. Usually I imagine conservatives as supporting the status quo, and satirists as opposing it. What on earth would a conservative satirist look like, particularly in an era when the further right parties hold power in Australia and the US? Who better to ask than John Birmingham? Surely, his research for this article would mean he had at his fingertips a list of (at least some of) the generation of conservative satirists which had been inspired by Republican Party Reptile. Alas no, and he was far too busy to compile one.
Fair enough; I decided to go looking for myself. The only comics John mentions are Sarah Silverman, and Trey Parker & Matt Stone. At first glance it appears he is using them as examples of the right wing ascendancy, but he actually states they are not on the right. So, who and where are these neocon comedians?
My search was far from exhaustive (there is only so much you can do with Google) but it turned up a few interesting things. Firstly, there are very few comedians who identify as right or left. Most of them are just trying to make people laugh. Secondly, none that I found cite PJ O’Rourke as a formative influence. This isn’t surprising because O’Rourke is basically an essayist and I would expect him to mainly influence people who are wannabe essayists (eg Tim Blair).
Just as I would expect writer/directors like Trey Parker and Matt Stone to be influenced by writer/directors. Parker and Stone both cite only Monty Python as their comedy idols in this Playboy Interview (2000).
Performers like Sarah Silverman I would expect to be influenced by performers and guess what? This interview reveals her influences were “Woody Allen, Albert Brooks, Eddie Murphy and, particularly, Steve Martin”. As well, this article describes her material as “usually not overtly political, instead attacking by subverting – by voicing the ludicrous to reveal it. She tends to leave the in-your-face political stuff to others, the Bill Mahers and Margaret Chos of the world.”
Aha; some right wing comics? Well, no. Margaret Cho, campaigning for MoveOn.org, received heaps of hate mail when she said, “You know, George Bush is not Hitler. He would be if he applied himself, but he’s just lazy!”, and Bill Maher is described in Wikipedia as “known for his political satire, most of which comes from a leftist and, to a lesser extent, libertarian point of view”.
My search found only two right wing satirists; PJ O’Rourke and Chris Buckley. This hardly amounts to the right wing supremacy that Birmingham describes, particularly since I also found two left wing comics who are described as in-your-face and political. At this point I think John’s argument disappears up its own fundamental.
In fact there are many faults with John’s article. He mixes essayists with standups with writer/directors; a bit like tracing the influence of an orthopedic surgeon on proctologists and epidemiologists. He places far too much weight on the publication in 1979 of How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink. National Lampoon was a fine example of College Humour, but that’s all it was (is?). A far more significant and influential event in 1979 was the release of Life of Brian with which the Monty Python crew really rattled a few cages and, dare I say, influenced more than a few satirists.
Then there’s his characterisation of O’Rourke as “satire’s Marco Polo, or maybe Erik the Red, getting in a little Viking-style rhetorical rape and pillage as he explored the outer reaches of what was then known to be funny“. This is so over the top as to be laughable. O’Rourke wrote (and writes) firmly in the tradition of Mark Twain and SJ Perelman. His prodding of society’s sacred cows is all very white bread, middle class and ultimately safe. To write seriously about comics who really did rhetorically rape and pillage you can’t avoid Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor (and maybe even George Carlin). It doesn’t advance Birmingham’s case, but these were the pioneers who explored the outer reaches of what was then known to be funny; PJ always stayed much closer to home.
So what is Birmingham on about? In his blog comments he says, “I guess what I was writing about, was the loss of confidence and joke making ability on the Declared Left, people who, like Blair, are avowedly political.” How much confidence does Blair really have when a dissident comment will more than likely get you banned from his blog? Why does Birmingham ignore the confident, left leaning and funny efforts of (off the top of my head) Anonymous Lefty, Daily Flute, Gummo Trotsky and His Excellency?
Seems to me this article wasn’t so much a genuine critique of the current state of humour as a puff piece for Tim Blair. There’s also an element of payback for a grudge which has apparently been nurtured over the last twenty years or so.
If anyone disagrees I’m always open to proof I’m wrong. Give me a convincing argument that the right dominates the field of comedy. Point me to examples of conservative satirists, or left wing comics who have lost their confidence. I’m always willing to learn.