Photo by Lee Pellegrini
In 2020, while other Americans were engaged in quarantine activities like sourdough bread baking and Netflix binging, Associate Professor of Communication and International Studies Matt Sienkiewicz was consuming hundreds of hours of right-wing comedy—all in the name of research.
The genre had intrigued him for several years, mainly because of its relative obscurity. While liberal late-night comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert had risen steadily to become household names, their conservative counterparts had attracted curiously little academic attention.
As a result, “there’s this philosophical idea that liberalism and satire and comedy are inherently connected in a way that conservatism just can’t be,” said Sienkiewicz, who chairs the communication department at Boston College. “It’s not a universally held opinion, but it's pretty broadly held.”
This past spring, Sienkiewicz and co-author Nick Marx, an associate professor of film and media studies at Colorado State University, published the results of their pandemic research: That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them, giving readers a tour of the conversative comedy landscape and its growing political impact. The book was named one of the best comedy books of 2022 by Vulture, and has garnered coverage in mainstream outlets like POLITICO, Fast Company, and The Guardian.
Below, Sienkiewicz explains why it’s important for people to take conservative comedy seriously, even (and perhaps especially) if they don’t think it’s funny.
You began working on That’s Not Funny in earnest in 2020. What prompted you and [co-author] Nick Marx to take on this project?
Part of it came from following how people were discussing the role of comedy in academia versus how it was starting to emerge in American culture and politics. There was so much out there talking about the importance of comedy in liberal politics in America. Especially in the early 2000s, scholars and pundits paid a lot of attention to comedy as this really important way in which liberal people got their news and understood how politics worked.
But we’re not in the early 2000s anymore. Nick and I were thinking about how that related to the current moment, and it occurred to us that much had changed in both the world of media and the world of politics. All this stuff was popping up in the world of conservative media and conservative comedy that wasn’t reflected in any of the academic literature or in popular reporting.
So we looked at that media environment, looked at the changing politics of the Trump era and the COVID era as it came in, and found that there were a number of important voices, whether you liked them or not, that were not being addressed. We chalked that up to a certain historical bias, political bias perhaps, on the part of people who write about comedy, but also just the newness of it all. We started looking at it and ended up going pretty deep.
What will people find most surprising when they read your book?
The first basic level surprise is that this stuff is happening without people noticing it, due largely to the prevalence of social media and the algorithms that curate content for you. There are lots of conservative comedians who are very successful financially and have really big audiences, but if you don't operate in that world and your social media algorithms don't suggest them, you probably don’t know they exist at all.
For example, people are often very surprised to learn that Greg Gutfeld on Fox News consistently beats out the ratings of much more “well-known” liberal voices like Stephen Colbert or Trevor Noah from The Daily Show. That fact often gets people interested.
Where are conservative comedians sharing their content?
It's the same media but different channels, and generally through a more or less exclusively conservative media sphere, with some exceptions. Fox News has attempted multiple times to introduce comedy into their programming and while they’ve had some well-known flops, they've kept at it and broke through in the Trump era. That’s now where you'll find Greg Gutfeld, but you’ll also find people doing ostensibly lighthearted, playful, and sometimes ironic bits throughout the daily schedule.
The other spaces are conservative branded online platforms: Blaze TV, Glenn Beck’s media outlet has Steven Crowder on it; The Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro’s conservative branded online space, has content that either is comedy or is about comedy at least; and then there’s the world of podcasts. Joe Rogan, who's a complicated character (as we say in the book), doesn't really have clear politics, he has demographics: he goes after young people, largely men. A lot of the time this means bringing on loudly offensive libertarians and sometimes even right-wing conspiracy mongers. Then there's Twitter, there's Instagram, there's YouTube. There are all these uncurated spaces.
Why is it important for liberals to be aware of this?
Part of it is just understanding how politics operates in the United States, and not falling into a trap of thinking that people are fundamentally so different as to have one group of people who want to laugh and another group that doesn't. As ridiculous as that sounds, a lot of liberals think ‘I don't find this funny, so it's not comedy.’
There’s also a strategic element. If you’re somebody who's interested in the success of liberal political causes, I think there's a lot of value in understanding what conservative voices are doing. In this case, they’re appealing to new demographics by emphasizing comedy, and they're not shying away from edgier content. I think it's a strategic point that could be valuable, and a good warning for people on the liberal side not to take for granted that they are perceived as the funnier ones, which can make it seem okay not to cultivate humor, or to maybe police humor or push back against edgier content.
Finally, there's always the question, how do political coalitions come together? If you look at the American right, you see everything from a free market libertarian, to a Christian values conservative, to a Trumpian ‘America first’ nationalist. You might think these people don't have much in common, so what pulls them together? We argue that comedy is one of those things—the ability to put aside some of these differences and laugh at the liberal opposition is a really powerful unifying force for the American right.
How does this project compare to your previous books?
I've written on a variety of topics and a lot of my research in the past has been very international and field research based. The pandemic made that not possible so this was a good project in that sense. It was interesting discovering new people and new areas of comedy even though I didn't love all, or maybe most, of what I was engaging with. We include the full range of right wing elements in this book, ranging from ‘mainstream’ people like Greg Gutfeld all the way to extreme right wing spaces, including fascists and Nazis, so I spent a lot of time listening to things that were rather unpleasant.
But at the end of the day, I would argue that even if you find it terribly unfunny, all the stuff we’re pointing to in this book, you might be interested to know about it nonetheless.
Alix Hackett | University Communications | December 2022