Conservative comics: Political humor is funny business

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The conservative comedy world is still seeking its Tina Fey, who shook the political landscape with her dead-on impression of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign.

So where are the GOP comedy all-stars? Are they wasting a golden opportunity with President Obama’s poll numbers at all-time lows, or are other forces at work that prevent them from breaking through the public consciousness as Miss Fey did two years ago?

It depends on whom you ask — and what one considers a “mainstream” media outlet. While the stand-up comedy world has yet to produce a conservative breakthrough, right-branded humor percolates on the Web, on Fox News’ commentary shows and on talk radio.

Conservative comic Evan Sayet blames media gatekeepers for keeping right-of-center comics out of traditional media outlets.

“It’s very difficult for conservative comics to find an outlet on conventional television programs like [David] Letterman, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher,” Mr. Sayet said. “The left doesn’t want what they see as ‘the enemy’ being allowed to spread … propaganda and hurt the causes they hold dear.”

Mr. Sayet said conservative comics take alternate paths, working the church circuit and private and corporate events. He compares the phenomenon to how director Mel Gibson scored a massive box-office hit by working around the existing system after Hollywood refused to make his movie “The Passion of the Christ.”

With a dig at a certain former Democratic vice president, Mr. Sayet said the digital age is providing ways for conservative humorists to find an audience.

“All I can say is, thank God Al Gore invented the Internet when he did, because now we don’t need the folks in their mansions in the Hollywood Hills in order to be seen,” he said. “All we have to do is post things on YouTube or link to them on our own sites, and we’re on ‘television.’ “

“The Daily Show’s” Mr. Stewart is one of the few liberal comics willing to ding Mr. Obama. Others, such as Mr. Letterman and Mr. Maher, have mostly held their fire or trained it on the conservative opposition.

Kip Perry, a top executive of RightNetwork, a just-launched conservative entertainment channel, said one reason his new company came into existence earlier this year was to provide “an oasis of laughter for the right-minded in our country.”

That audience doesn’t respond the same way to political humor, Mr. Perry contended.

“I think negative or attack humor is less appealing to the ‘conservative’ audience,” said Mr. Perry, whose company operates both online and via a cable-channel outlet. “Situational humor trumps personal attacks every time. Ironically, that used to be the convention.”

Political humorist Jimmy Tingle said conservative comics still face a dilemma that began the day Mr. Obama took office. The public at large sees the president as the underdog, facing seemingly insurmountable problems.

“People tend to give the underdog the benefit of the doubt,” Mr. Tingle said, making audiences less receptive to no-holds-barred political comedy.

And while late-night hosts unmercifully mocked former President George W. Bush, many openly worried that Mr. Obama would provide them with far less material.

Immediately after the November 2008 election, Craig Ferguson, host of CBS’ “The Late Late Show,” observed of the president-elect: “A dignified African-American man — what the hell can I do with that?” The host said he concluded that “my only hope is Biden!”

But the news of the day — from government bailouts and the BP oil spill to Mr. Obama’s graying hair and his passion for golf — have provided grist for the monologues of Mr. Ferguson and his late-night peers.

Mr. Ferguson panned the president’s Oval Office speech on energy at the height the Gulf oil disaster by noting, “I know Obama was trying to take the long view, but talking about solar energy in the middle of the oil spill is like watching your house engulfed in flames and saying, ‘We really should change the curtains.’”

Others do not shy away from an even tougher approach.

Firebrand conservatives, particularly those on talk radio and Fox News, “see [Mr. Obama] as this guy who needs to be brought down,” Mr. Tingle said. They use those outlets to mock and satirize the president more than your average stand-up comic might.

Comedian Dennis Miller’s weekly perch on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” provides one example of an unconventional outlet for tweaking a liberal president with humor, he noted.

Political humorist Will Durst suggested that timing may be one factor hurting the conservative comedy effort. Mr. Durst argued that his brand of wit — jokes marinating in the news of the day — doesn’t sit well with some modern audiences.

“I hate to say it, but it’s not the greased chute to the big time,” he said of political humor. “A lot of TV shows don’t want political comedy.”

That’s particularly true right now, he argued. Mr. Durst recalled performing a joke last year about how he had gone from living in a $700,000 house to a $450,000 house without even having to move, thanks to the economy.

Now that same joke is met with “smirks and grimaces,” he said.

Conservative humorists can always hope their bits go viral on the Web, a format that can trump the reach of the traditional press and entertainment outlets.

Bob Arvin, creator of PolitiZoid’s animated vignettes, said the cliche regarding the left’s dominance over traditional media outlets is forcing right-leaning comics to get creative.

“The conservative comedians are using whatever venue possible to get their information out, and the Web is it,” said Mr. Arvid, whose work has appeared on Fox News and several Web sites overseen by conservative Internet entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart.

Progressive comedian Kate Clinton said one reason the culture hasn’t had a “conservative comic moment” is because conservatives take their politics too seriously. And humor, Miss Clinton said, can be serious business.

Fox News’ Glenn Beck often uses humor to hammer home his political messages, but Miss Clinton suggested it is Mr. Stewart’s broadsides against Mr. Obama that could offer a road map to right-of-center comics.

“He might be doing a service to conservative comics — this is how you can do it,” she said.

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