- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2003

One night last summer, radio host Larry Elder beckoned his listeners to the Ha Ha Cafe in North Hollywood to film a documentary lampooning liberal film maker Michael Moore.

Intrigued, producer Eric Peterkofsky showed up for the night’s comedy. He listened as comic Jeff Wayne headlined the event with right-wing jokes rarely heard in comedy shows.

Something clicked, and soon Mr. Peterkofsky hit on the idea for one of America’s first all-conservative comedy tours.

He and Mr. Wayne found several comics, including Jeff Jena, Caroline Picard and Shayla Rivera. All flew to Los Angeles. They performed one night in Hollywood, two nights in Valencia and a fourth in Fresno. The shows sold out, and Right Stuff Comedy was born.

Right Stuff Comedy could be a comedic blip in a state that just recalled its Democratic governor. But meanwhile, in New York City, comic Julia Gorin has leveraged her politics into a successful show at the Don’t Tell Mama Cabaret on 46th Street. Her Republican Riot act entertains the small but loyal set of Gotham’s conservatives.

Dennis Miller, the former “Saturday Night Live” star whose sarcastic humor has drifted rightward since the September 11 attacks, is perhaps the most famous conservative comic. But in comedy clubs nationwide, a growing number of stand-up comics are carving a niche by being unabashedly political — and on the right.

Some find an audience at political fund-raisers. Others couch their right-wing views in patriotic fervor. All are tapping into a cultural phenomenon. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other talk-show hosts are entertainers as well as informers.

Their success suggests a hearty appetite for entertainment on the right. Movies and TV shows have yet to market to this demographic. But right-wing comics are trying to win the hearts of people who love to laugh, and hate hearing “Bush is an idiot” jokes.

“The vast majority of political comics are left-leaning, historically and currently,” says Brian McKim, editor of Shecky Magazine, an online site devoted to stand-up.

Comedy lures those who like to tweak the establishment, and so generally see themselves as liberal. Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trials made him a liberal cause celebre. George Carlin preaches atheism and has called private property one of the species’ great failings. Woody Allen’s style reflects the liberal manners of his Manhattan haunts.

Rush Limbaugh’s rise in the early 1990s, however, opened the door for conservative commentators to launch radio shows that didn’t just debate liberals and their ideas, but mocked them. The right also has its share of humor writers, from P.J. O’Rourke to Florence King and Larry Miller.

Performing arts such as acting, singing and comedy have been slower to change. “Ideology is more sacred,” says Julia Gorin. “Comics are supposed to be the sages, the thinkers, those pushing the envelope, but politically, no one was.”

Jokes about former President Bill Clinton centered on his peccadilloes, not his politics. “The Clinton years were really begging for a Lenny Bruce of the right, but no one emerged,” she says. Yet in the past three years, she’s seen more moderate-to-conservative political comedians entertaining crowds consuming their two-drink minimum.

Steve Eblin is one of those comics. He does two shows, a “GOP Comedy” show for Republican events, and a “Star-Spangled Comedy” show for mainstream audiences. He recently returned from entertaining American troops in Afghanistan, and plans to tour Iraq and South Korea soon.

When Mr. Eblin is in the United States, he has found that audiences like a patriotic approach, if not overt Democrat-bashing.

“There is a large market of people who stopped going to comedy clubs in the past 10 years due to the overwhelming number of liberal-minded comedians,” he says. “They felt as though they were being insulted for their beliefs, and have stayed away.”

Comics eyeing the right-wing niche face several obstacles beyond being dissident voices in a world of presumed liberalism. First, says Shecky’s Mr. McKim, political humor is tough. It’s topical, so it has a short shelf life. And given America’s political divide, any material can perturb half a crowd.

“Woe to the unknown comic, toiling in a ‘regular’ comedy club in flyover country, who attempts to do any good amount of controversial or challenging political material to a crowd who has merely sought out ‘comedy’ and not ‘an evening of political comedy,’” he says.

Urban audiences lean liberal, and if a conservative’s lines fall flat or seem offensive, the heckling can start. A Muslim woman and her friends once walked out of Miss Gorin’s show when they thought her jokes about terrorism crossed the line.

And not least, post-Clinton, comics lack prominent liberals to lampoon. Republicans control the presidency and Congress. “To make fun of the left, you almost have to have an ‘inside baseball’ audience,” says Mr. Eblin. “No one’s going to get a Barbara Boxer joke except a roomful of political activists.” Mrs. Boxer is a liberal Democratic senator from California.

So his material ribs antiwar protesters and left-leaning celebrities like Barbra Streisand and Michael Moore. The presidential election will help. “They have to elect someone to run on the Democratic ticket, so they’ll obviously be the number-one target,” Mr. Eblin says.

Despite these constraints, some find right-wing comedy liberating. It’s new, so comics feel less pressure to fit the cookie-cutter mold.

“There aren’t too many over-50 comics, and there aren’t too many over-50 women comics,” says Caroline Picard, a brash Louisiana-raised comedienne who travels the world in her Nissan truck, entertaining audiences with her mom-style observations on today’s young people (“They scare me to death, if that’s our future”) and right-wing populism (“I used to be a Democrat, but along the way they lost their minds.”)

In 11 years, Mrs. Picard has logged 500,000 miles in the United States alone. She joined Mr. Peterkofsky’s Right Stuff Comedy show, and enjoyed the diverse comics wearing the right-wing label. “People would not believe the group who did this show,” she says. “We grew up with the same values, that’s all.”

Those conservative values, Mr. Peterkofsky’s group is betting, can unite people to laugh as they always have at Reader’s Digest jokes and Bob Hope, even if the audience would not call themselves Republicans.

Mrs. Picard’s “Freedom of Speech” show to a 95 percent Hispanic crowd on the Mexican border, for instance, earned her standing ovations. “Hopefully, we can make people aware that just because we’re conservative doesn’t mean we’re not funny,” she says.

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