National Public Radio host Jesse Thorn announced this year that his now 6-year-old child, who was born a biological male, is transgender and will be raised as a girl named Grace.
Some on the left praised Mr. Thorn for his openness and tolerance. Conservative comedian Owen Benjamin had different words for it: child abuse.
Mr. Benjamin said as much while performing at a college campus. In one of his routines, he quipped that he would have been labeled a girl as a child because he liked to weave and hated sports. Once puberty hit, he was clearly male because he wanted to have sex with women.
Within days, the University of Connecticut canceled Mr. Benjamin’s scheduled appearance, costing him a $7,500 paycheck. His manager and agent both dropped him. Comedy clubs canceled his appearances, and the comedian, who had been performing at nearly 20 colleges a year, suddenly had nothing on his schedule.
“I just got massacred,” Mr. Benjamin said of the backlash. “I had people telling me that I was bullying a transgender child. I was actually bullying an adult that was committing child abuse. If anything, I am the only one standing up for the child.”
Conservatives who work in comedy say his experience is not unusual. In an industry that has historically tilted left, they have been ridiculed for their views.
But since the election of Donald Trump, they have become pariahs.
“Comedy is dead, except for calling Donald Trump a Nazi,” said Rodney Lee Conover, a right-leaning comedian who got his start writing jokes for Rush Limbaugh.
The tectonic shift left is not just in comedy clubs’ brick walls but in our living rooms. Johnny Carson’s middle-of-the-road political comedy has been replaced with Stephen Colbert (host of CBS’ “The Late Show”), John Oliver (host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight”), Trevor Noah (host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”) and others bashing all things conservative on a nightly basis.
Jimmy Kimmel has turned his late-night program on ABC into a seminar on health care. Although his rants have been judged as inaccurate and misleading, it doesn’t stop them from being shared across social media, where they become gospel for many Americans.
Mr. Kimmel revealed that some of his pro-Obamacare monologues were based on talking points provided by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.
Mr. Kimmel told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in October that he has no problem losing Republican viewers over his political commentary. The interview occurred shortly after he abandoned another monologue to call for stricter gun control.
At the heart of the comedy is Mr. Trump, who is on pace to become the most ridiculed president ever, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University.
During his first 100 days in office, Mr. Trump was the subject of 1,060 jokes by late-night comedians — twice that of George W. Bush during his entire first year. Mr. Trump should easily shatter the full-year record for jokes, set by Bill Clinton in 1998 — the year of the Monica Lewinski scandal.
But the jokes go beyond Mr. Trump to include those who might have voted for him.
Samantha Bee was forced to issue an apology in March after mocking a Conservative Political Action Conference attendee for having “Nazi hair.” The target of her haircut joke had undergone radiation treatment for stage 4 brain cancer.
“There are no jokes anymore,” Mr. Conover said. “It’s just complete anger and rage.”
Steve McGrew nearly fell victim to the rage this year. The stand-up had always avoided politics in his act. But in March, he released a song parody mocking the left’s reaction to Hillary Clinton’s defeat. The song, “Friends in Safe Spaces,” featured Mr. McGrew playing “Liberal Larry,” a caricature of leftist stereotypes.
Released on social media, the song became a viral hit and was featured on Fox News. The MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where Mr. McGrew is a regular performer, was flooded with calls and emails demanding his firing. Some of those calls even came from friends in the industry.
MGM refused to bow to the pressure, but two smaller comedy clubs said they didn’t want Mr. McGrew back.
“I was not prepared for the backlash,” Mr. McGrew said. “I’ve felt it before as a conservative comic, but it was not nearly as bad until Trump got elected. I’ve been called a racist, Nazi, hate monger — and people are trying to interfere with my livelihood.”
No conservative Colbert
Conservatives have longed to have their own version of Mr. Colbert break through, yet no one has emerged.
Some conservatives say Hollywood’s progressive gatekeepers would never allow such a show on the air, but others claim it wouldn’t attract viewers.
“Networks’ golden rule is to allow anything that makes money,” said Ned Rice, a conservative who has written for Mr. Kimmel, Bill Maher and others. “But the audience isn’t there to support a whole show.”
The numbers appear to support that theory.
Mr. Rice and Mr. Conover both wrote for the “The ½ Hour News Hour.” The show, which aired in 2007 on the Fox News Channel, was promoted as the conservative alternative to “The Daily Show.” It was canceled after 17 episodes amid poor ratings and brutal reviews from critics.
Seven years later, Michael Loftus launched “The Flipside,” a second attempt at a conservative “Daily Show.” It lasted three seasons but was distributed to small cable networks such as Family Entertainment Television and aired in the early mornings.
The comics say network censors forced them to tone down their conservative beliefs, limiting the targets of their comedy.
“When you have a view that is labeled as hate speech, you are afraid of getting sued,” Mr. Loftus said. “I played it safe, and it wasn’t as artistically rewarding.”
Trump-bashing, though, has been a recipe for success.
Mr. Colbert was trailing rival Jimmy Fallon (host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show”) in the ratings war for more than a year. There was talk of replacing Mr. Colbert with “The Late, Late Show” host James Corden before he went full-throttle anti-Trump. Mr. Colbert surged ahead of Mr. Fallon in the week of Mr. Trump’s inauguration and hasn’t looked back since.
Mr. Fallon, meanwhile, has never recovered from the critical scorn of his interview with Mr. Trump. He was blasted for asking softball questions and accused of “trying to normalize” Mr. Trump by mussing his hair.
“If you can do one-sided comedy and increase your audience size, then that is what is going to happen,” said Robert S. Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. “There was always a fear of limiting your audience, but that is not an issue anymore because the country is so polarized you can pick your audience.”
Playing to the platform
Dannagal Young, a communication professor at the University of Delaware, was studying the lack of conservatives in comedy when she noticed that both sides have different senses of humor. Her work suggests conservatives prefer more explicit kinds of humor, while liberals appreciate irony, the tool most used by late-night comedians.
Nonetheless, conservatives dominate on the radio and on political commentary shows such as Fox News’ evening lineup.
“There already is a conservative Stephen Colbert, and it is Sean Hannity,” Ms. Young said.
Liberal radio, meanwhile, hasn’t cut it.
Air America was launched in 2004 as a liberal talk-radio network. Plagued by low ratings and a lack of advertisers, it declared bankruptcy in 2006 and went off the air in 2010 after a second bankruptcy filing.
Mr. Rice said it’s tougher to do conservative comedy because it challenges commonly held views.
“If you do a show about Republicans being greedy, people will laugh because they believe that to be true,” he said. “But if you do a joke about how welfare has made poverty worse — which is a fact — people won’t laugh because they don’t know if it is true.”
But establishing a conservative late-night show is necessary if the movement wants to survive, Mr. Loftus said.
“If you are a kid and clicking around at night, you can’t even stumble across a conservative view by accident,” he said. “If a kid can’t find a different opinion and say, ‘I never thought of that,’ then the conservative movement is doomed.”
Mr. Benjamin, the comic who racked up cancellations after his transgender riff, had to change his business model. Now he asks fans in various cities to donate $20 for a ticket. Once the total donations for an individual city reaches $3,000, Mr. Benjamin will rent a theater in that town and perform for his supporters.
He doesn’t regret his comments, however.
“Now that the source of my income is the people I’m actually trying to entertain. I’m much happier for it,” he said.
Mr. McGrew said he now has fans who never heard of him until the outrage over his Liberal Larry character.
“As much as it was a horrible time because I lost friends and [was] attacked by people in the industry, it was a great time because I got discovered by middle America,” he said. “YouTube and social media has done more for me than a Hollywood executive ever could.”
Being a conservative in such a liberal-dominated industry has a special kind of allure, Mr. Loftus said.
“I became a comedian because I wanted to speak for the underdog, and conservatives are the underdog,” he said. “Being a conservative comedian is edgy, dangerous and kind of cool. I haven’t felt this way since I was in a punk band in high school.”