There can be nothing more stupid than a demand for right-wing comedy. Nonetheless, towards the end of a recent Menzies Research Centre event focusing on the loss of our sense of humour, the perennial lament for “right-wing comedians” popped up again.
It’s true that comedy is and has been dominated by progressives, and that in recent times much of what passes for it is merely abuse of those with whom those progressives disagree.
But good comedy – popular comedy – does one thing first. It privileges “the funny”. What counts is whether it is funny, and good comedians will go there regardless of the politics or the offensiveness. It may address politics – but that last thing it should do is be judged by its political content.
What those who want right-wing comedy do not understand is that the concept of right-wing comedy is as ridiculous as our current left-wing comedy is unfunny.
Alex McKinnon of The Guardian has written a predictably partisan review of the night. But he has a point. It wasn’t a particularly funny event, and most of the laughs that emerged were more out of political solidarity than the delivery of a successful gag or anecdote. But that is the issue; for years stand-up has been infected to the point of being purulent by leftist abuse masquerading as comic comment. To wit, Wil Anderson apropos of nothing, throwing “John Howard is a c*nt” into a set at the Opera House, to limited laughs and applause. I’ve seen similar regarding Abbott and Dutton. Political intent kills comedy; all that is left is abuse or solidarity-signalling.
That a night at a right-wing venue talking about comedy wasn’t that funny isn’t very surprising either.
Above all else, people want comedy that makes them laugh. They also want comedy that serves the functions that comedy has always served, and yet does so no longer.
Among these functions is calling bullshit to account, holding those with power or status to the flames of ridicule, transgressing our norms in a way that reveals our fears, weaknesses and hypocrisies, presenting quirky connections that help us see the previously unseen or conceptual clashes that re-reveal in unusual ways what we already know.
Many of these functions are met in live stand-up comedy – but bullshit-busting, ridiculing the powerful and transgressing our most powerful social norms aren’t. Especially in broadcast comedy.
Our present culture is so steeped in bullshit that comedy should be easier than ever to produce; but our current crop of comedians is so politicised, so aligned with the bullshit everyone else wants to see ridiculed, that they end up contributing to the stock of it rather than illuminating and deflating it. Tom Ballard is rightly called on this; as should all the other nonentities the free-to-air broadcasters regularly inflict on us – Samantha Bee, Charlie Pickering, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, or the now-dead, execrable SBS Comedy website (but kudos to SBS for still screening Housos).
But that doesn’t mean the answer is right-wing comedy. It means that answer is more ridicule for bullshit. And since the right contributes plenty to the stock of bullshit, real comedy will hit them as well. It’ll just be funny.
Despite expectations, Judah Friedlander gets it. His non-comedic statements are cookie-cutter crazy leftist. But his recent Netflix stand up set, even though you can discern his politics, puts the gag first. He is funny, from the Left. But he is irreverent about everything. Just as a comedian should be.
Even comedians embraced as right wing frequently aren’t. It has come to a point where bullshit-busting is so rare that non-progressives claim it where-ever they see it.
Ex-pat Australian comedian Steven Hughes is best described as a countercultural anarchist who loathes the petty controls of our bureaucratic world. He busts its bullshit; and yet would punch you in the face if you called him right wing.
Politicising anything other than politics makes it worse. Whether literature, art, sport, education or comedy, any human activity or institution has a primary, non-political goal. Outside of politics, that goal is not political point scoring or influence. When that becomes the goal of these other human activities or institutions, they cease to be what they were.
Be clear: comedy can be about politics, but the moment it is for politics rather than for humour, the comedy dies.
And we are left with Tom Ballard and Michelle Wolf.
It isn’t right wing comedy we need; it’s funny comedy. If we have that, ridicule will naturally find the right targets.
PostScript: I have attended myriad events such as the one on Wednesday night. It is the first time I have seen a figure with a national profile walk around the venue after the presentation, personally address everyone present, and genuinely invite them for a drink. Hats off, Mr Blair.
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