Why late-night TV needs funny conservatives

Send in the clowns!

There is a lack of conservative late-night TV shows.
(Image credit: Photo illustration by Jackie Friedman | Images courtesy of iStock, SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images, Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Turner, Janet Van Ham, Peter Kramer/NBC/Getty Images )

Have you heard the one about the conservative comedian? Me neither.

We're in something of a Golden Age of late-night TV, but the comedians and entertainers who host these programs all skew left. Some — like Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel — tend to play it pretty narrowly down the middle. Others — like Conan O'Brien, Seth Meyers, and anyone with a Comedy Central pedigree — are often more open about their political leanings. Libertarian atheists even have Bill Maher.

But conservatives? As far as I can tell, they have Red Eye on Fox News and a low-budget show called The Flipside, which started broadcasting a year ago and has failed yet to get much traction.

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Network late-night comedy is supposed to be for everybody, and of course, plenty of conservatives and moderates enjoy Fallon and Kimmel and even Stephen Colbert. But on cable TV there seems to be a yawning gap tailor-made for a right-leaning satirist.

There are lots of theories about why that obvious niche remains unfilled — Oliver Morrison proposed a "unified theory" in The Atlantic earlier this year that was mostly a roundup of studies on the subject: There are much fewer conservative comedians; conservatives like the structure of talk radio better than the ambiguity of political satire; conservatism generally supports power structures and institutions that comedians verbally tear down; conservative comedians either don't talk politics or sound preachy because they put politics before humor.

Here's another idea: Late-night TV is geared toward the younger audiences that will stay awake for it, and younger people tend to be more liberal than older viewers. That may have mattered 16 years ago when Jon Stewart started making The Daily Show into a political comedy juggernaut, but in the age of viral video, everyone can watch the best jokes in the morning, or during lunch breaks, or whenever, on their computers or smartphones.

In fact, none of these obstacles — real or imagined — seem insurmountable. There are funny conservative comedians and satirists, and if former Saturday Night Live "Weekend Update" anchor Dennis Miller, for example, isn't particularly funny in his regular spots on The O'Reilly Factor, it's nothing a few good writers and a little discipline couldn't fix. Conservatives, like everybody else, like to laugh — and they could use a dose of nature's best medicine now more than ever.

Seriously. A little merriment would be good for America's political right, and that would be good for America.

Republican presidential candidates speak of a world besieged by evil, where America is on steep decline in military power, economic might, and global influence. It is existentially threatened by the most sophisticated terrorist organization in history. And the nation's children? They are about to sink in an ocean of debt and mediocrity. Michael Brendan Dougherty poetically calls the GOP's current mood "midnight in America."

Against this bleak, black landscape, what could laughter possibly do?

"Humor addresses the same issues as fear, not to dismiss them, but to strengthen our ability to confront them and then laugh them away from the door," says author and humorist Gina Barreca. "Humor is, of course, the one thing that fear cannot abide."

The classic case of laughter defusing terror is the first issue of The Onion after it moved from Madison, Wisconsin, to New York City in 2001. The satirical newspaper was supposed to make its New York debut on Sept. 11, which obviously did not happen. But on Sept. 26, The Onion hit the stands with a splash, mixing cathartic skewering of the al Qaeda murderers who had just killed some 3,000 people, a lecture from God, and some more Onion-y type comedy fare.

Three days later, on Sept. 29, 2001, Saturday Night Live returned to the air, with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani on stage at the opening with Paul Simon and members of the New York police and fire departments. Lorne Michaels asked Giuliani, "Can we be funny?" and Giuliani replied, "Why start now?" Everyone watching, wondering the same thing as Michaels, breathed a sigh of relief, writes Lori Chandler at Big Think. "I was 16 at the time, and I remember watching that show live, and whispering 'thank you' through my tears."

Comedy has real power. Mockery, irony, and satire won't make ISIS go away, but laughter can help strip the Islamist militants of their most potent weapon, terror. And in a country deeply polarized over everything from letting in Muslim refugees to the relative dangers of climate change and guns, America needs a little more mirth for other reasons, too.

Republican presidential candidates aren't the only ones peddling fear. The world is chronically in crisis on cable TV news. And Democratic politicians, especially when their party is out of office, also drum up fear. But at this moment, liberals have a comfortable place of solace just about every night on the electronic screen of their choice. If the conservative media complex can't come up with a late-night safe haven of their own, well, Colbert's usually pretty funny. And John Oliver, noted liberal, hates ISIS as much as you do.

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