I say liberalism and conservatism because, when you get down to individual people, one’s sense of humor is largely disconnected from one’s politics. Still, within media and political circles, liberals have more of a sense of humor than conservatives, and liberal political humor is funnier than conservative political humor.
In the media, it’s undeniable. Virtually every major comedian who cares to talk about politics is a liberal, and current-events comedy has a uniformly liberal bent to it. There’s The Daily Show, liberal humor’s flagship, and the smug parody (or rather, parody of smugness) The Colbert Report. Nor should we forget that old bastion, Weekend Update. All the right ever had to offer was Fox’s disastrous 2007 Daily Show knockoff, The 1/2 Hour News Hour, which holds the dubious honor of being the lowest-rated show listed on Metacritic, a TV review aggregator.
One might, I suppose, maintain that reviewers are part of the media, ergo their ratings have liberal bias, but if you watch the clip, you’ll see that it’s simply not funny. The delivery is bad; the timing is bad. The two hosts aren’t comedians, and they barely look like they’re trying. The New York Times review explains the show’s other problem: It’s first of all partisan and second of all humor. Jon Stewart makes jokes wherever he sees jokes to be made and he isn’t above picking on liberals and his own show if it would be funny; the liberal bent is simply because he thinks conservatives make better targets. The 1/2 Hour News Hour, on the other hand, never criticized a conservative–even though it aired under a Republican presidency. Consequently, unlike The Daily Show, which is constantly on the ball with the latest news stories, it was forced to joke about things that were far out of date (Newt Gingritch) or current, but not really news (the ACLU). It also treated its targets like enemies rather than like simple fodder. Every joke was punctuated with the implicit moral of “See how awful liberals are?”, in contrast to The Daily Show, which points out the bombast and hypocrisy and then leaves you to draw the conclusion if you feel like it and just laugh if you don’t.
Outside of comedy shows, it’s still common to see humor in the media left, while the right-wing media usually takes itself very seriously. Let’s compare a prominent liberal commentator, Rachel Maddow, with a prominent conservative commentator, Bill O’Reilly. Maddow’s show isn’t comedy, but she approaches it with a sense of humor, and she isn’t above having an immature good time at the expense of teabaggers. Humor is not common on The O’Reilly Factor, though: anger is. Maddow can laugh at people she thinks are outrageously wrong; O’Reilly can only tell them to shut up and call them Nazis.
In partisan literature, the difference is even more marked. On the right, there’s Ann Coulter, whose books include Godless: The Church of Liberalism and Guilty: Liberal “Victims” and Their Assault on America. On the left, there’s Al Franken, whose books include Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot (And Other Observations) and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. They’re both acerbic ideologues, but Al Franken is a funny acerbic ideologue. (Also, he doesn’t put pictures of himself in tank tops all over the covers of his books. Is it just me, or are those a little freaky?)
One might suggest that conservatives are currently making fewer jokes because, rightly or wrongly, they’re very concerned about the perceived abuses of the Constitution, and it’s too serious an issue to joke about. Maybe, but joking doesn’t indicate a lack of either earnestness or action. I think Maddow is as concerned about the perceived divorce of politics from fact as O’Reilly is about the perceived dangers of Obamacare. I previously mentioned Alan Grayson and Anthony Weiner as two Congressmen with senses of humor. Both have worked zealously for healthcare reform and other issues they consider to be important. A sense of humor isn’t indicative of laziness or a lack of understanding of the seriousness of the issues at hand.
So why are liberals funnier than conservatives? Is it inherent or is it merely a product of the current political atmosphere? I believe it’s both. Conservatives currently have a tendency to take themselves too seriously and to fortify their base against criticism, neither of which lends itself to a sense of humor. However, there’s also an inherent element.
At heart, a conservative resists change and a liberal embraces change. Thus, most of the time, a conservative will agree with the majority of the status quo and a liberal will disagree with it. This gives the liberal an advantage: It’s easier and funnier to mock the status quo than to mock fringes and minorities. The latter may be too obscure or feel like it’s too easy, and there’s relevance to mocking the way things are that is lost when mocking the way things were or might be. Dissatisfaction leads to more jokes than satisfaction.
I think this inherent difference may also explain the email forward joke, which is largely a conservative phenomenon these days. The liberal value on originality makes them prefer original jokes and riffs on current topics, while the conservative value on the tried-and-true makes them prefer repeating jokes that have been around for a long time. Through email, the same political jokes get forwarded around again and again*. They’re often decades old and originally contained different people or none at all (compare this recent one with this 1997 version, or this one from 2009 with its 2000-2008 Bush administration version and a 1999-2001 generic version). The problem is that jokes, unlike good movies and literature, don’t improve with age. Political humor especially becomes a hackneyed, out-of-date dead horse. The inevitable detritus of font changes and “you have to read this it’s soooo funny!!” prefaces doesn’t help.
I had always assumed that, during a Democratic administration, conservatives would be funnier, but this hasn’t proved true. There are more jokes, yes, or at least more repeats of the same jokes, but they’re no more original or funny. No rising stars have appeared on the conservative comedic horizon. Why, I don’t know. Is it just the current combination of the elements listed above that edges out good humor, even when there are targets available? Or are there other factors at play? We can only speculate.
*It may seem strange that I consider email forwards to be a worthless increase of entropy that adds nothing to the universe when I’m in favor of memes. I think that there are some intrinsic differences between email forwards and memes. For one thing, there’s the secret-language element of memes. They’re usually based on obscure things like a poorly-translated arcade game intro or an odd phrase from DC’s Superdictionary. The references form a shared language between people who don’t have shared experience, and common language builds unity. Email forwards don’t do this because their jokes are inevitably simple and obvious to begin with.
Additionally, there’s the communal aspect of memes. The idea is to make up your own variations, using a formula so simple that you don’t have to be a genius to add to it, thereby creating a whole that’s larger, funnier, and more varied than one person could create by him- or herself (that list is from the wiki of Mudd’s East Dorm, where I was introduced to that and many other memes). Email forwards do attract additions, but they undermine the humor rather than adding to it.