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Is There a Liberal Bias to Political Comedy?

There is a liberal bias in America’s political comedy scene, says Alison Dagnes. What gives?

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Think about the political comedians performing today. Of those, how many are conservative? Not many, right?

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Alison Dagnes, a political scientist, media maven and self-described “comedy dork,” has systematically analyzed the guest lists of late night television shows. She has mined research about which political figures from what side of the aisle comedians target in their jokes. She has studied the history of political humor in this country and interviewed dozens of writers, producers and political satirists about their line of work. In her latest book, A Conservative Walks Into a Bar, Dagnes makes the case that there is a liberal bias in America’s political comedy scene. But, that bias, she says, is no threat to conservatives.

How did you get onto this topic?

I really love political comedy, and this goes back to the early 1990s, when I fell in love with Dennis Miller. After the September 11 attacks, Miller became a very outspoken supporter of George W. Bush. Once I noticed that, I looked around and realized there aren’t that many Republicans out there who are doing political comedy. 

I hit upon that reality right when Fox News, in particular, starting getting on Jon Stewart for having a liberal bias. I tried to find some scholarship out there on any kind of bias in political comedy and there wasn’t any. It was lucky for me that a very good friend of mine came up in the ranks at [Chicago improv club] Second City with a bunch of fairly famous people. I asked for her help, and she gave me a bunch of names, and in turn those folks gave me names.

I got to interview several dozens political comedians, writers and producers and ask them my question: Why are there so few conservative political satirists?

You say that there are very understandable reasons that the majority of satirists are liberal. What are these reasons?

Satire is an anti-establishmentarian art form. It is an outsider art. If you mock people who aren’t in power, it isn’t very funny. Satire really is the weapon of the underdog. It is the weapon of the person out of power against the forces in power. It is supposed to take down the sacred cows of politics and differentiate between what is and what should be.

Not only is it an outsider art, but the folks who opt to go into this art form tend to be more liberal. I used to work at C-SPAN, and I watched Brian Lamb, the founder and former CEO of C-SPAN, interview a lot of people. He always asked, “Where did you go to college, and what was your major? So, when I embarked on all of these interviews, I thought, I am just going to do what he did. What I found was that of the 30-something people I interviewed there was not one single person who was a political science major. As political as their material was, they were all performing arts majors or another related field.

Lewis Black has a master's degree from Yale in drama. He told me that political comedians are not interested in being partisans, even though their material could be very, very partisan. They are interested in entertaining. If you go into a field where you are entertaining, you have to expose yourself and be vulnerable. A lot of these qualities do not lend themselves towards the conservative philosophy.

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