University of California Press, £21.
That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them is arranged for the reader as a tour of the American Right’s comedy universe, starting from the readily recognisable Fox News and getting progressively more obscure as the text unfolds. Mark Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx speak to a presumably liberal audience in That’s Not Funny, urging an abandonment of the idea that there is no such thing as successful conservative comedy in favour of a sober understanding of what they call the ‘right-wing comedy complex’.[i] This metaphor, sustained throughout the book as a framing device, introduces right-wing comedy as a shopping centre, with each explored genre representing a different type of business catering to a different type of customer. The chapters move through this shopping centre, starting with the most mainstream and descending to the more underground and morally repugnant: Fox News as the ‘big box store’ where other, more niche comedians sometimes appear to hawk their wares and includes the ignored late-night staple Gutfeld!.[ii] Paleocomedy (old jokes recycled in old formats, e.g. Tim Allen’s comeback sitcom, Last Man Standing) is the cigar shop catering to the specific demographic of aging white men nostalgic for a romanticised pre-1960’s past. Religio-rational satire is ‘the main product for sale at the right-wing comedy complex’s religious bookstore’,[iii] and encompasses such millennial phenomena as Ben Shapiro. The Legions of Libertarian podcasters are understood as bars and restaurants; havens of un-politically-correct riffing (e.g. The Joe Rogan Experience), and this leads finally to the basement of the complex, the oft-demonetised neo-Nazis and trolls of the right-wing depths of the internet. Sienkiewicz and Marx do not take an alarmist position but do encourage reader awareness of these different facets of right-wing comedy and the wide reach of their respective audiences, noting their interconnected nature through the ‘you may also like’ algorithms of modern media.
The conversation about the weaponisation of irony by the alt-right is a workable place for Sienkiewicz and Marx to situate themselves–they reference Viveca Greene’s[iv] work multiple times as well as Linda Hutcheon’s[v] – but they concentrate less on the effort to disseminate racist tropes and more on the mechanics of the comedy itself, as a product of the post-Trump splintering of consensus but also as preceding it. They differentiate themselves by making the most antisemitic alt-right comedic efforts the final facet of their discussion instead of its nexus – most of the book focuses on right-wing comedy as racism-excusing but not racism-centric; it sees the majority of its subject(s) more as a project of nostalgia and/or ‘owning the libs’ than an attempt to make prejudice socially acceptable.
Angela Nagle’s[vi] work is a reference as well, and the authors take a consciously even-handed approach, stressing the myopia of the left-of-centre media insistence that the right-wing comedy complex does not exist/is solely a series of failures. While they are quick to validate the scholarly consensus that most contemporary right-wing humour hinges on the red meat of ‘owning the libs’, the authors also, however sparsely, cast a critical eye on their liberal counterparts, conceding in the conclusion that the blurring of the line between comedy and news has resulted in some negative tradeoffs: ‘Nothing about liberalism or progressivism stands in opposition to the funny. That said, recent years have seen at least some self-seriousness and risk-aversion creeping into traditionally liberal comedy, ceding metaphorical real estate to the right and lowering its political value’.[vii] But Sienkiewicz and Marx also take pains to reassure the reader of their liberal bona fides, pointing out racism/misogyny/homophobia wherever they see it, and in the final chapter refusing to relay or breakdown the lowest antisemitic jokes, denying them the treatment of previous comedians in previous chapters.
This is not to say that Sienkiewicz and Marx regard right-wing comedy as uniformly morally suspect and never funny – they extrapolate on this idea when discussing the title of the book itself. They acknowledge that the common liberal response to right-wing attempts at comedy is often ‘that’s not funny,’ as a moral rebuke and/or an artistic denouncement, but in the same breath entreat the reader to move past this. In the chapter on Libertarian podcasters, they spend time exploring the work of Andrew Heaton, an underappreciated fixture of the right-wing comedy complex whose lack of virality owes to a lack of willingness to ‘go alt-right’.[viii] They characterise his comedy, within the extended metaphor, as ‘the little stand next door […] selling slightly spiked lemonade to the occasional open-minded customer’.[ix] The authors praise an absurdist joke of Heaton’s involving a ‘transparent bagel’ as authentically libertarian, not something a liberal viewer might readily understand but a deft jibe at the idea of government mismanagement.[x]
That said, for all their willingness to be open-minded, Sienkiewicz and Marx occasionally fall into the liberal bias they are trying to dissuade; in the section about Tim Allen’s comeback sitcom Last Man Standing, their read of the Black neighbours’ nickname, ‘The Tahoes’ as a coded stand-in for a racial slur strains credulity–an approximate rhyme at best.[xi]
To approach the problematics of right-wing comedy from the comedic angle as opposed to the political angle is an innovative academic approach. It gets the reader away from ubiquitous moralist takes and into a more granular, analytic approach to the material, encouraging engagement with the texts and how they function rhetorically. Missed opportunities include the glancing mention of South Park when discussing Comedy Central (and the antisemitic dog-whistling on Million-Dollar Extreme). South Park is a major fixture of mainstream libertarian comedic sensibilities, and it would have been interesting to see an analysis of the comedy itself within this schema.
That’s Not Funny is a fast, informative read and approaches political and cultural questions with curiosity and aplomb. Sienkiewicz and Marx analyse cultural phenomena with a deft and careful eye, looking to understand and, when possible, appreciate without excusing obvious moral transgressions. The overarching metaphor functions well, even when overindulged. A great introductory text for researchers looking to delve into the alt-right underground, particularly to understand its connections to other demographics and the mainstream itself.
[i] Sienkiewicz, Matt, and Nick Marx. “Introduction.” In That’s Not Funny How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them. (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2022), 5–6.
[ii] Ibid., 29.
[iii] Ibid., 84.
[iv] Greene, Viveca S. “‘Deplorable’ Satire: Alt-Right Memes, White Genocide Tweets, and Redpilling Normies.” Studies in American Humor 5, no. 1 (2019): 31–69. https://doi.org/10.5325/studamerhumor.5.1.0031.
[v] Hutcheon, Linda. Irony’s Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony. (London: Routledge, 1995).
[vi] Nagle, Angela. Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. (Arlesford, UK: Zero Books, 2018).
[vii] Sienkiewicz and Marx, 185.
[viii] Ibid., 136.
[x] Ibid., 136-7.
[xi] Ibid., 69.