The Limits of Liberal Comedy

Why are liberals detrimentally unfunny, and what’s the left’s stake in comedy?

When Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen) made his first journey to the United States in 2006, he found a country that, beneath its seemingly enlightened façade, carried as much racism, sexism, and homophobia as his heavily fictionalized Kazakhstan. When Borat returned 14 years later, the country’s façade had disappeared and white nationalists were marching in the streets. Arriving in October 2020 at the height of an election cycle, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was a self-conscious state-of-the-union for America in the Trump era. Its final prescription is spelled out in two words of text at the end: “Now Vote.”

Coming at the end of a film that offers an almost apocalyptically bleak portrait of a country engulfed by hatred and ignorance, this is a disappointingly simplistic message. It’s also the moment that finally confirms that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is, ultimately, a liberal comedy—not a left comedy. It is about as good as a liberal comedy can be in this moment, but liberal comedy is not equipped to address a moment of such widespread poverty and suffering.

Comedy is a slippery thing, and there is nothing as unfunny as trying to spin theories out of it. There are only three things I know for certain about comedy. One, it is subjective: our ages, life experiences, and class positions tend to dictate what we find funny. It is perhaps possible for someone to enjoy Jacques Tati, Martin Lawrence, and Hannah Gadsby equally, but anecdotal evidence suggests this is rarely the case. Two, it depends on context: comedy is built on a structure of tension and release, and a big source of tension is pricking at social taboos. If you remove a piece of comedy from its time and place, the meaning can evaporate (try listening to any Lenny Bruce record nowadays). Three, it doesn’t tend to flourish in an ideological box. Admittedly, anyone who has seen an Andy Borowitz article on their Facebook feed knows that we’re all susceptible to entertainment that flatters our biases. Nevertheless, laughter depends on an element of surprise, and surprise does not come from a structure that is rigid and inflexible. All good comedy has a point of view, but comedy from a liberal or reactionary perspective is not the same as comedy created specifically to push an ideology. Your mileage may vary, but I know a lot of lefties who consider Norm Macdonald—a comedian with an unmistakable reactionary streak—to be one of the funniest men in the world, whereas David Zucker’s explicitly right-wing comedy An American Carol (2008) and Fox News’ Daily Show rip-off The 1/2 Hour News Hour (2004) failed to attract even conservative audiences.

I think most Current Affairs readers know conservative comedy when they see it. It’s Eddie Murphy making jokes about gay people in Delirious, or Ace Ventura weeping in the shower after realizing he kissed a transgender woman, or Bob Hope dressed as a hippie. This is comedy that stands for “traditional” values in the midst of confusing change. Liberal comedy is harder to define, both because it is so pervasive in popular culture and because liberalism itself is harder to define. The sensibility has dominated late-night TV during the Trump era, with comedians relentlessly chronicling the President’s offenses while showing less interest in his structural causes. Consider Jim Carrey’s first appearance as Joe Biden on Saturday Night Live, which saw him clicking the “pause” button on Alec Baldwin’s Trump during a debate sketch. “Isn’t that satisfying? Just to not hear his voice for a single, goddamned second? Let’s bask in the Trumplessness.” Later, Carrey/Biden makes his big pitch to the American public: “We can all make America not actively on fire again.”

No comedian is more associated with liberalism than Jon Stewart, and his 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” was the clearest articulation of his central thesis: deep down most of us agree on the fundamentals, and if we could only tune out the noise and roll up our sleeves, we could get this country back on track. This thesis (identical to that of Barack Obama’s “Red States and Blue States” speech) was developed across the 16 years of Stewart’s tenure on The Daily Show, where he regularly attributed America’s divisions largely to Republican politicians and cable news. (This never stopped Stewart from regularly interviewing John McCain, or partaking in chummy debates with Bill O’Reilly.) The Rally included a video montage of loudmouthed TV pundits, running the spectrum from Sean Hannity to Keith Olbermann, with the implication that these people were the problem—but Stewart contradicted even this in his closing remarks.

“There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned,” Stewart told the audience. “Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Partiers or real bigots and Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez is an insult, not only to those people but to the racists themselves who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate—just as the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe, not more.” Putting aside Stewart’s appalling false equivalence, as well as how clueless that passage looks after 10 years of discourse on structural racism and microaggressions, one has to ask: by his definition, would any member of the mainstream media qualify as racist? Would any senator? Would anyone outside of a Klan rally? Stewart more or less concluded that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Three days later, the Republicans would retake the House and Senate in the midterms.

By contrast, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has real enemies, and it affords them no mercy. When Borat infiltrates CPAC disguised as a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, Cohen is making it clear that he thinks the Republican Party is unambiguously racist. The film builds to an encounter between Borat’s daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova), posing as a Tomi Lahen-type journalist, and Rudy Giuliani, unaware he is being pranked. We hear Giuliani rattle on about Trump’s heroic handling of the virus before Tutar invites him to the other room and, just before an implied sexual encounter can take place, Borat intervenes. Cohen sees Giuliani as a man complicit in great evil, and also understands that men like him rarely face justice. So, armed with a camera crew, Cohen dispenses the only form of justice in his power to give: public humiliation. Good for Cohen.

Aside from Giuliani, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm captures the embarrassments and misbehaviors of a broad spectrum of American reactionaries. We see bakery owners who don’t blink when Borat asks for a racist message on a cake; members of a Republican women’s club who sit stone-faced as Tutar delivers a speech about masturbation; debutante ball attendees who look on in horror as Borat and Tutar do a vulgar dance; anti-mask protestors who flash a Nazi salute when Borat sings an anti-Semitic song. Some of these scenes are very funny, some are even powerful, and some misfire, but if none of their targets seem quite as worthy as Rudy Giuliani—well, they aren’t. One of Cohen’s limitations is his inability to meaningfully differentiate between the power and influence of Rudy Giuliani and, say, a bakery owner. 

Another of his limitations is that he views America’s ills as an exclusively Republican problem. The plot kicks into motion when Borat sees news footage of Donald Trump hanging out with Jeffrey Epstein and decides to offer his daughter to the perverts in Trump’s administration. Epstein is referenced multiple times throughout the film, always as a cudgel to beat Trump, and never in reference to the other U.S. President who famously flew the Lolita Express. Bill Clinton does come up when Borat is in quarantine with two reactionaries, who read him a headline from a far-right website alleging that the Clintons drink the blood of babies. The story is ridiculous, but it’s frustrating that Cohen’s response to it boils down to: “Get a load of these guys.” There’s a reason that stories like this are made up about the Clintons, and it’s because Jeffrey Epstein is a truly bipartisan issue.

So this is liberal comedy. What does left-wing comedy look like? There are fewer examples in contemporary popular culture to choose from. When the Marx Brothers disrupted an opera or the Three Stooges destroyed a millionaire’s home, the comedy was charged by a very real sense of class resentment: these were Jewish comedians from working-class backgrounds who spent their early years shuffling between vaudeville stages instead of at school. It’s difficult to imagine Moe Howard dressed as Hillary Clinton singing “Hallelujah,” but 80 years later, the comedians on TV are liable to have attended the same fraternities and sororities as the politicians they satirize.

There is one mainstream comedy film from recent years that takes as its subject the misery prevalent in modern American life, and does so from an unabashedly left-wing perspective. It is Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (2012), an absurdist comedy that is the sole feature-film vehicle for the TV comedy duo of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. The plot involves Tim (Heidecker) and Eric (Wareheim) accepting a job as managers of a dilapidated shopping mall, where the few remaining businesses coexist with squatters and wild animals. Now self-styled management gurus, they set their sights on shaking up the mall. Their first order of business: close Reggie’s, a humble shop that specializes in “recycled” (translation: previously used) toilet paper. Reggie, the owner, is heartbroken. The used toilet-paper store has been in his family for years. Tim offers Reggie a job as a janitor at the mall, and he takes it, because what else is he going to do?

During the meeting, Tim takes a shine to Reggie’s son Jeffrey. “I can teach you a little bit about what it’s like to be a businessman around here. What it’s like to be a real man. What it’s like to be a real successful businessman.” In less than a minute, Tim has declared himself Jeffrey’s new dad, and Reggie has become “Uncle Reg.” Reggie accepts his fate because he has no choice—he needs to work in order to live. The scene is scored to twinkly piano music, as if it were heartwarming.

In Billion Dollar Movie as in life, grotesque consumption and excess is set against a backdrop of poverty and decay. When Tim and Eric take over the mall, they’re on the run from a sinister media conglomerate, having wasted $1 billion to make a three-minute movie. Most of that budget went to the purchase of a diamond suit, and to retain the services of Jim Joe Kelly (Zach Galifianakis), a $500,000/week “personal shopper and spiritual guru.” Billion Dollar Movie opens with a fake ad for The Schlaaaang Super Seat™—a more extreme version of a La-Z-Boy that inserts air tubes into users’ noses to guide their breathing, IV needles in their veins to synchronize users’ emotions with the movie, and also places users’ feet in stirrups to further lull them into a passive state. Your boss controls your life, but if you sit in this ghastly recliner for 90 minutes, you may distract yourself from the pain. Voting certainly isn’t going to help.

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