Twenty-four million people tuned in earlier this month and saw one of the political punchlines of the year.
Donald Trump, answering a question from Fox News’ Megyn Kelly at the first Republican presidential debate, was asked about calling women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, disgusting animals.”
Trump’s response: “Only Rosie O’Donnell.”
It may have been misogynistic, but it drew audience laughs, as do so many of Trump’s lines.
As candidates spear Democrats, it’ll at least make up for the lack of rightward laughs in latenight, a landscape that has been dominated, for the past decade, by humor that tilts to the left. That is reflected in this year’s Emmy nominees for variety series. The recently ended “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” — the host’s skewering of Fox News led to plenty of headlines — won the award for 10 years straight, a record. That was broken only by its companion show, “The Colbert Report,” a full-fledged satire on the bombast of conservative media.
If the list of nominees in the variety category lacks a conservative alternative to Stewart or Colbert, there’s good reason: There aren’t that many, despite a handful of recent attempts to launch a show from a rightward vantage point, or even with a “South Park”-like skewering of liberal excess.
Plenty of theories abound as to why the left has a corner on latenight comedy, one of the more pervasive being that satire naturally is a challenge to authority, a viewpoint that by its very nature leans left. That, however, seems a stretch given the tenor of the right, particularly during the Obama years.
Rather, the dearth of conservative comedy could have much to do with the way that the format developed. Just as talk radio has become a universe of the right, latenight, particularly during President George W. Bush’s term, became the province of the left. That made it all the more difficult for conservative-leaning comedians to gain traction.
“The problem for conservatives is they are facing a hostile institution,” says S. Robert Lichter, author of “Politics Is a Joke! How TV Comedians Are Remaking Political Life” and professor of communication at George Mason U. “You need a farm team to develop talent, and there is no farm team for conservative comedians.”
That’s not to say that latenight talk doesn’t skewer Obama or the Democrats. But the audiences of a “Daily Show” or “Colbert Report” skew left, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center study.
Lichter adds, “What happens is you get a self-reinforcing trend. Once you get political dominance on one side, the other side isn’t likely to get in. Once these lines get set and funneled in a certain direction, it is harder to develop a core of conservative humorists who feed off of one another.”
Attempts have been made to launch conservative-leaning shows, with mixed results. In 1990, when the landscape was far less political, Rush Limbaugh guest-hosted “The Pat Sajak Show,” but he was repeatedly heckled by some audience members.
In 2007, as “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” were routinely drawing next-day attention from traditional media, Fox News launched “The Half Hour News Hour,” created by “24” executive producer Joel Surnow, but it ran just a few months. Much more enduring has been the 3 a.m. weeknights’ airing of Fox News’ “Red Eye,” which Greg Gutfeld hosted until this year, when he was succeeded by Tom Shillue.
Going into its second season is the syndicated “The Flipside With Michael Loftus,” which features rightward skewing satire and humor. Loftus says that the dearth of conservative comedy probably has more to do with the fact that “it is hard to do. It seems easy from the outside.”
“My whole philosophy is you can’t keep something funny a secret,” he says. “If conservative comedy wasn’t working on TV, then it just wasn’t funny.”
In the coming season, the show may feature presidential candidates, and a former one, Steve Forbes, will be one of the guests.
The situation is different on broadcast TV, where Jimmy Fallon has played down political humor, at least compared to his predecessor, Jay Leno. But “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” is the top-watched talk show in latenight, and the wild card is just what kind of show Colbert will present on CBS. It will be political, but he’ll be playing himself, not the Comedy Central faux-conservative. Perhaps one of his first guests, Jeb Bush, is a sign that he’ll be reaching for a wider audience.