Why aren't there more conservative humorists?
The comic Brad Stine, performing at CPAC on Thursday, made note of something interesting. "If there's a missing link" in the conservative movement, he said, "it's the comedy factor."
Why is that?
Hear that someone's a conservative comic or a Christian comic and you start twitching a little, involuntarily. You can't help yourself. It's like hearing that someone's an octogenarian tap-dancer. It seems less like a selling point than a handicap.
It's not that conservatives don't make jokes. They do. ("A liberal, a moderate and a conservative walk into a bar. Bartender says, 'Hi Mitt!' " — Foster Freiss, a Rick Santorum supporter).
("I was going to suggest to you that you serve your eggs with hollandaise sauce in hubcaps. Because there’s no plates like chrome for the hollandaise.” — Mitt Romney)
But it is deeply unfair to judge a whole group by the witticisms of its politicians. Remember Barack Obama's quip about spilled milk? And Ronald Reagan knew how to polish a quip. So did Abraham Lincoln.
But where are the comics?
If there were an acclaimed conservative comic out there, CPAC would have been a great venue. Instead, there was Brad Stine, called "God's Comic" by the New Yorker magazine.
Thursday afternoon, Stine was yelling. Loudly. He had some complaints to make about how, these days, it is too safe to drive. Back when he was growing up, "You got in a wreck, you paid for it. You were weeded out so the good drivers had more room. That was America!"
One essential element of comedy is that the audience can tell that you are joking.
His routine sounded less like a joke than a series of opinions, shouted.
Sigmund Freud, in his seminal "Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious," noted that wit depends upon the presence of a third party, an audience willing to laugh. "A certain amount of willingness or a certain indifference, the absence of all factors which might evoke strong feelings in opposition to the tendency, are absolute conditions for the participation of the third person in the completion of the wit process," Freud noted. Indifference? Absence of strong feelings in opposition? Have you attended a Tea Party rally lately?
"In the presence of my opponent's friends the wittiest invectives with which I might assail him would not be considered witticism but invectives, and in the minds of my hearers it would create not pleasure but indignation," Freud noted.
Or wit can arise from the fact that "the person finds it difficult to express directly his criticism or aggression and is thus compelled to resort to by-ways."
Traditionally, this has not been a conservative problem. Just listen to talk radio. Or to Brad Stine, now complaining about the culture these days that forces men to get in touch with their feminine sides. "I found my feminine side. You know what I did? I married her."
The audience laughs, tepidly.
"I don't know that you can explain why we, as a species, laugh," Humor writer Dave Barry told another humor writer, Mike Sacks. "Maybe it's just that there's a disconnect in our brains when we realize that obviously we're going to die but we can laugh anyway. There has to be a release. For me, it's either you laugh or you become religious."
Brad Stine is religious. He complains that thanks to liberals, we consider pain "an aberration. No it's not! It's a fallen world!"
Mark Twain said that there was no humor in heaven. Stine is working hard to create heaven on Earth.
Statistically, comedy often comes from embattled minorities. Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote “Annie Hall” and “Jersey Boys,” notes that, "Most great comedy comes from minorities — ethnic, social, economic. If you think about it, most comedy ought to function as a corrective — against one or another social or cultural or economic inequity."
So there would seem to be a natural niche for conservative comedians. Attend any speech by a Republican candidate for president, and you are surrounded by embattled people who want corrective action. Where's the laughter?
But it's not quite a minority. Conservatives outnumber liberals. A Gallup poll in January found that 40 percent of Americans identified as conservatives, almost double the number who called themselves liberals. Minority? Try again.
Or could it be that liberals can't take a joke?
Liberal comics constantly joke on Twitter about disemboweling, defecating on and generally inconveniencing the Republican candidates for president. But let one conservative make a similar joke, and suddenly he or she is being arrested for death-threatening Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Do we have it backward? Is it that conservatives can’t make a joke or that liberals can’t take one, so culturally sensitive that they have become a mass of exposed nerves ready to scream at the lightest touch?
But maybe that's wrong, too.
There are so many unaffiliated comics. The whole Blue Collar Comedy tour embodies fairly conservative ideas about family and delivers its punchlines with a Southern twang — without the conservative label — and it's been doing all right for itself, thank you very much.
Is it that the jokes that conservatives would make at the expense of liberals are also being made by liberals at the expense of liberals? After all, to find something that a liberal or unaffiliated comic is unwilling to mock, you have to go pretty far into objectionable joke territory — possibly past the bounds of funny.
Or maybe it's a more general truth of bad comedy.
In general, if a comic is selling himself/herself/itself as a member of a group and not a unique individual the product of whose bewildering and dazzling life is sufficient to engender comedy, it's because he isn't very good.
But it might be more fundamental than that. In its essence, conservatism is the preference for the old and tried over the new and untried. It is the impulse to uphold time-honored values and institutions, not to run past scrawling funny mustaches on them.
Humor that upholds the social order can only be so humorous. The funniest conservative? Aristophanes, hands down. Sure, that was a couple thousand years ago. But through all of his works runs an undercurrent of deep dissatisfaction with the encroaching new ways. Still, for the big laughs, he had to depend on fart jokes.
Perhaps Stine should try that.