Many Republicans brutally criticized President Barack Obama in 2014 after he appeared on Zack Galifianakis’ "Between Two Ferns" to pitch Obamacare to young people. Fox Business’ Neil Cavuto, however, saw the move as brilliant and encouraged his partymates to expand their comfort zone into the world of comedy. “Maybe Republicans dismissing these type of venues is very dangerous,” he said. “I say, Republicans, ignore these venues at your own peril. Laugh all you want about Michelle Obama hawking fitness with Jimmy Fallon. Or her husband yucking it up with that guy before Fallon. A lot of people who don't watch news shows watch these shows. So why are you dismissing these shows?”
For once, Cavuto had a point. Despite several attempts to launch conservative comedy as a thing (a new attempt is beginning as I type), comedy has remained the province of liberals, and they have expertly deployed its subversive and disarming effects to counter the awful effects of Fox News and conservative media. Look no further than Russell Brand, a comedian-turned-actor-turned political prankster who has used his YouTube series “The Trews” to wage a one-man war on Fox News, bedeviling much of its staff in the process.
Brand has become a sort of freelance ombudsman of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, smacking them down on everything from Beyonce to immigration to ISIS to Ferguson. The videos, which gather millions of views, aren’t just partisan hectoring. In fact, Brand openly says he likes O’Reilly. Instead Brand uses comedy to deflate the pugnacious hosts before asking them to widen their worldviews.
Just this week Brand took to his show to issue a line-by-line rebuttal of Sean Hannity’s woeful interview with a witness to the McKinney pool party incident. Brand turned the tables on Hannity, saying, “Sean Hannity is laughable, Fox News is ridiculous, but the problems upon which they’re reporting are serious.” Needless to say, Fox does not care about Brand’s brand of dissent. After months of back and forth, Brand actually secured a guest spot on Hannity’s show, only to have the nighttime host cancel. When Brand showed up in front of 1211 Avenue of the Americas to film a bit for “The Trews,” the security guards were having none of it, booting the actor from the premises. "We'll run this building one day," Brand promised them. "And then, you know, we'll share it.” (Brand’s invitation for Hannity to appear on "The Trews" has thus far gone unaccepted.)
Brand isn’t the only comedian to get booted from Fox headquarters. Comedian Lee Camp inaugurated the tradition in 2008 when he concluded a segment on "Fox & Friends Weekend" with a dressing down of the entire network. Camp had been asked on to quip about the 2008 Democratic primary, and used his humor as a cover before sabotaging the segment.
“Could I just ask a question? What is Fox News?” Camp asked host Clayton Morris. "It's just a parade of propaganda, isn't it? It's just a festival of ignorance. A million people are dead in Iraq. Come on. This is ridiculous. What's the point of this?"
“Um,” said Morris.
Camp turned to the camera and addressed the audience. “This is insane," he said. "Go out! Leave your home. Go outside! Go hug your children! Love your family, you know? Do something with your life."
The sardonic comedian Sarah Silverman uses her foul-mouthed comedic aesthetic, disarmingly couched in a baby voice, to tell uncomfortable truths about conservatives’ attempts to destroy female autonomy. Silverman also uses YouTube to battle right-wing rhetoric. Where Brand’s videos resemble Jon Stewart’s in their call and response with conservative rhetoric, Silverman’s might be seen as precursors to John Oliver’s lengthier discursions, in which a single issue is simultaneously satirized and dissected.
Silverman’s video on reproductive rights became controversial for its intro, in which Jesus “Fucking” Christ appears in Silverman’s living room and tells her, "Fertilized eggs aren't people. People are people." (He also reminded her anti-abortion activists are people, too.) It worked fine as a gag, but the video segued into an informed discussion about the stringent abortion laws that were then being considered by the Texas legislature and are still being argued over by appellate courts today. Silverman finished by imagining the invasive ultrasound procedures Republican legislatures want to force upon women being forced upon men. At well over a million views, the video effectively amplified an issue that gets too little press.
Silverman made a 2012 video targeting casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who single-handedly floated Newt Gingrich’s GOP primary campaign and was pledging to spend $100 million to help Mitt Romney defeat Barack Obama. Silverman proposed a counteroffer: use that $100 million to help elect Obama, and she’d scissor him. “Do you how many Republican billionaires are giving money to Romney?” she asked. “All of them! How many of them are getting scissored by a bikini-bottomed Jewess with big naturals? You’ll be the only elderly billionaire on the block to have traditional lesbian sex through to climax with a girl who had her own show on Comedy Central. Talk about bragging rights!”
Silverman has long mixed comedy and politics, especially on reproductive rights. In her 2007 Comedy Central show she did a bit in which she wistfully recalled the abortions she’d had, complete with era-specific dress, undercutting the conservative myth that having an abortion is always a shameful tragedy for a woman.
The abortions were fictional; she later told Bill Maher she’d never had one. “But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t fight to my death the right for women to make their own choices for their bodies,” she said on his weekly show.
As Silverman demonstrates, comedy can be a fierce vehicle for mainstreaming topics that don’t otherwise get nuanced or multidimensional coverage. Where Silverman uses sketch comedy and YouTube videos to discuss reproductive rights, comedian Dean Obeidallah has recently been using his platform on CNN, his SiriusXM radio show, and other outlets to discuss the simmering controversy over the Muslim response to Pamela Geller’s “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contests, one of which ended in violence last month.
Odeidallah responded to the provocative contests by launching one of his own: "Draw your favorite Islamophobe." “Do you know how to draw, even just stick figures?” Obeidallah wrote on his website. “Do you hate bigotry? Then I hope you enter my ‘Draw your favorite Islamphobe contest.’ You can draw a cartoon or image of any person or group that is actively stoking flames of hate towards Muslims. It can be Pam Geller or an elected official like Republican Oklahoma State Rep. John Bennett who has called for cutting American Muslims out of our country like a 'cancer' to media figures (I’m looking at you Fox News) or ISIS, which is truly one of the most anti-Muslim groups out there.”
Obeidallah’s goal was to puncture the stereotype of the rabid Muslim propelled into terrorism by a cartoon of Muhammad. “Draw all you want, Pamela Geller,” he told CNN. “We don’t care.”
Using humor to disarm hatred and bigotry is the primary weapon of liberal comedians, their way of countering right-wing media’s march of misinformation. In her Maher segment, Silverman recounted meeting a young child at an abortion protest who told Silverman that God hated her for being pro-choice.
“And then I told her a doody joke and she laughed,” Silverman said. “It’s the great unifier.”