In January, Neil Young gave Spotify an ultimatum: it’s me or Joe Rogan. The streaming giant picked Rogan, the comedian who was accused of spreading vaccine misinformation on his podcast. Days later, compilations of the presenter using the N-word emerged online and he apologised. Spotify stood by Rogan, on whom they had reportedly spent $200m locking into a three-and-a-half-year contract. Young’s protest marked the first time many had heard of Rogan’s libertarian podcast, despite it having an estimated 11 million listeners.
The vast network of US rightwing comedy – from podcasts and television to YouTube and live standup – needs to be taken seriously, say Matt Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx, authors of That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them. The pair spent months researching rightwing comedy, concluding that whether or not you’re laughing, you can’t ignore its influence. “What first breaks through as a joke may well show up later as part of a political platform,” they write. “The increasingly influential world of rightwing comedy provides cover and succour to those inclined toward the ugliest of ideologies.”
It’s a phenomenon noted in Louis Theroux’s recent BBC series Forbidden America, where he met streamers Baked Alaska and Nick Fuentes. Both are accused of racism and misogyny, Fuentes has shared “jokes” about Holocaust denial and told Theroux he doesn’t believe women should be able to vote. Both also use comedy as a defence when challenged on their most abhorrent views. Many viewers had never heard of the men, but as Theroux told a press conference: “they already have access to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of [people] by dint of the internet … this phenomenon exists in the world, and by not reporting on it, it’s not going to go away.”
Sienkiewicz, associate professor of communication and international studies at Boston College, and Marx, associate professor of film and media studies at Colorado State University, became interested in the topic when they noticed Fox News hosts were increasingly looking for laughs. “I was guilty of the denial that we identify: this thing can’t be funny because it doesn’t align with my political beliefs, therefore I’ll define it as something else,” says Marx. “But this was meant to be funny to my political opposition, and to call it something else was dishonest and counterproductive.”
Following the trail from Greg Gutfeld, whose Fox News show Gutfeld! was by 2021 attracting a larger viewership than Stephen Colbert’s CBS satire The Late Show, the pair discovered that rightwing satirists, podcasters and standups were all connected in a new comedy ecosystem. They featured on each other’s podcasts, TV shows and social media feeds, sharing ideas and audiences.
Sienkiewicz and Marx traced a spectrum of comedy – from what was shown on network TV and the religiously tinged satire of the Babylon Bee (a sort of Christian version of the Onion), to podcasters Legion of Skanks (whose regular segment “Who’s more justified?” sees hosts debate who should be allowed to use racial slurs), trolls such as Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes and antisemitic podcasters the Daily Shoah.
Many are masters of Reddit-style trolling and meme-making, helping them reach vast internet audiences, often the younger demographics that the Republican party and Fox News covet. Comedy, says Marx, is “a powerful recruitment tool”. These young men are attractive to advertisers too, helping Rogan and others make money but also incentivising comedians to develop brands built on shock tactics.
Connections between the comedians mean a Gutfeld fan can find something darker within a few clicks. Someone like Gutfeld “might have a guest who doesn’t say anything that points to their racism. But if you refer to the guest’s podcast, you find it,” says Sienkiewicz. “You get passed along this pathway where the absolute fringe is not as disconnected as we thought.” As those researching conspiracy theories point out, the online algorithms dictating what people consume next are powerful.
The united front of rightwing comedians is another reason to pay attention. “They are much better than the left at uniting behind a shared goal,” Marx says. “They all reference and ridicule the ‘woke left’, claiming, ‘You can’t say this any more’”, says Sienkiewicz. Marx adds: “There’s great boundary-pushing left and liberal comedy, but the right’s project is to make it seem like the left has collapsed into a humourless gaggle of self-censoring.”
“Comedy does not have a political orientation,” says Sienkiewicz. “The comedy industry has had an orientation towards centre-left. A vibrant and adventurous comedic left is a political advantage, but one that can be given away if the left gets squeamish about taking chances.”
Could the UK create rightwing comedians with a comparable influence to the US? A BBC Radio 4 pilot recently featured some of the comics who have appeared on GB News. “The economics of particularly the podcasting industry probably mirrors ours,” says Sienkiewicz. “I’m confident that people like Rogan have a strong listenership there. Success breeds mimicry.”