The Right Laughs
CONSERVATIVE COMEDY TAKES OFF
BY Janet Hespard
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Randy Clift has never liked Muslims, and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, his dislike deepened into extreme hatred.
And that's when things got funny.
Clift was a struggling stand-up comic, looking for that one humorous hook that would bring him headline status and professional success. After the initial shock of the attacks on America in 2001, Clift began working more anti-Muslim routines into his act, and before long, his career took off.
"Look, I never claimed to be a PC comic," said Clift in a phone interview from Biloxi, Mississippi, where he's appearing at the Chuckle Barrel. "And Muslims make me sick anyway, so when I put the two together, I found out that a lot of people felt the same way. The more I bash Muslims or Arabs, the bigger the laughs. Now I'm booked all through '07 and into '08. Hopefully, this will get me on Leno, Letterman or Conan. I can't wait!"
Clift may have to wait longer than he suspects. For while conservative comedy is on the rise, not everyone is in on the joke, especially those who book the bigger venues. Nightclub audiences may like Clift's brand of humor ("What's the difference between a dead goat and a Muslim? The dead goat smells better."), but on national television, insulting a major religion is almost never allowed, and it's difficult to see this changing anytime soon.
This is why conservative yuksters are creating their own platforms.
The Fox News Channel's recent experiment, "The 1/2 Hour News Hour," is a case in point. Billed as a conservative version of "The Daily Show," "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" pokes fun at liberal targets, with uneven results. Yet creator Joel Surnow, the mind behind Fox's dramatic hit series "24," is confident that his new venture will soon find its core audience.
"Well, I'm sure that our boys in uniform will like it," explained Surnow in his San Fernando Valley office, an American flag draped over his shoulders. "They pretty much like anything I do. Not like these Hollywood liberals I have to deal with. God, they make me want to puke. So what I'm trying to do with this new show is make the liberals puke instead. And I can hear them gag already!"
Surnow's show, for all of its intended daring, so far relies on standard conservative takes on homosexuality, welfare, The War on Terror, and of course The Clintons. "We might be predictable in that sense," Surnow admits, stroking a small, marble bust of Ronald Reagan, his favorite president. "I mean, with a conservative comedy show, you kinda know where the jokes are going to go. But you know what? Millions of Americans watch '24' for the torture scenes, so there's definitely a market for '1/2 Hour's' type of humor."
Surnow stared silently at the Reagan bust for a few moments, then began to cry. "Mr. President," he whispered to the bust, "I hope we're making you laugh in heaven."
Whatever the fate of "The 1/2 Hour News Hour," conservative comedy appears to be the next humor wave. Although the majority of these comics are men, more conservative women are making their funny voices heard, and not just those who have long blonde hair and wear mini-skirts.
Molly Steffens is a unique act: she performs only when she's visibly pregnant. While this may seem somewhat limiting to someone pursuing a career in show business, Steffens says she doesn't need the money or the fame. Performing while pregnant helps to frame her main concern: abortion.
"My husband has a lucrative, corporate job, so money's not an issue," said Steffens from her Connecticut home. "This gives me the artistic freedom to use comedy as way to overturn Roe v. Wade. Of course, it'll take the Supreme Court to ultimately do that, but I like to think that I'm out there on the frontlines, getting club audiences to think differently about killing babies."
Steffens, who's expecting her eighth child, is currently appearing at various East Coast clubs in what she calls "enemy territory." Most of her act deals with the humorous side of motherhood, but there are parts of her routine where Steffens taunts those in the audience she suspects are pro-choice.
"Once I spot a pro-baby killer, I really let them have it. I point to my belly and ask them 'You want to murder my unborn child? Well, come right on up here and kick me in the stomach! Go ahead! After all, it's your choice!' That always shuts them down, because what are they gonna do, attack a pregnant woman in front of a bunch of people?"
One might think that this would bring a comedy set to a dead halt, but Steffens insists that the opposite usually happens. "Most people like the honesty. Besides, an angry pregnant broad waving a microphone is funny already. The taunting is just the icing on the pregnancy cake."
Steffens says that her anti-abortion humor is partly based on her Christian beliefs, but she doesn't consider herself to be a Christian comedian. That's not the case with Charlie Willard, who embraces the label.
"Yes, I'm a Christian, and proud of it," admitted Willard, who lives near Nashville, TN. "But as much as I love the Lord, I also love to make people laugh. You know, Jesus was a bit of a comic as well. Though when he performed, there was a two-loaf minimum."
Willard often plays to sold-out auditoriums and theaters across the South and parts of the Midwest, but these are usually church-based crowds, and not the kind of nightclub setting most comedians cut their teeth on.
"Sure, I'd like to work in some of the more famous rooms, but there's a serious prejudice against Christian comics. If you use drugs, alcohol, profanity and are liberal, which, let's face it, all go together, then you'll have a stand-up career. But if you tell a club owner that you've been bathed in the Blood of the Lamb, you'll be lucky to get a five-minute spot on open mike night."
Such obstacles haven't kept Willard from making a living from his comedy. And while he clearly longs for more mainstream attention, Willard refuses to alter his act in order to attract a wider audience.
"One night, He gave me the gift of tongues in the middle of my act. The audience went crazy, so hey, I kept it in. But I doubt that people at The Laugh Factory are gonna find the Holy Spirit speaking in ancient languages through my mortal body funny or hip."
While comics like Willard may never hit the mainstream, there are conservative jokemeisters who do get national attention. Dennis Miller is perhaps the prominent example, and the comedy veteran likes this rightward comedy trend.
"For years, I was lonelier on this wing of comedy than Didi and Gogo at a WNBA exhibition game. So it's nice to see more real Americans performing patriotic comedy." When asked if he feels his humor has changed, Miller added, "Not really. The great thing now is that I don't even have to try to be funny. Whenever I talk about any political topic, people laugh. It's a sweeter gig than Sammy swimming in chorus girl trim at the Sands after drinks with Frank and Dean. I love it."