Never Vote For A Comedian
What About the Sixth Marx Brother, Karl?
By and large comedians show their asses when they talk politics. Some like to argue that Biden doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. Some like to say that they just tell it like it is. Some tweet stuff like this. Mostly they just espouse bog-standard liberal ideas and don’t have class analysis in their politics. This leads to comedians who either think this sketch represents the height of left-wing satire or that no politician has done anything better funnier than this gif.
Why do comedians constantly screw up when it comes to politics?
If you listen to the political right, comedians as a whole give Karl Marx a run for his money. Comedy has long been seen as a haven for the political left. As notorious right-wing idiot Paul Joseph Watson once tweeted, “The right is starting to get better at comedy and it's making lefties nervous.” The “Hollywood Liberal” is a favorite punching bag of many a conservative talking head. According to Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, Hollywood libs make sure that each and every piece of content has lefty propaganda embedded in it. Every two- or three-years entertainment publications run the pained lamentations of conservative comedians – usually Drew Carey – crying about having lost gigs due to their political viewpoints. The lib comedian archetype has staying power. To be honest, the conservatives have a bit of a point. Most “political” comedies, and even non-political comedies, fall on the left-side of the political spectrum. The Daily Show, it’s various spin-offs, the late night shows, and 90% of major sitcoms could all be described as having at least aesthetically left politics. Saturday Night Live, for as banal as its satire has been for the last decade, still largely leans left. This holds true for comedians not working and writing on sitcoms as well. Stand-ups across the U.S., outside of anyone appearing on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, lean heavily liberal. Despite this, they time and time again continue to mock those suffering the most from liberal policies.
You’d think it’d be a little different. Similar to any other struggling artists, comedians and improvisers would greatly benefit from policies that benefit the working-class, like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, etc. And yet, there is no evidence in the Chicago comedy community of a mass swell of support for candidates like Bernie Sanders or other local socialist politicians. Instead, candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris receive an outpouring of support online, in shows, and sketches.
So where does this all come from? Chicago, a hotbed of improv and stand-up provides a test-case. For one the Democratic Party maintains a stronghold on Chicago politics. This does not translate to having an AOC in every ward however. Chicago has a strong tradition of developing center-left and even center-right politicians. Think both Daleys, Michael Madigan, and Rahm Emmanuel. This political tradition, barely Democrat, is what I refer to when I say many comedians have bad politics. But Chicago has many other great features that make it a great case study for this article. A lot ofcomedians who go on to work at shows or who get paid to do comedy in one way or another start out in Chicago. For many, this means doing shows, taking classes, and performing at one of Chicago’s many improv and sketch theaters. The Chicago improv scene provides a unique view at why so often these comedians have incoherent politics. As it turns out it’s not just the people who get jobs in comedy who have bad politics, the people who try to get jobs in comedy also do. Looking at Chicago it becomes obvious that the structural issues inherent in Chicago comedy promote a particular type of liberal politics. These structural concerns: the type of people that do improv, the nature of a “scene,” and dreams of getting industry jobs, all create a milieu which encourages a politics that often actively hurts the people promoting it.
Before we really get into the thick of it, a few caveats. I am, naturally, not talking about EVERY comedian. Comedians like Sarah Squirm, James Adomian, and others have great politics. The Onion, a Chicago institution, does great work. I admire the comedy of many of the people who I subtweet throughout this article. Some of them I even call friends. I also clearly come at this from a leftist/socialist viewpoint. So if you think Hilary Clinton has the best policies out there, then hey, I wish you all the best.
Chicago comedy, while not fully segregated, does present a lot of barriers to entry to non-white, non-wealthy people. The improv scene, which has been around in some way since at least the early 80s, remains largely white, male, and middle-upper class. Other people have noticed this as well. This article about the lack of diversity at UCB, and this one about the same problem at SNL all point out this very fact. Why does this disparity exist? Three reasons present themselves: Chicago’s historical segregation, improv’s high cost to entry, and the lack of outreach of the theaters.
Chicago continually ranks as one of the most diverse cities in the country. However, it also tops the charts as one of the most, if not the most, segregated cities in the United States. This segregation has greatly affected the geography of Chicago. Thanks to historical redlining and other more current racist reality practices, black Chicagoans face severe limits on where that where and where they can buy property. Due to this, Chicago has very distinct racial neighborhoods. While changes have occurred over the years, northside neighborhoods remain majority white and south side neighborhoods majority black. Follow the previous link for a stark graphic representation. Improv theaters in Chicago are on the northside. Finding an improv theater south of Chicago Ave and west of Clark St. requires an act of God. This creates both a time and distance barrier for the average non-white Chicagoan interested in taking improv classes. This barrier does not exist for those living in predominantly white neighborhoods.
The cost to entry of improv also privileges those with both expendable time and money. In Chicago you have to pay if you want to play. In general, to get quality stage time, a person has to pay for classes at one of the main theaters. Classes usually run from about $180-$349 for 8-week sessions. iO has six levels of classes. These classes run for two and a half to three hours. Students are also encouraged to see multiple shows a week, form independent groups and practice teams, and perform at smaller shows outside of the theater. Doing all this requires buying tickets, renting practice space, and paying a coach. The time and monetary costs add up quickly. This discourages those who have to work more than a 40-hour week from participating in improv. When coupled with Chicago’s incredibly high racial income gap it becomes clear that only wealthier Chicagoans can participate in improv without shouldering a heavy financial and time burden. Doing improv, even as a simple hobby, costs a lot of time and money, time and money that many Chicagoans don’t have.
The third reason for the lack of diversity in Chicago involves the theaters themselves. In general, the theaters in Chicago have been slow to embrace the promotion of diversity within their ranks, and have a long history of being run, and populated by white men. Some theaters have started to make changes, but it has been a slow process. White men encase the history of comedy in Chicago. Del Close, considered the founder of modern improv, often faced charges of sexism. Charna Halpern, the current owner of iO, has also faced criticism over her handling of sexual harassment claims, as well as the lack of diversity on the theater’s Harold teams. White men fill the ranks of the city’s improv teaching corps, a tradition that began with the founding of the theater. This has created a knowledge gap between the improv and non-white communities in Chicago, a gap that is shortening but still quite wide.
Why do the demographics matter? Largely white, male, and middle-upper class community typically do not make for hot beds of lefty political thought or action. The cost and geographic barriers to participation mean that working-class and non-white people, often a far more left demographic face huge hurdles to doing improv. But demographics alone do not answer the question of why improvisers have such shitty politics. The nature of an art “scene” also has a lot to do with it.
Hercules had easier tasks than defining a word like “scene.” Generally, it refers to the group of people involved in a certain type of project, usually creative, in a specific geographic location. For example, if you play in a grunge rock band in Seattle, you, and Nirvana, took part in the Seattle grunge scene. In Chicago, being part of the comedy scene means that you probably go to two or three shows a week, either as an attendee or a performer, regularly hang-out with other improvisers, and take or have taken classes at one of the big theaters. Levels of involvement vary, with some improvisers doing four-to-five shows a night, producing their own shows, coaching a team or two, and maybe teaching classes at Annoyance or iO.
So what does all this have to do with bad politics?
A couple of things. First, scenes, especially ones as developed as Chicago’s, have hierarchies. Some people, generally older white men, have more influence, both cultural and institutional, than others. If someone who has been doing shows at iO for the last twenty years likes you, they often have the power to put you on a team, give your indie team a prime spot, or any other number of ways of giving you a leg up in the comedy world. For a young improviser trying to make a name for themselves, pissing someone off like this could derail any plans of making it big. Just as quickly as someone can boost you, they can ice you out. Scenes other than Chicago’s have similar relationships.
The rise of social media has also made it harder to express political opinions without consequences. Becoming FB friends or Twitter mutuals with a gatekeeper in the scene, means watching what you post on those platforms. Expressing an opinion that piques the ire of a gatekeeper could lose you a shot at a Harold Team, after all. The owners of the various improv theaters also exert a lot of influence who gets to play and who doesn’t. They go to shows and parties and don’t stick solely to the business-side of the operation. Performers feel pressure to conform to more middle-of-the-isle views, than anything that might attack the interests of the theater owners. Say, higher taxes on the wealthy, paying actors, or employee unions.
A final reason for the poorly thought-out politics of many Chicago improvisers comes from the pressure to find an industry job. Theaters like iO and Second City sell themselves as offering direct pipelines to casting directors at places like SNL. Many an improviser, myself included, has dreamed of performing at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. That does not often happen, but enough that the theaters can make a living off of the dreams of Kristen Wiig wannabes. Just visit any of those theater’s websites, and you will see a list of all their performers to ever make it big. Charna Halpern, in her one-and-only address to new students at iO, name drops harder than I’ve ever seen anyone name drop. Wanting to make it big feeds into the milquetoast politics of many improvisers, because so many mainstream political shows have dogshit politics.
Mainstream media does not exactly go out of its way to promote far – or even near – left political stances. Doubly so for the late-night shows. SNL continues pushing Baldwin’s mind-bogglingly awful Trump impersonation as the height of satire, even though it has little to offer beyond “Trump talk funny.” When they finally tire of going to the Trump well, they make fun of Larry David’s Bernie for being old. Real poignant shit. The last time they actually scored points against a GOP guy they apologized for it in the next show. The late-night shows function the same way. Fallon refuses to say anything more controversial than “Trump orange.” Meyers does a little better, but he had Connor O’Malley on his show and never fully let him loose. The current Daily Show plugs along doing bits that your Resistance Aunt shares on Facebook, but never really hits as hard as Stewart-era Daily Show did. Not that Stewart really punched up that much, the man really worked hard to promote John McCain as a “reasonable” Republican for Christ sake. I could go on, but it’d just turn into a list of petty grudges against various comedy shows no one remembers the jokes from three days later. In any case, these shows mark the pinnacle of success for a fair amount of people in the improv scene. These shows don’t encourage radical political thought because it scares away advertisers. The shows’ producers and Powers That Be look for writers and actors who won’t rock the boat too much. People in the scene know this and act accordingly. Everyone maintains a hyper-awareness of of who “makes it” and who doesn’t. The people who make it get copied, those who don’t get forgotten.
The things that I just spent about 2300 words writing about all represent structural parts of the Chicago improv scene. Changing them would take a lot of work and lies outside the scope of this article. It all leaves me open to a lot of criticism. Certainly, some people believed in Pete Buttigieg before they ever moved to Chicago. If that’s you: I’m glad you were able to get out of South Bend. I certainly don’t want to argue that doing too much “yes-anding” makes you think like a center-left lib. That require a lot more heavy-lifting than I’m willing to do. As I’ve written about before, I don’t remain particularly active in the Chicago improv scene, but I do like a lot of people in there and I’d love if it became a less toxic place. Don’t take this as an attack on the moral and ethical nature of every comedian in Chicago. I’ve met a lot of lovely people with their hearts in the right places, that just tend to not see the bigger picture when it comes to politics. I just want to present and defend the idea that the institutions and structures of improv in Chicago create a space where conventional liberal ideas are promoted, and class-consciousness political analysis gets shunted to the fringes and actively denigrated.
Bonus: I talked about all this on a PODCAST coming out later tonight. Myself, Patrick Winegar, Sarah Squirm, and Jake Flores discussed all this and more on Class Time With Kenzo Shibata. Check out Kenzo’s Patreon for more.