This article was originally published on Humorism, a newsletter about labor, inequality, and extremism in comedy. Subscribe here to get posts like this in your inbox.
Last week Media Matters reported on a series of racist jokes Steven Crowder and his co-hosts made about Black farmers during a critique of the American Rescue Plan on his show Louder with Crowder. “I thought the last thing they would want to do is be farmers,” said Dave Landau, who recently joined the show from Compound Media, where he was Anthony Cumia’s sidekick. “Wasn’t that a big problem for hundreds of years?” YouTube removed the episode, telling The Verge it violated the platform’s Covid-19 misinformation policy. This incident came barely a week after Crowder earned a similar wave of condemnation for racist jokes about Meghan Markle.
Crowder, a stand-up comic turned Fox News contributor turned streamer, is part of an ecosystem of entertainers who make a living telling racist jokes on YouTube. He is a rare example of someone in this cohort widely recognized for what he is: a conservative pundit. These people are more commonly described as comedians, a classification that confers many privileges, namely the ability to make those racist jokes free of mainstream scrutiny. What I would like to propose today is that we start recognizing these comedians as part and parcel of the right-wing media apparatus poisoning American life.
This apparatus is vast and multifaceted. It encompasses traditional media like Fox News and the New York Post, digital publications like The Federalist and The Daily Caller, and multimedia platforms like The Daily Wire and Blaze Media, the latter of which is home to Crowder, Glenn Beck, and Dave Rubin. Elsewhere in the landscape you’ll find Tucker Carlson, Ben Shapiro, Tomi Lahren, Candace Owens, Jesse Kelly, and Charlie Kirk. They traffic in bigotry and fear under the guise of truth and reason, painting themselves as victims of persecution even as they commandeer rabid fan bases against their enemies. Their particular ideologies, audiences, and reach may vary (slightly) by person, but they all serve the same function: to uphold and enforce white supremacy.
A great many comedians use all these same tactics toward the same ends. They evade criticism because they are comedians, which is taken to mean they are not serious: not that they don’t believe their own words, but that their speech exists in a mystical realm of non-meaning where words have no power other than to evoke laughter. They’re not politicians, the logic goes. They’re not cable news pundits. Their audiences aren’t going out in the streets and committing crimes on their behalf. It doesn’t matter what they say; it doesn’t matter that people listen and agree. To critique them is to embark on the fool’s errand of taking unserious people seriously.
This attitude is difficult to reconcile with the fact that no conservative commentator is a serious person. Tucker Carlson’s ravings are no more grounded in reality than Steven Crowder’s or Tim Dillon’s. There is very little about the conservative movement writ large that can be described as serious, nor about the politicians leading it, who increasingly seem to view themselves as performersfirst and lawmakers second. The conservative media machine is so dangerous precisely because it’s pure fantasy. Its effect has been to detach millions of people from the real world and render them immune to reason. The few who launder their role in this project through artistic practice are just as dangerous as those who do it openly.
The unseriousness of their practice never seems to stop them from engaging in serious discourse anyhow. Last month Andrew Schulz, who in his debut Netflix special blamed the pandemic on China, argued in a lengthy podcast segment that China is seeking to overtake the U.S. as a world power, at which point it will suppress American culture. He said China has taken advantage of American greed to become a major manufacturing center for American companies, and that the Chinese government is buying up controlling interests in American companies so it can censor criticism of China. The U.S. was able to become such a world power, he continued, because it exported its popular culture to other countries, culture that celebrates the core American value of freedom. Chinese citizens don’t get to consume American media—barring the occasional censored export, like 10 or so movies each year edited by the Chinese government “to fit into the communist standards”—and as a result “they don’t know what freedom is, so they don’t know what they’re missing.” Whereas Trump took a tough stance on China, Biden and the Democrats are bending over to appease it because they know its era of dominance is fast approaching; they wish to enter that era on good terms. “I don’t have enough data to back up that claim,” Schulz concluded, “but it seems like that.” His Patreon currently brings in $94,800 per month.
This is a small sample of the bigotry Schulz peddles as a matter of course. In an episode earlier this month he again suggested China is to blame for the pandemic and mocked Jeremy Lin for “snitching” on teammates who called him “coronavirus.” In a January segment he argued that Biden nominated Rachel Levine as Assistant Secretary for Health and Human Services so his administration could deflect all criticism of its health policy as transphobic. (Schulz didn’t seem to know Levine hasn’t been confirmed or that he had the position wrong, referring to her as “Health secretary.” He also appears to call her a transphobic slur early in the segment, although most of the word is censored so I can’t be certain.) These are political opinions. The man is commenting on politics. They all are: Nick DiPaolo, Tim Dillon, Legion of Skanks, Sam Tripoli, Yannis Pappas, Kurt Metzger, nearly everyone on Compound Media, the list goes on. Some are more prone than others to refract their political analyses through culture war bugbears, but their analyses are political all the same. The only thing differentiating them from your average Fox News contributor is that they’ll get very upset if you attach them in any way to the ideologies they openly hold. (In his Netflix special’s credits, Schulz thanked Federalist publisher Ben Domenech and libertarian pundit Matt Welch.)
Comedy is the art of calling things what they are. It may seem pedantic to classify a relatively small cohort of comedians as extensions of right-wing media, but we must see them clearly if we are to treat them properly. They are not truth-tellers nor rebels nor crusaders for free speech; they are liars, pawns, and crusaders for the ideologies contained in their speech, which they have always made freely. Their bigotry is not a matter of aesthetic taste, as their defenders are wont to insist, nor are their ideas worthy of debate. (Fascists are always challenging you to defeat them in battles of ideas, as if they have not already been defeated in numerous actual battles.) They are simply mouthpieces for the most powerful forces in our lives, a job so banal it almost circles back around to being funny that they think success makes them special.
It doesn’t. They’re not. They’re really terribly boring. It’s a huge drag to have to pay them any mind. But we cannot fight back the forces they represent without meeting them at every turn with contempt and scorn; without treating thosewhoplatform them and those who share their platforms as participants in an avowedly white supremacistproject; and without doing everything else in our power as comedy consumers or workers to toss the whole lot of them from the public square.
It’s unpleasant business, deplatforming bigots. The alternative is much worse.
Seth Simons is the writer of Humorism, a newsletter about labor, inequality, and extremism in the comedy industry. He’s on Twitter @sasimons.