How To Win Friends and Influence Politics Through Libertarian Comedy

Nick Gillespie debates how to win hearts and minds to libertarianism with Jeremy McLellan, Lou Perez, and Michael Munger at Cato Unbound.


Cato Unbound

Cato Unbound's latest debate is dedicated to the proposition that comedy can be a very serious tool in winning hearts and minds to a libertarian perspective. In fact, at least a couple of the participants take the idea even further and suggest that comedy, because it relies on subverting audience expectations and showing the limits of our abilities to predict the world around us, is a form of crypto-libertarian discourse. As Duke political scientist Michael Munger writes, "the comedian/subversive's role is so important is that humor by its nature breaks the listener out of his stupor, or the intellectual straitjacket imposed by convention."

Well, sometimes. If libertarianism is built upon a recognition that all systems of knowledge and power are flawed and incomplete, then some comedy may well be a fellow traveler with those of us who want to reduce the size, scope, and spending of government. No person or group has all the answers and that truth should limit their ability to boss us around. But, I argue in a rejoinder to Munger and comedians Jeremy McLellan and Lou Perez, that there are many forms of comedy and many, maybe most, of them are ability creating in groups and out groups as much as forcing us to contemplate a Hayekian "fatal conceit" that the world is ultimately unknowable. Snippets:

There's nothing inherently subversive about comedy, whether it's political or the lamest sort of observational humor. In fact, it's not even clear comedy is inherently funny. Bill Hicks, often lauded as "truth teller" about corporate power, was no more a threat to the Republic than is Carrot Top. How many watermelons and cantaloupes must die to make Gallagher great? Does anyone doubt that Nazi Germany had its own version of the Capitol Steps, the dreary comedy troupe that does hacky song parodies poking fun at John Kerry's snowboarding fiascoes, John Boehner's skin tone, and Hillary Clinton's pantsuits? You can almost hear their hoo-larious version of "We Didn't Start the (Reichstag) Fire" or "Ballroom Blitzkrieg," can't you? If the CIA had just bought Khalid Sheik Mohammed orchestra seats for the Capitol Steps ("We put the MOCK in democracy!"), waterboarding wouldn't have been necessary at all. The only thing possibly subversive about ventriloquist Jeff Dunham's act (including his god-awful "Achmed the Dead Terrorist" puppet) is that he, like all grown men who appear in public with their hands up a dummy's pants, may secretly be mainstreaming fisting as normal behavior (what is it Leonard Read, the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, used to say? "Anything that's peaceful").

Having suffered through a lifetime of Mark Russell concerts (which is to say, one), I no longer believe that comedy is subversive, or even funny ("We recently dropped a 22 thousand-pound bomb on Afghanistan," goes a recent Russell gag. "That is one big bomb. It's as if we dropped the entire Trump administration on Afghanistan").

Especially in Donald Trump's America, where everyone seems desperate to be one or the other side with absolute clarity, comedy and other forms of intellectually and ideologically independent discourse suffer greatly. Nobody wants to be confused for those people on the other side or this or that barricade. When it comes to much comedy today, you get less funny and more angry or virtue-signaling.

Steve Martin LP

The main function of comedy, especially political comedy, isn't to stretch people's minds or get them to confront the limits of their systems of knowledge. We've certainly been telling ourselves that often enough, even though it's wrong. At least since the Romantic period, virtually all artists have claimed to be subversives, to being "oppositional" to the status quo rather than expressive of it. Rather than channeling the vox populi, political comedians stand against it, don't you know, like Ibsen's Dr. Stockmann, as brave Cassandras who can't be denied. Shelley famously declared that poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world" and exist solely to speak truth to power. Comedians are always happy to get in on that action, especially if they can retreat when the heat comes down and aver, "Hey, I'm just a comedian!" Jon Stewart, that would be you.

The main purpose of much and maybe even most creative expression—whether we're talking fiction, video, art, music, journalism, comedy, you name it—is to virtue-signal, to show to your audience that you already agree with each other and that you are politically correct (however your group defines it). If you doubt this, watch John Oliver, whose peerless comic timing and authoritative British accent is outmatched only by the complete glibness of his research. Another Daily Show alum, Samantha Bee, is running a similar con on TBS. "We're off this week," goes one promo, "but we made you a present: Ted Cruz!" Haw haw haw!

Lest I be accused of simply being a cranky old fart, let me include some of my recommendations for how libertarians especially can take advantage of a period that straitjacketing liberals and conservatives who are terrified that anything they say may help their enemies. Precisely because libertarians are neither right wing nor left wing, we have an incredible power to range widely in tone, content, and subject matter and reach the plurality of Americans who are tired of a dualistic system of politics and culture that is boring, stultifying, and dying right before our eyes. It won't just be through comedy, of course, and much of it will fail. But as Nietzche—or maybe it was Jared Fogle—said, "Whatever does kill me makes me hungry."

[Libertarians] need to not simply comment on culture, but create it in all sorts of ways and at all levels. Jeremy, Lou, and Michael are plainly doing this, with good results (there's no shame in losing a political race by 90-plus points!). Apart from the hundreds of thousands of words we produce, Reason cranks out hundreds of videos a year. Some are documentaries, many are interviews with folks like the men and women of Cato, and some are stabs at comedy.

What libertarians writ large need to do is recognize that if we want to subvert the current order—and we do, in all sorts of ways—we need to be simultaneously expressive and persuasive, to explain what we believe, why we believe it, and why it will lead to a world that is more prosperous, more peaceful, more interesting, and more sustainable that what we have now. Sometimes our cultural work will involve humor, sometimes it will involve earnest policy work, sometimes it will involve three-handkerchief journalism, and sometimes it will involve a fully clothed Michael Munger taking a dive into the Atlantic Ocean to protest exclusion from political debates. But it will never be just one thing or another. And just like this essay, 90 percent of it will be crap, though we will almost certainly disagree on which 10 percent really makes the grade.

Read my essay and the other contributions here.

Speaking of comedy that makes good-natured fun at the limits of a libertarian worldview while making a pretty good point about U.S. foreign policy, take a look at Reason's Star Trek: The Libertarian Edition, featuring Andrew Heaton. Heaton is the latest addition to Reason TV's crew and he will, along with Sarah Siskind, Austin Bragg, and Meredith Bragg, will be debuting a regular series, Mostly Weekly, in the coming weeks.

NEXT: CalExit Secession Movement Dies the Way It Lived: Stupidly

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  1. Nick, I read your entire article and I thought it was quite good.

    Fix this: “on the other side or of this or that barricade”
    /Nickpick off.

  2. “Star Trek: Libertarian Edition”
    Haha, cause it’s just one guy talking to himself and even fewer women than on the show. Good one.

    1. Do any episodes of Star Trek pass the Bechdel test?

      1. If you can decipher the technobabble, almost every episode of Voyager passes.

        1. But doesn’t the technobabble usually decipher to a complaint about something a man did?

        2. But they still don’t explain why 7 of 9 wears the sexy suit and not the normal uniform.

          Not that I’m complaining.

          1. Maybe they didn’t have any spare uniforms and since they were they were out in the Delta quadrant they couldn’t get any more? Oh wait, they could have used a replicator, nevermind… maybe it was because she wasn’t technically a member of Star Fleet?

            Although that still doesn’t explain why they got her the most skin tight outfit possible. Not that I’m complaining either.

  3. Having suffered through a lifetime of Mark Russell concerts

    How dare you!

  4. take the idea even further and suggest that comedy, because it relies on subverting audience expectations and showing the limits of our abilities to predict the world around us, is a form of crypto-libertarian discourse

    Way to ruin comedy.

    1. there are many forms of comedy and many, maybe most, of them are ability creating in groups and out groups as much as forcing us to contemplate a Hayekian “fatal conceit” that the world is ultimately unknowable

      No, really, way to ruin it.

      Also, are you saying there’s no such thing as truth? I know a college where you’ll fit right in.

      1. I find comedy funnier when it speaks a truth that most people dare not acknowledge.

        This doesn’t work for social justice warriors because (a) they have no sense of humor, and (b) the only thing they recognize as truth is what they believe at that moment, so there can be no hidden surprises to set them off-balance.

      2. Truth is a tricky concept to define if you really try to nail it down. And kind of a separate issue from knowability.

        I like to think that there is such a thing as objective fact, but truth I’m not so sure about.

        1. I’m glad you’re not the guy who does my taxes…

          1. What does truth have to do with doing taxes?

    2. Yeah, explaining comedy always fucks it up. It’s funny because it’s funny. Just leave it at that.

      1. This has always been my approach to humor. That is why my jokes often crack me up and do not amuse anyone else.

        1. At least you are aware you are not funny.

          1. And I am glad you decided not to retire your Citizen X handle, so we can continue to enjoy your good material.

    3. This would have been a good plan before comedy was redefined as saying nasty things about non-democrats

  5. I enjoy the political persuasion of Gallagher.

    1. The watermelons are an analogy for environmentalists and Gallagher wields the mallet of reason.

  6. Mark Russell is still alive and doing his thing? I had thought he was eligible to retire on a federal pension.

    Also, libertarian comedy… sure to have the same crossover appeal as Christian rock.

  7. “… it’s not even clear comedy is inherently funny.”

    If it’s not funny it’s not comedy. The error in the quote probably arises from believing the likes of Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah when they self-identify as comedians.

    By the way, what is this “Donald Trump’s America” trope that Gillespie is obsessed with? Last I heard, Trump was elected President, not Emperor.

  8. “… it’s not even clear comedy is inherently funny.”

    If it’s not funny it’s not comedy. The error in the quote probably arises from believing the likes of Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah when they self-identify as comedians.

    By the way, what is this “Donald Trump’s America” trope that Gillespie is obsessed with? Last I heard, Trump was elected President, not Emperor.

    1. The question is: is anything inherently funny? Mot humor probably needs some cultural context. Though someone getting kicked in the nuts or falling over might be inherently funny.

      And I don’t know about the others, but Jon Stewart is a very talented comedian

      1. [kicks Zeb in the nuts]

      2. Stewart was really funny, and I kind think that’s why his proteges are struggling so much, because they have to follow that. From the little I’ve seen, Samantha Bee is just okay, but I think most people (or at least the ones that I know) agree that Trevor Noah deserves his title as The Least Funny Person On Earth.

        1. I think Stewart, deep down, has some sort of a soul fertilized with principles. While he was often pandering, that was not his main drive. His proteges, however, took the wrong lessons away and didn’t scratch deep enough. They were also the least talented of the bunch. The others went on to have careers in comedy formats that are not just a rehash of the Daily Show.

        2. I watched Samantha Bee one time and found her shockingly unfunny.

  9. Leonard Read and fisting in the same sentence. I am impressed.

    1. You haven’t read “I, Injection Molded Plastic Fist”?

      1. “No one person thrust me…”

  10. Progressive comedian: “Republicans are stupid”

    [howls of laughter from the audience]

    Progressive comedian: “Trump is a doofus”

    [snortles and snickers from the audience]

    Progressive comedian: “Conservatives should be woodchippered, figuratively speaking”

    [“Tell it! Speak troof to powah! What awesome comedy!”]

    Progressive comedian: [something mildly ironic about Obama’s dog]


    1. You must get out a lot.

  11. I definitely agree with the line in your essay about how the producers would wisely insist that non-comedians don’t do jokes, the Gary Johnson tongue incident is still burned into my mind as a solid example of the line between being funny/goofy and coming across like a weirdo. I agree that South Park is doing a pretty good job at getting our ideas out while still keeping mainstream appeal, and I’ll definitely be rooting for any other libertarian comedians who come along. Good article and essay.

  12. “It’s not even clear comedy is inherently funny.”

    So begins the libertarian comedian’s set.

    Jesus. “Maybe we can trick the millennials into believing our horseshit if we put a dick joke in it!”

    1. I mean, what do you expect from a guy with a PHD in English?

  13. Is the lack of recognition for Tom Lehrer by Nick in this article a good thing for Tom’s reputation or a bad thing? I don’t think it says much for Nick.

    1. Was he particularly libertarian?

  14. RE: How To Win Friends and Influence Politics Through Libertarian Comedy

    The best way to win friends and influence politics is demonstrating the falsehoods of socialism.
    However, you should be warned that the Thought Police are everywhere, and you could be sent to the local gulag for re-education through the tried and true means of beatings, starvation and being Arbitrarily shot.
    This form of re-thinking of your thoughts have worked wonders in the past for our beloved socialist slaver masters, and I’m sure it will work again.
    Remember, they’re doing all this for your own good.

  15. Awesome article. Brandybuck, that’s so true. No premise and no punchline = not funny! I’m a local, Liberterian comedian originally from the Netherlands. I introduce myself as always being on tour, The Crippled Comedy Tour (I use a power wheelchair) and although my comedy is not very political, I’m pretty much the only Liberterian comedian in my town.

    I sometimes warn the audience to leave, if they suffer from micro triggers. Like “The War on Women is awful! Those bitches don’t even bother roofying me when they fuck me over”. Or: as soon as my parachute malfunctioned and I came too after landing at 70mph, I thought, wow, so date rape is definitely not the worst thing that ever happened to me.

    I became a comedian because comedy is the last bastion of free speech. Also, I had just been diagnosed with spinal cord inflammation. Mostly I make fun of myself; you able bodied think dating is hard, well, try getting fucked in your hospital bed! Or: dating is so hard, I should’ve never broken up with my Tinder stalker. I’m an equal opportunity offender regarding religion, but I’m the only comedian making fun of Islam (it helps that I’ve banged a few Muslims, as well as Christians).

    If you haven’t yet, go to your local open mics and showcases and support comedy. But good luck finding Liberterian comics!

    1. it helps that I’ve banged a few Muslims,

      Anyone else feel like the black man’s white woman of old is the white man’s Muslim woman of today?

      Forbidden fruit is tantalizing — also that one porn star who wears the crown right now… mia kafila or something… total fucking babe, but I don’t think she’s actually Muslim, just plays the part.

  16. Mark Russell was funny in the Eisenhower Administration. “The Massive Retaliation Rag”? “The Brinkmanship Blues?” “Sherman Adams, Won’t You Come Home”? Funny stuff. But then the booze got him.

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