A new explanation for why there is no conservative counterpart to Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart
Jon Stewart File photo

The preliminary results of a new study suggest that conservatives may appreciate humor less than liberals.

A number of books and articles in recent years have tried to explain why there hasn’t been a successful conservative TV satire, as there has been with liberal-leaning satires such as “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” or “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”

Previous explanations focused on how many fewer conservatives enter the profession of comedy than liberals. Or some focused on how the form of satire is based on attacking institutions, while conservatives have historically defended institutions.

Others have wondered whether Hollywood has a liberal bias. Several conservative satires, such as “The 1/2 Hour News Hour” on Fox News, have been produced but none of them has yet become a hit.

But a new study suggests that conservatives may just appreciate humor less than liberals and so may tune in to those types of shows less frequently. Dannagal Young, a professor of psychology at the University of Delaware, set out to test whether conservatives and liberals appreciate different kinds of humor.

Her hypothesis was that conservatives tend to appreciate exaggerated humor, such as the kind of bombastic proclamations that might be found on Rush Limbaugh’s show. Liberals, she thought, might prefer ironic humor, where the meaning of the joke belied what was literally being said – such as the way Colbert parodied Bill O’Reilly.

So she hired a comedian to write jokes, with two different versions of each, to see which ones conservatives and liberals liked.

But when she ran the numbers the biggest difference she found was not the kinds of humor appreciated, but how much. People who said they were conservative didn’t like any joke types as much as the liberals did.

Young said this is the most dramatic result she has ever found. “For years people said there is no conservative sense of humor: it appears that they are exactly right quantitatively,” Young said. “This is the largest correlation I have ever found.”

The more than 300 respondents of her study also answered questions about how much they appreciated humor, such as whether they like it when other people tell jokes and whether they like telling jokes themselves. The conservatives said they didn’t appreciate humor in their lives as much as liberals.

Young has presented her results to colleagues but not yet subjected it to peer review. She’s aware that these unexpected results could be controversial.

“I don’t know what to do with this now,” Young said. “My goal will be to minimize the shock value of that so that it doesn’t sound so insulting.”