The stereotype of the humourless leftist is very well established and, if we’re not humourlessly dishonest, it is not entirely undeserved. Having attended amateur all-woman interpretations of Brecht in the Division of Wills, I know of what I speak, and if you won’t agree that, at times, the left is incapable of addressing its own ridiculousness, then you have never seen the very straight face of Tits McVixen as she pops on a burlesque outfit and tells you she’s going to kill a good man with a good gun.

Of course, there is little room for levity when you’re railing bravely against the systematised cruelty of human society, etc, so 20th-century progressives might be excused for not giving us more than a handful of jokes from George Bernard Shaw. They were busy with justice, the right was free with laughter.

Wodehouse, Waugh and Grossmith were all imperial tools. Unhappily, they have also written some of the funniest words in English at about the time Winston Churchill was uttering some of its best ripostes. Last century, the division of cultural labour in the West had the left doing much of the intellectual grunt work, much to the annoyance of the right’s lonely intellectual F.A. Hayek, with the right laughing exquisitely about Empire and Jeeves.

Evelyn Waugh’s son Auberon continued the smartarse work of his conservative father and in the US, P.J. O’Rourke was sufficiently funny in the ’80s to even make leftists laugh, a supply-side climate notwithstanding. But the right’s habit for good cheer has withered as surely, comrade, as the coercive powers of the state shall under glorious communism.

I mean. When was the last time you saw Andrew Bolt even try to crack a funny? He has a very rich history of conservative humour on which to draw but chooses instead to have Trotskyist tantrums. Yesterday, his take on the work of a Herald Sun colleague as “vicious and shameful” seemed, for mine, to be far more in the worst traditions of the self-cannibalising Fifth International than that of chaps in bally spats.

The whole thing, which was hinged on Bolt’s defence of Cardinal George Pell, seemed, like much of the man’s dire oeuvre, very humourless.

Bolt’s is like the current work of the cultural right, whose customary hauteur and jest are now eclipsed by tanties. Jeremy Clarkson tried to restore the Waugh engine, but he always seemed a little too angry to be a truly witty cove. Likewise, presenters of the Fox News conservative satire The 1/2 Hour News Hour, whose 2007 answer to The Daily Show did not last a season. I believe it is Gerard Henderson’s occasional intention to be funny and we can only suppose that Nick Cater believes his modern-as-tomorrow chardonnay and cafe latte references to be worthy of Bertie Wooster. But even these gags, such as they are, come far less frequently. The once creditable humourist Tim Blair is making with the ha-ha so infrequently, and not one of this Tory mob is amusing enough to be admitted by the posh to a club.

They’ve not only lost the knack of being funny but, it seems, the desire as well. Even if one holds that conservatism is inherently unfunny — I don’t, personally; my funny bone is nonpartisan despite all efforts to paint it red — one cannot fail to notice that they’ve begun to take themselves very seriously.

It’s not as though progressive communicators couldn’t do with a little lightening. Every weekday, some progressive writer is accusing some other progressive of killing babies, etc. News Corp’s act yesterday of internal war is already bog standard at Fairfax and the Graun. I guess it’s just that most everyone could do with a little lightening. Which is not to say that things aren’t in a very shady state and do not, at times, demand serious prose. But when you have a whole load of persons flailing about like Cassandra, you not only have few opportunities to laugh, but few motivations to heed their warnings from the dark.

Whether it is a tactic or a belief, the right now writes as though we are all engaged in a battle with the devil. Our souls are on the line, our morality is corrupt, a story about Pell is not a piece of investigation but a “witch hunt”, etc.  This mythic, humourless work was once the sole province of the left. Now, it’s Bolt and friends who really need to lighten up.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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