Bob Ehrlich: How the Left Is Killing Comedy


A number of America’s most beloved comedians have decided to forego future college gigs. The reason: they can no longer practice their art on campus.

As recently as the turn of the millennium, such a scenario would have been unthinkable: then, comedians had little reason to be afraid of censorship, whether on campus, on television or in comedy clubs. They did what comedians do — they made people laugh, even while (sometimes) stretching the outer limits of good taste.

Great comics have always been able to make people laugh at themselves. Think about it. The great American comedians (Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld) often utilized their gender, race, ethnicity, age or even religion to make people laugh. Stereotypes were employed, often to great effect, but few listeners or viewers got offended. Everyone understood the schtick.

Even those who too easily suffered life’s slings and arrows knew enough to tune unwelcome language out. Nobody thought to make “uncomfortable” a federal case.

Fast forward to today, where the most negligible slight to progressive sensibilities is made a federal case. Humor is the chief casualty as self-appointed sensitivity police assume the role of cultural value makers. Alas, these beacons of political correctness have achieved their most obvious success on campus (see above), but they have lately taken their crusade to the culture at large.

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There are two primary motivations behind the campaign for speech — especially humor — control. Each helps explain the suppression of laughter in our culture.

I’m not the first to observe that recent generations of parents are fundamentally different than … every previous generation. These modern parents are more reticent to impart their values to their children. They are also more likely to accept their children’s vastly different moral/value codes.

Further, today’s kids are more impacted by influencers outside the family – teachers, professors, artists, activists, athletes, politicians. As a result, they tend to be more independent, more open to rapidly changing sexual mores, less enthused with traditional cultural values, including an unfavorable impression of our American experiment in democracy and capitalism.

Running throughout this new frontier is the notion that one can expect to live life unencumbered by offensive speech or conduct by those who possess conflicting opinions — and that those with such differing opinions are — shall I say it? — “deplorable.” Hence, they must give way to the moral high grounders. Note that no previous generation has possessed this expectation. This then is the conflict playing out across America — from our campuses to our corporate boardrooms to our social media platforms to the people who used to make us laugh.

There is another reason why humor is in decline in America. It has to do with the unexpected election of Donald J. Trump. The history is now familiar. Against all odds, and seemingly without warning, a newly-minted right wing celebrity came out of nowhere to beat the woman who would break that glass ceiling — until a whole lot of women failed to support her. For many true believers, the tears that began flowing at 8 p.m. on November 8, 2016, have never stopped.

A somber, humorless resistance is the result. From the very first gathering of this not-so-jolly group at the inaugural women’s march to the now daily demonizations of everything Trump in the mainstream media, there is nothing but anger. Such a dour outlook will no doubt persist until the very second Trump leaves office.

Truth be told, the objects of this anger include both real and imagined constructs so often targeted by the progressive intelligentsia. These include, but are not limited to, white privilege, family values, income disparity, toxic masculinity, fossil fuels, religious freedom, the Electoral College, the Supreme Court, the pro-life movement, the National Rifle Association and white nationalism (whatever that is) — but the most scorned target is, of course, Donald Trump.

The venomous opposition finds nothing funny about him. That they now wish to extend their humorless crusade during his reign is crystal clear. Simply put, they are hurt, despondent — and they want you to be too!

Not so long ago, the American left celebrated those who questioned cultural values — those who willingly challenged the limits of free speech.

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Comedians such as Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory were in the vanguard. Social conservatives opposed them, but their popularity on the left reflected a new willingness to engage on controversial social issues: Vietnam, civil rights, desegregation, women’s reproductive rights, free speech. Their acts were often uncomfortable — but engagement did occur — often through laughter.

But no longer. The unhappy speech police will have none of it, that silly ole First Amendment notwithstanding. And that’s no joke.

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Robert Ehrlich is a former governor of Maryland as well as a former U.S. congressman and state legislator. He is the author of “Bet You Didn’t See That One Coming: Obama, Trump, and the End of Washington’s Regular Order,” in addition to “Turn This Car Around,” “America: Hope for Change" and “Turning Point.” Ehrlich is currently a counsel at the firm of King & Spalding in Washington, D.C.