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‘Creating Oneness’ through Progressive Comedy

Netroots Nation is an annual conference for online progressive activists. Over the past few days, the group held their ninth annual event in Detroit — America’s finest example of unchecked liberal policy.

Unbeknownst to the organizers, I attended the conference to see what the other side thinks about economics, education and the midterms. If their presentation on comedy is any guide, conservatives don’t have much to fear.

“The Left is supposed to be funnier than the Right, damn it,” the panel description stated. “So why do we so often sound in public like we’re stiltedly reading from a non-profit grant proposal?”

This defensive tone was apparent throughout the hour-plus session, brought up repeatedly by speakers and audience members. Much like a co-worker who doesn’t get anyone’s jokes but insists, “I have a great sense of humor!”

After futzing with computers for 10 minutes, the panel’s four comedians showed highlight reels, with one apologizing for the lack of audience laughs. (Her show was made for the web, you see, so it doesn’t have cues for laughter like television does.)

The crowd was most pleased with Russia Today’s Lee Camp, whose video mocked America’s regressive attitude on gays and oil drilling without noting he gets his paychecks from Vladimir Putin.

“Comedy creates oneness and that is what our side wants,” according to Julianna Forlano, host of a news parody without laughter cues called “Absurdity Today.” She noted how her stand-up performance even created “oneness” at a Pennsylvania Elks Lodge, despite the crowd being filled with racist men (she could tell they were racist from the animal heads displayed on the walls).

Katie Halper agreed with her fellow white comic that racism is endemic in their industry. “When the right says we have no sense of humor, it’s a great way for racist/sexist/homophobic men to make themselves seem funny.” Halper is a founding principal of Qualified Laughter, a production company “dedicated to comedic social justice media.”

Halper expressed concern that far too many comedians cross the line with offensive jokes. She listed several types of jokes that no one should tell; anything involving a “disenfranchised population” is off-limits.

Elon James White, creator of the web series “This Week in Blackness,” grudgingly admitted the obvious: “There is a segment of the left that is humorless.” He then lambasted African-American SNL writer Leslie Jones for telling jokes that invoked slavery.

Forlano agreed it is important not to tell jokes that reference ugly historical crimes, sexism or racism. “Sure, it might get a laugh — if that’s what you want.”

To ensure a joke isn’t unintentionally offensive, Forlano even recommended running it by a professional comedian first. Everyone on the panel agreed. “There is a difference between a comedian who covers politics,” she said, “and a comedian who is an activist.” Forlano prefers the latter.

The audience had several questions about what they were allowed to joke about and even how comedy works. A white septuagenarian proudly stated that she no longer tells jokes to black people because that might expose them to unwitting racism. Camp and White sadly noted that her preface of “I’m not a racist, but…” confirms that she is, in fact, a racist.

Another audience member asked how progressives can shut down funny, effective lines coming from the right on talk radio, blogs and Twitter. “The right has short, pithy things to say because they lie,” Halper replied.

She explained that clever jokes by conservatives aren’t actually funny because such people lack empathy and nuance. “Progressives are more nuanced, statistically speaking,” Halper said. The science is settled.

According to one audience member, “what makes Jon Stewart brilliant is that he only has to say the first line and the audience starts laughing because they already know the punchline.” There was general agreement that more young people should get their news from Stewart, Stephen Colbert and YouTube clips from the panelists.

As the session ended, audience members quickly walked toward the door. “Well, that was very funny,” a stone-faced woman said to a friend.