In An Age of 'Political Correctness,' What Makes Americans Laugh?

The movement to bring greater diversity and equality to the world of comedy has been underway for decades. That movement has covered not just who’s hired to write late-night shows or who headlines at comedy clubs, but what jokes are considered acceptable. Comedians and writers are reexamining where “the line” is in comedy and when it’s acceptable to cross it. It only makes sense that as our society changes, so do all the ways in which we mock it.

But that debate has quickly spilled out of clubs and writers’ rooms and into the world of politics. Conservative commentators started labeling any effort to address bigotry in movies and television as “political correctness,” calling it an affront to free speech. When Donald Trump made political correctness one of his major targets during his 2016 campaign, the argument only got more heated. Now it feels as though practically every political debate, whether it’s about free speech, police violence, or economic inequality, has been reframed to be about “PC culture.”

All of this has made for some pretty serious tension in the world of comedy. The question of whether a joke was funny or just offensive has been elevated to stage of grand political importance. Some comics are refusing to do sets at colleges, or even host major awards ceremonies, for fear of provoking controversy. Writers complain that anything that isn’t up to the viewing public’s PC standards will get tossed aside. Add in the recent successful attempts to censor comedians Michelle Wolf and Hasan Minahj, and it’s understandable why some people say 2019 is not a great time to be a comedian.

But how much of this is really true, and how much of it is media hype? Do people really hold comedians to such high political standards? What do people find funny in 2019 - if they still watch comedy at all? Thanks to millions of voters like you using Ranker to vote up your favorite standup comics, funny movies, and sitcoms, these are all questions that we can answer.

On The Stage

To hear it from some people, everything about comedy has been ruined by the PC police. You have to be a feminist, radical, Trump-bashing liberal to be accepted by audiences, and you suffer a huge disadvantage if you’re straight, white, and male. But even a brief look at the numbers indicates that this perception is pretty far from the truth.

Let’s start with standup. According to Ranker data, seven of the top-10 best male standup comedians of the last 10 years are straight and white - that percentage is even higher for the top-10 female comics of the 2010s. That’s not to say that these lists are totally vanilla: people like Hannibal Burress, Ali Wong, Wanda Sykes, and Kate McKinnon are all wildly popular. But to say they have an advantage over comedians like John Mulaney and Tom Segura is pretty absurd.

And it doesn’t seem like politics affects people’s opinions much, either. Bill Burr, who holds the top spot for that same Ranker list of funniest male comedians in the last decade, has built a reputation off of criticizing political correctness, and is known for taking shots at people on both sides of the political divide. Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari were both the subject of sexual misconduct scandals related to the #MeToo movement, but that hasn’t prevented either from featuring prominently on the list of popular 2010s male comics. The title of Joe Rogan’s Triggered, #5 on the list of best Netflix standup specials, is clearly meant to be a swipe at liberal outrage culture. If comedy is dying, then how are all these comedians making such a killing?

On The Screen

When “political correctness” as a concept was first being popularized in the early '90s, nobody was more famous for flouting it than South Park. Twenty years later, the show still loves to ruffle feathers - the writers recently introduced a “PC Principal” character who uses a flimsy pretense of cultural sensitivity to aggressively bully students and parents. So you might be surprised to learn that, in a country that’s supposedly been taken over by liberal zealots, South Park is ranked as the second-funniest show on TV.

What the list says as a whole about American taste in comedy is that it's complicated. Shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Modern Family feature diverse casts and shy away from provocative or offensive material, while South Park and Family Guy both revel in it. It’s a similar story when it comes to our favorite movies of 2018, which include both stories of female empowerment like The Spy Who Dumped Me and the snarky, edgy, and violent humor of Deadpool 2.

Despite all the talk of a dominant PC culture, there’s a broad range of different comedians, shows, and movies that make us laugh — some of it PC, some of it not so much. In fact, the relationship between politics and comedy generally seems to be pretty weak for most people. For example, according to Ranker data, people who like Sarah Palin are 4.4 times more likely to vote up Tina Fey, the woman who famously mocked her throughout the 2008 presidential campaign. And people living in California are even more likely to enjoy the liberal-bashing jokes on South Park than people in Texas are.

Some of our findings are a bit more predictable. It’s no surprise that Elizabeth Warren supporters are six times more likely to love Stephen Colbert, for instance, and while you might not have guessed that Donald Trump fans’ favorite comic was Andrew Dice Clay (Clay is the comedian that Trump fans are three times more likely to vote up), it doesn’t exactly blow your mind to learn that’s the case.

But while we all obviously have our own individual preferences and opinions, what the data suggests is that the culture war that’s supposedly tearing the comedy world apart is mostly happening on Twitter - not in our living rooms. People on either side of the “political correctness” argument are so passionate about their views that it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of people don’t think about politics at all when they watch a sitcom or a standup special. All they really care about is whether it’s funny.

What makes people laugh in 2019? As Mel Brooks put it, “It’s talent: you either got it or you don’t.” So cheer up, comedians. No matter what happens to our politics, there will always be plenty of people out there in need of a laugh.