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Dave Helling: Colbert or Limbaugh? Cultural disagreements are at the heart of political differences

Stephen Colbert will end his faux-conservative cable show Thursday, a fact lamented by many but not by all.
Stephen Colbert will end his faux-conservative cable show Thursday, a fact lamented by many but not by all. The Associated Press

During my growing-up years, my grandparents liked a TV show called “Hee Haw.” The program, which still surfaces in reruns, featured country music, corny skits and one-liners.

My grandfather said he liked the show because the jokes were clean. That wasn’t completely true — the show included lots of double entendres — but I knew what he was saying. The laughs in “Hee Haw” were built around a comfortable vision of America, full of crazy uncles, wandering spouses and neighbors a bit too fond of liquor.

It was hugely popular, and not just in rural areas. And it was often quite funny.

As a teenager, I was more interested in a different kind of comedy. I was a Marxist — Groucho, Chico and the gang — and a firm follower of National Lampoon, the Firesign Theatre folks and Mad magazine. Later I liked “Saturday Night Live.”

These shows and publications were funny but also seemed subversive — they poked sticks at everything “Hee Haw” stood for. What more could a teenager want?

Thursday, like most of America, I’ll be watching as Stephen Colbert ends his spectacular run as host of a faux-conservative cable talk show. The media have been filled in recent days with paeans to Colbert’s unmatched satirical skill, which you can read elsewhere.

Less well remembered is an attempt, early in Colbert’s reign, to mount a conservative alternative to left-wing TV satire. The “Half Hour News Hour” promised to gleefully skewer liberal pretensions and aired on Fox News.

It died within weeks.

Does that mean conservatives lack a sense of humor? Of course not. Radio talker Rush Limbaugh is funny. So are conservative stand-up comedians like Dennis Miller and Adam Carolla.

But their humor is almost always affirmative — it reinforces traditional values instead of challenging them, a recipe for good jokes but weak satire.

Limbaugh, as it turns out, is the political version of “Hee Haw.”

He and Colbert, as different as their politics may be, share an essential insight: In contemporary America, liberals and conservatives laugh at different things because they understand the world differently. Our polarization is as much cultural as it is political — or, rather, our political differences come from our cultural disagreements, not the other way around.

Which is why it’s so hard for us to talk about political issues. We can’t even agree on what to laugh at, let alone how we might solve our problems.

Half of America mourns the end of “The Colbert Report.” The other half wonders what the fuss is all about.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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