Comedy is tragedy plus time. But in this abattoir of a year, there hasn’t been enough time between tragedies for the dang formula to work. I’ve seen people compare 2016 to a dumpster fire, a human centipede, the Star Wars prequels. Like a trash fire, the stink got worse as the temperature increased. Like a human centipede, we were all getting fed shit then disseminating the aforementioned shit. And like the prequels, the narrative was being controlled by juvenile, angry white men. It was a tough year. And an odd one in which to produce jokes. Every moment of 2016 was Too Soon. The only option was to lean in and confront the abyss directly. Television comedy did a public service this year, alternately calming fears and bringing attention to injustices. OK, there were some ill-advised head rubs, but I think Stephen Colbert said it best on election night: “[I]n the face of something that might strike you as horrible, I think laughter is the best medicine. You cannot laugh and be afraid at the same time, and the devil cannot stand mockery.” So here’s how TV mocked the devil in 2016.
All the Deaths
2016 was a banner year for the Grim Reaper, and according to the BBC it’s only going to get worse. We started off the year with a triple play: Alan Rickman, Lemmy, and of course David Bowie. Conan took to his show to celebrate the wry humor the Thin White Duke displayed on his show over the years.
Fred Armisen also came back to Studio 8H to celebrate Bowie, particularly his SNL performance of “The Man Who Sold the World.” Bowie’s death was an opening salvo in a year that would only get more hostile towards LGBTQ people. It was nice to look back at Bowie’s choice to bring two openly gay (and fucking brilliant) artists – Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias – on stage with him way back in 1979. The SNL clip sent me down an internet hole of Nomi music videos and Arias cabaret performances that gave me life, right up until Prince died.
Then Prince died, and the world was plunged into darkness once more. But not before we got to hear the story of the Simpsons Episode That Never Was. Conan O’Brien wrote a script titled “Prince Comes to Springfield,” which would have seen the Purple One voicing Leon Kompowski, Homer’s roommate from the insane asylum previously voiced by Michael Jackson. According to Bill Oakley, Prince wasn’t interested in appearing in an episode written by a nobody like Conan. “But it turned out Prince was on a completely different wavelength (imagine!) and actually had a friend of his write a script for the episode instead,” he wrote on the No Homers messageboard. “No reconciliation was ever reached and the episode never happened.” Showrunner Al Jean theorized that Prince might have objected to some of the jokes making fun of him, seen below.
If we made a yearbook of everyone who got to make television this year, most of the pages would be covered in white faces. But we are beginning to see people of color take the helm of shows and tell stories that matter to them. In February, Black-ish got to show us a conversation that happens in black families all over the country, about how to act around the police. They also got to talk about whether it matters or not if you’re the perfect black citizen if those in power still want to murder you.
This does not happen enough on TV, black people disagreeing. When there’s only one person of color on your show, they represent all people of that race. But with shows like Black-ish, Jane the Virgin, Fresh Off the Boat, and Atlanta, we get to see important, conflicting viewpoints rather than one token character spouting off catchphrases.
The Black-ish episode, “Hope,” is about a fictional cop getting off for shooting an unarmed black man. The specifics are fictional, but the story is all too real. “Hope” could have been about any number of police shootings in the past couple of years. The trial of Michael Slager, the man who shot Walter Scott, ended in mistrial on December 5th.
FX’s Atlanta also had an episode that touched on police brutality. The show’s second episode, “Streets on Lock,” takes place mostly in jail. Donald Glover’s character Earn spends hours waiting to be bailed out after being arrested in connection with the shooting that ended episode one. We see how different people, mostly black, navigate lockup in all its tedium and brutality.
SNL also touched on police brutality this year, most artfully in Tom Hanks’ bravura performance on “Black Jeopardy.” A perfect sketch, Hanks’ #MAGA hat-wearing character finds he has more in common with his fellow contestants than anyone thought possible. That is, until the Final Jeopardy category is revealed to be Lives That Matter. In Keenan’s words, “It was good while it lasted.”
Speaking of police riots, Drunk History took some time this year – the deadliest for trans people on record – to celebrate the Stonewall Riots. The show rightfully earned kudos for using trans actors in their recreation, and highlighting that the gay rights movement got its start combating police brutality.
Probably the tragedy that got the most airtime on late night comedy was the Pulse Massacre. Probably because there was one ludicrous thing most people could agree on: gun control in this country is fucking clown shoes. Samantha Bee went HAM on the NRA, as did Seth Meyers. The thing that seemed to set most comedians off was the sheer avoid-ability of the Pulse shooting. If we had background checks, or a ban on automatic weapons, or some sort of legislation that prevented people who are known spousal abusers from purchasing a gun, 50 people would still be on the planet. The Daily Show (who also did excellent work on North Carolina’s bathroom bill) took aim at our ineffectual gun laws with their fake game show, Let’s Do Anything.
And in a grim harbinger of things to come, Stephen Colbert tried to parse Trump’s response to Orlando.
SNL has seemed to have dissociative identity disorder when it comes to the Donald. On the one hand they let him host last year. On the other, they keep bringing Alec Baldwin back, knowing full well that Cheeto Benito will have a public meltdown on Twitter every time. The cold open for Lin Manuel Miranda’s October episode was all about pussygate, but the sketch that best exemplified the nation’s alternating shock and fatigue was “Kellyanne’s Day Off.”
Everyone got a chance to lose their shit over the plutocrat in chief this year. John Oliver dedicated his last episode of 2016 to him. Colbert asked him (during an off-air Q&A) what Putin’s dick tastes like. And @midnight gave Anthony Atamanuik a full week to do his terrifying/spot-on Trump impression. But the most ardent hater, the one who went in “like a bitch” every time, was Samantha Bee. She dedicated a thesaurus to insulting the man. She put forward a pretty convincing argument that he can’t read, and now she’s helping us sort through the nightmare of his cabinet appointments.
So here’s to 2016, long may she rot. And let’s try not to give up in 2017.