Last year on Election Day Eve, Seth Meyers ended his final Closer Look of the campaign by comparing the two candidates. “Do you pick someone who’s under federal investigation for using a private e-mail server or do you pick someone …” he began, before proceeding to list many legally dubious, reprehensible things about Donald Trump for 50 seconds, gradually losing his breath, overwhelmed. He ended the tally by joking, “How can you choose?” It was designed to be a final statement, an “In Conclusion.” He was ready for it to be over, as was his audience. But it was just beginning.
Over the last year, a tremendous amount of comedy focused on Trump has been created and consumed, whether on Twitter, late-night shows, comedy-club stages, or sitcoms. Perhaps because there is so much of it, an assumption has emerged that this presidency is good for comedy. “Whatever your thoughts about President Donald Trump’s impact on America, no one can deny that he’s truly made one sector of America great again: Political comedy,” reads a piece published on CNN this summer, which echoes an opinion I have heard regularly (though rarely by comedians). I can see why some would think this is the case. SNL has earned its best ratings since the early ’90s. Comedy Central’s fall lineup included four politically focused late-night shows: The Daily Show, The Opposition, The President Show, and The Jim Jefferies Show (not to The Fake News With Ted Helms special). Stephen Colbert’s more politically focused show is beating Jimmy Fallon in the ratings, and Jimmy Kimmel’s own political turn helped him beat Fallon for the first time, too. Then there’s Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers and Robin Thede and John Oliver and so on, to the point where CNN felt we needed a “Special Report” on Late Night in the Age of Trump. As Lara Zarum wrote this fall in the Village Voice, Trump is “the biggest target of our age.”
It’s true, he is. He’s a [sigh] yuge target. But that doesn’t mean he’s the best target, or even a good one. This boom of political comedy is less motivated by the people making it than an industry attempting to seize upon the market’s addiction to consuming as much as they can about the president. I was told by one comedian on a politically leaning show that while their team saw an opportunity because of how aggressively the networks were seeking such projects, they weren’t particularly excited about doing something topical. It’s not that all comedy made about Trump this year has been bad, but that his administration has resulted in comedians making worse comedy than they would have otherwise. That’s because Trump is a bad subject for comedy: He’s shallow and played out, and already what people expect from the comedy about him is bad.
This expectation, and comedians’ awareness of it, was well captured by a joke in Patton Oswalt’s new Netflix special, Annihilation. After about ten minutes of talking about the president, Oswalt stops, announces, “That’s it for the Trump material,” and then continues into probably his funniest and definitely his most honest joke about Trump:
“People tell me, ‘You comedians must be so happy. Trump is president. All this free material.’ You know what, yes, there is a lot of material, but there is too fucking much. It’s exhausting. Being a comedian while Trump is president is like, imagine there’s like an insane man on the sidewalk, just shitting on the sidewalk and yelling about Hitler. So you’re looking at him and immediately think of the funniest joke about shitting on the sidewalk, and you turn to tell it to a bunch of people, and behind you he’s taken the shit and made a sombrero out of it. So you turn and you tell your amazing shitting on the sidewalk [story] and everyone goes, ‘Oh … Turn around, he made a sombrero out of it. Do a sombrero joke.’ Ah, fuck! I can make fun of the shit he did the last couple of days, but by the time it airs, you guys are going to be like, ‘Wait what was that again?’”
If there is one thing that has defined Trump’s presidency, it’s the rate at which he’s been bad at it. While that might sound like a good thing for comedy — there’s something new to joke about every day! — comics actually don’t need more material. They need people to care about their material long enough for them to make their jokes better. In a terrific piece for the Scotland Herald, stand-up Sara Schaefer wrote, “Comedians are now struggling to get the distance needed to make something awful hilarious.” This demand for quick turnaround can result in reactionism and lazy contrarianism, or we get comedy like the premiere of the rebooted (and otherwise quite charming) Will & Grace, which doesn’t even try to keep up and instead resigns itself to stock Trump jokes: Cheetos, Russia, hair.
“A lot of the stuff now is … just the first step you think of,” legendary comedy writer Jack Handy told Mike Sacks on the Doin’ It podcast. “That’s what [people making political comedy now] do, rather than going to the second or third step.” The thing is, it is hard to find extra steps to be taken with Trump. To put it mildly, he’s real, you know, surfacey, and so it goes that the art about him would be, too.
“Sure, there are jokes to make: Yeah, he’s orange, ha-ha,” said comedian Jen Kirkman, when I asked her if Trump was good for comedy, “but the answer is no. You’re either going to get the same jokes over and over, or we’re going to be normalizing him by making really silly jokes about him.” The truth is, the premise was exhausted before he was inaugurated. In my estimation, comedian John Mulaney has the funniest, most accurate reading of Trump — and it’s not his Trump-is-a-horse-loose-in-a-hospital theory, though that is pretty funny. Rather, it’s his Donald Trump material from eight years ago, where he explains that Trump is “what a hobo imagines a rich man to be.”
That’s just me: I am my age and have consumed comedy at the time that I have. Someone else may have a similar assessment about a different Trump joke (i.e. Spy’s legendary “short-fingered vulgarian” description). Trump does something mockable at an unprecedented clip, but it’s mostly rooted in the same toxic psychology he’s always had. (The dementia stuff is new, but not really an enticing area for comedy.) As comedian Noah Garfinkel put it: “Donald Trump is the least complicated president in history. There are like four things about him in total.” I can think of one exception, and that’s the moment from The President Show when Anthony Atamanuik as Trump sees a truck and, stream of consciousness, goes down a rabbit hotel of his psyche, revealing a hidden-in-plain-sight existential despair. That’s it: One new take in the more than two years since he announced his candidacy.
That’s at the heart of the problem with Trump as a satirical target: He is both incredibly easy and incredibly challenging. The cleanest definition of the goal of satire I’ve heard came from Larry Wilmore in his podcast conversation with Malcolm Gladwell. “Satire is about revealing a truth,” Wilmore explains, “not taking a side.” The key is the phrasing: “a truth” as opposed to just “truth.” Currently, our political comedians are doing a fine job of telling their audience what is true and what is false, but it’s difficult for them to find something deeper — “a truth” — because Trump isn’t deeper. His lies are transparent.
Compare Alec Baldwin’s Emmy-winning Donald Trump impersonation to the two most iconic political impressions of the last quarter century: Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush and Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin. Where Ferrell’s and Fey’s impressions revealed something about their targets that had not yet been expressed — specifically, how each used a sort of aw shucks folksiness as their sheep’s clothing — Baldwin’s just reflects back, thoroughly and confidently, what everyone already thinks about Trump. (Atamanuik’s impression is superior as a result of being darker and more grotesque, but The President Show will always struggle with the superficiality of its muse.) Wilmore says, “The satirist’s job is to have the flashlight and say, ‘Look at this,’” but Trump already puts a spotlight on himself and says, “Look at me.”
All of this is compounded by the fact that Trump and the culture around him have created a terrible atmosphere for risk-taking. Regardless of what you think about what Kathy Griffin did with the severed Trump head, it’s hard to look at the fallout from it and say, “Yeah, it’s worth trying to push boundaries right now.” People are understandably edgy and consequently on guard about the correct way to resist. Tina Fey didn’t cut anyone’s head off, but she did cut into an American-flag cake, and for some viewers that was just as bad, since it suggested, in the eyes of critics, that a person in a position of privilege was saying that everyone should stay at home. Defenders argued that she was mocking that position, not arguing for it, but it sort of doesn’t matter: People have dug their heels in and are harder to sway. It’s not about political correctness run amok; Trump, because of the feeling of constant danger he projects, makes us more vigilant. But comedy needs room to fail, and these days, we’re less likely to afford it the time to be ambiguous or complicated. I’m reminded of a quote from a recent piece by my colleague Jerry Saltz, “[Even in our rush] to assume the moral high ground, art can never abandon paradox.”
This is also true for comedy that wants to avoid Trump altogether. Though Lara Zarum’s Village Voice piece chastising South Park for not taking on Trump this season was well-argued and articulated, it glossed over why the show’s co-creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, decided to avoid him in the first place. In an interview with the L.A. Times, Parker put it plainly: It was because he and Stone hated the show last season, when every week was about Trump. I understand the desire for people with a platform and influence to use it to challenge Trump, but doing so often means asking artists to make art they don’t think is good and don’t like making.
And yet, despite their hang-ups, most comedians, because the nature of their art demands that they engage with the cultural conversation, have gone along with doing Trump material. As Michel Che told the Washington Post, “Now you gotta dedicate 10 minutes about Trump.” Based on the live comedy I’ve seen since the election, the process of stand-ups doing Trump material is like a couple having sex on their anniversary long after the passion has faded: No one wants it, but both parties feel like they have to go through the motions.
“In the very first minute of my show, I mention, ‘I did not vote for him,’” Schaefer writes. “Even though this line usually gets a big laugh, I can immediately feel a subsequent wave of reverse farts rippling through the crowd. The anxiety is palpable.” She continues, “Oh no, she’s gonna scream at us about Trump for an hour!” And this from an audience who agrees with her. “This tension doesn’t feel partisan. I truly think that people on both sides of our political divide are nervous about what happens when a comedian starts talking about the president in public.”
Even if the comedian can get laughs throughout an entire Trump chunk, it often raises question about whether that’s appropriate. How can someone talk about Trump for ten minutes and not make a serious point, the thinking goes? Recently a friend of mine wondered out loud if a white male comedian’s ability to get laughs about Trump was actually just an exercise in privilege. “People are going to die, and he’s able to just make jokes,” they remarked. It’s a sentiment I regularly see echoed by comedians themselves, as Daily Show writer David Angelo perfectly captured in this tweet:
Bigger picture, the fact that every comedian is expected to cover this one topic halts much of the progress comedy was doing in terms of reframing audiences’ expectations. The current Comedy Boom has been defined partly by how it emphasizes that comedians are individual artists with individual styles and point of views. Just like you wouldn’t show up to Webster Hall and expect whoever’s playing to play some uniform idea of “music,” not every comedian is a political comedian. Most aren’t. But Trump has brought back the feeling of the ’80s, when clubs were filled with nameless men with rolled-up suit jackets and a similar five minutes’ worth of half-baked observation. Comedians are being treated like people we pay to provide a basic service.
The thing is, they shouldn’t stop. That’s not the point. However undesirable the jokes may or may not be, silence would be worse. Comedians are positioned on the front lines of free speech, and they can often lead the way in terms of oppositional language. Trevor Noah spoke to this idea on Late Night With Seth Meyers, saying, “There are many countries I’ve been to where people don’t have free speech and one of the biggest things an authoritarian ruler tries to remove is the ability to make jokes about them … A person is less frightening when you’re laughing. It doesn’t diminish what they do, but it’s how we cope.”
As much as I saw SNL as a show struggling under the weight of outsize importance last season, it did directly communicate to this administration that the mainstream thinks it’s doing a bad job. And as much as I imagine Jimmy Kimmel wants to be making jokes about The Bachelor and pranking your kid, his impact on the health-care conversation was significant and possibly life-saving. Mindy Kaling put it well when she tweeted, after all the late-night hosts commented on the Las Vegas massacre: “Our late talk show hosts are now de facto activists, not because they want to, but because it would be incomprehensible to not be.”
Comedians are doing something valuable by just continuing to show up and do what they do. Comedy might never be good because of Trump, but I’m often reminded that it will continue to be good in spite of him.