Around Donald Trump’s inauguration, there were people — the sort of people who refer to sketches as “skits” — that confidently proclaimed he was a boon to comedy. Soon after, it became pretty clear that that definitely was not the case. But looking back now, in 2021, it seems like the answer was not always that simple. Comedy is too vast an art form, and the lives of comedians, especially with the internet, too varied to make any one judgment. So, to best capture what these past four years have been like for comedy, we felt we had to talk to multiple comedians, each with an entirely different experience.
On Vulture’s Good One podcast, host Jesse David Fox talks with Anthony Atamanuik, Sarah Cooper, Roy Wood Jr., Ayo Edebiri, Jenny Hagel, and Hayes Davenport about comedy under the Trump administration. You can read excerpts from the conversations or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
The Social-Media Sensation Who Found a Modern Way to Impersonate Trump
In early 2020, Sarah Cooper was just another comedian locked down because of the pandemic. When she got the idea to lip-sync one of Trump’s speeches and put it on TikTok, her life changed forever.
Sarah Cooper: Was Trump good for comedy? Yes and no, and no and yes. I would not be here without Trump. So, if you like me, you would say, yes, he was good for comedy. If you hate me, you’d say no. On the other hand, I would say he wasn’t, for the obvious reason that comedy sometimes is about heightening and exaggeration, and he heightened and exaggerated beyond a point that would make sense for any normal-thinking human being. So that was bad for comedy, in that someone like Alec Baldwin, who’s very talented, but his impersonation just didn’t even seem crazy enough. It didn’t even match the level of crazy that we were dealing with.
Still, because Trump took that away from us, we now have to innovate in a way that we wouldn’t have had to before. You can’t just do A to B to C. You’ve got to do A to something else that you haven’t even thought of yet, because that’s the only thing that’s going to keep people interested in the next millennia of comedy.
I think my videos revealed something that other impressions didn’t. Mimicry tells you what you already know. My videos told you something else. That something else was just: A woman like me speaking like this is so bizarre. It’s so bizarre, so you really are listening closer and you’re watching closer in a way that, by April 2020, we had sort of tuned out, because Trump was so freaking annoying that we just didn’t even want to deal with him anymore. A lot of the feedback I got was “I love that you make no attempt to look like him, because I cannot stand to look at him.” Another part of it was just news. I made the first clip within two hours of that news conference, so some people saw that before they saw the original. So, it was a way to hear what he said.
Political comedy can help us commiserate with each other on what we’re all going through. It can be this incredible connective experience, especially in a pandemic. That’s the other thing that was cool: We were all so isolated, and a lot of things that were created online really brought us together in this year that we needed it so much. So I feel like that is a big part of it — we can all say, “Hey, we’re all seeing the same thing,” which is the next great thing about it. With Trump, it’s just constant gaslighting. To be able to look at something and realize, Oh my God, I’m not crazy. We all see this, and our shared reality has not been completely obliterated. We were stuck at home for a lot longer and we were forced to innovate how we created stuff, and I feel like that has changed comedy.
I don’t like [that my success is linked to Trump]. I’m not that happy about it, so much so that I can’t talk about it. But at this point, I’m just so thankful for everything that’s happened this year that I have to say, You know what? If this is how it happened, this is how it happened. If that’s going to be part of my obituary — if the word “TikTok” is going to have to be in my obituary — then so be it. If the words “Donald J. Trump” have to be in there, then so be it. Because I feel like it’s given me so much of an opportunity to really say things that I want to say, and access to an audience that I didn’t have before. So I can’t knock it.
The Late-Night Writer Who Had to Reckon With What Her Jokes Were Actually Saying
Jenny Hagel knew Trump would affect her job writing for Late Night With Seth Meyers, but she didn’t expect it to make her completely rethink how she approached joke writing.
Jenny Hagel: Trump wasn’t good from the experience of making comedy. So much is based on exaggeration as a comedic device, especially when you’re writing about the news. The thing he does that you read about in the news is already the joke thing you would make up about an incompetent president or a racist person. Plus, some of the things he did were so horrifying I didn’t know the comedic way into it. Trump was so objectively bad for America and for human beings that saying he was good for comedy is like if you had a house fire and all your stuff burned, and you were like, “Well, it was good for decluttering.” I guess it was, but that’s not the right question to be asking. Late-night comedy will be better without him. I think, Man, what a luxury to be able to write jokes about when Obama wore a tan suit. We dined out on that for a week.
The important people of the last four years have been the activists who have tried to stop what he’s doing, and the politicians who’ve tried to get some kind of decent legislation through, and people who’ve been fighting voter suppression. So I don’t want it to be like, “Look, we did a lot of important work,” but I feel like it did make me think more about what I did. In the tiny little corner of the universe that I’m in, before Trump was elected, I felt like, This guy’s harmless, and who cares? I’m going to write a bunch of dumb jokes about his hair. And then after, it made me think, Okay, if someone is going to hear this joke, what do I want people to think about him? How do I want to frame him for the two seconds that I have their attention with a joke? Even if something crazy happened, it made me want to keep my eye on the ball a little more, like, Okay, but what is the real takeaway about him today? I tried to always do a gut check, if I was reading a headline about him, like, Okay, how does this news make me feel? That’s the way in to the joke, because if I’m feeling this way about certain news, somebody else is feeling that way.
My favorite moment of the four years in terms of responding to Trump was the end of Michelle Wolf’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where after she made all of her great and sharp jokes, to just end it by telling the room full of reporters, “I don’t think any of you hate him, because you’ve used him all to sell your books and your magazines and your television shows.” I don’t know if that was comedy, but I felt like it was a very great and honest response.
I often think of comedy pieces as like a card game where you earn poker chips: When you’re trying to do a serious piece of comedy, every joke you tell that lands earns you a couple chips, and if you want to say something serious, you have to earn a few chips. Then when you say a serious thing that has no punch line, you spend a couple. So it’s almost like you have to have this balance of like, okay, now I’m going to earn a few back, and now I’m going to spend them to make this point I want to make. I feel like Michelle Wolf’s WHCD was such a beautiful example of someone with a mountain of poker chips, and then you spend them all on that beautiful moment that doesn’t have a punch line, but needed to be said.
The Veteran Stand-up Who Thinks Trump Was Good for Comedy
Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr. was happy with some of the ways stand-up responded to Trump, but he knew it was unsustainable.
Roy Wood Jr.: I think the broad answer is yes, Trump was good for comedy. My comedy flavor preference is comedy of opinion, comedy of perspective. And I feel like Trump had a great way of polarizing people to the point that as a comic, you could take a radical stance on something and really get deep into an issue if you wanted to. You didn’t have to, but if you wanted to, you could. Of course, it creates confrontations and hecklers at shows and people who don’t want you to talk about this particular thing. But if you’re a comic that likes to live on the edge, or you like your comedy with a little bit of spice, Trump was some motherfucking habanero, fucking ghost pepper to a lot of premises. So you’re going to get some jokes with a little bit of spice. He created an atmosphere where you could have comedy with a little more teeth and opinion and perspective, to the point where I feel like specificity becomes the new broad. Was it sustainable? I don’t think so, because I think we’ve probably, at this point, sliced that pie every which possible way that you can think of.
I left him alone after 2017. We shot my first special, Father Figure, a month before Trump was elected. So inherently, I had to leave him out for the sake of not knowing. There was an original run where I was going to put in ten minutes of Trump and Hillary material, and then in post, edit it to make it seem more fresh. I’m glad I didn’t, because by the time my shit aired, it was a month after Trump had been sworn in and he was already wiling out.
My approach I kind of stole from Trevor Noah. If you look at the Daily Show and the correspondents’ segments, somewhere around the midterms, Trevor tended to carry Trump. Anything Trump, about Trump, addressing Trump, analyzing Trump — that’s Trevor. And the correspondents, we all started focusing on the faces of people that are affected by Trump or the people that cosign his shit. That, to me, represented far more fertile ground for new topics.
If you had to watch three specials, I’d say Chris Rock’s Tamborine, Michael Che Matters, and Nanette. With all three, they’re processing the outside world through inner self-exploration. I think the next two years of specials — the good ones at least — will be inward journeys into the comedian’s anger and emotions as it relates to what’s happening in the world. How do you see the world and how do you see yourself? You’ve had a lot of time to sit and really think about yourself.
The Comedian Who Only Knows Performing Under Trump
Ayo Edebiri was still in college when Trump was elected — a fact that, like it or not, couldn’t help but influence how she approached her comedy career.
Ayo Edebiri: It’s easy to be like, “Well, Trump was bad for comedy because he’s so unprecedented, and there’s no way to make jokes about any of this.” Or, “Oh, he’s funnier than you can even imagine.” And honestly, sometimes I’ve watched his stuff and I’ve been like, He is funny. Sorry. I get it. I get why people want to see a rude, fat, stupid man and be like, “This guy is fucking stupid.” I can see why people would say that that’s bad and destructive for comedy.
The comics who I like and enjoy are people who are of marginalized identities, but we’re finding ways to make comedy that we want to see. You can’t say it exists outside of Trump and his presidency, because that’s the context we’re in. There’s no outside; there’s no “Not my president.” He’s the president. But the comedy that we roll out made ourselves laugh, made ourselves feel good during this time. We’ve seen so much craziness happen that anything is possible. Nothing is real, so you can do anything. We can find audiences that will relate to what we’re thinking. They are there, however big, however small.
When we look back at this time, it will be a lot of reckoning and upheaval, to be honest. But at the same time, that also means that in this upheaval, really cool and interesting and weird stuff was happening, and there were great specials and great jokes and great people who popped up. I’m excited to see where my friends’ careers go and where my career goes.
The Trump Impersonator Who Never Wants to Impersonate Trump Again
For Anthony Atamanuik, what started as a bit at a local show grew to Trump vs. Bernie tours, then a late-night show of sorts on Comedy Central, but now he’s just had enough.
Anthony Atamanuik: For me, I don’t see Trump as good for comedy, because Trump is bad for the world and the country. But I think it was a necessary thing, obviously, for people to do versions of interpreting this nightmare — a nightmare, which, by the way, has been manifesting over 40 years. It’s not like Trump just happened and everything got bad. In that, it’s a double-edged sword. Trump’s manifestation put on display how deeply fucked up we are and how disturbed our white supremacist, chauvinistic nation is. It’s revealed all these things about us that played out in the comedy. It’s also revealed some people for who they are in terms of their ability to make fun of Trump, because most comedy around Trump either was very surface — like fat shaming or “He’s orange!” — or it was anger where the humor disappeared. It inspired a lot of misfires.
Sometimes doing Trump would get tiring, but mostly because of the fat suit and the voice, which is a burden to do just on your throat. Even when I started doing it, I was like, “I only want to do this just until, hopefully, he loses.” And then he won. That’s partly because I always saw Trump as such a bargain-basement impression to begin with. Everybody fucking does a Trump. It’s like doing Shatner and Elvis. It’s not some great accomplishment to do it. Everybody fucking has a Trump. And so my thing was like, “It’s my take.”
My thing was sort of threefold. I don’t want to get stuck fucking doing him for the rest of my life. That’s awful. Two: It’s not a psychological burden to do him, because in a way, I’m actually processing elements of myself, and I feel it’s good to let them have their time. But then I’ve worked through them, so it’s easier to not do them now. And then the third one is that it runs out of steam. I like that character. I like my Trump, which I don’t think is Donald Trump. It’s so funny when people go, “Oh, it’s so accurate.” Because I’m like, “It’s not about accuracy to me.” It was about an impression. It was about my artistic interpretation of this pig. And how do I take fascism and white supremacy in America, and how do I present them and how do I present the hypocrisy of the media and the Democratic Party? How do I present all of the lies that we tell to keep ourselves insulated about the greater crisis in this country? That was what I saw. Once he became not a useful tool anymore, I didn’t want to perform him or do a TV show around him. Would I do his voice, like on a podcast from time to time? Sure. I don’t care. I will do that character if it suits something valuable, but I think everyone will get tired of him.
Moving forward, I hope the future is an audience that seeks more than just the big networks’ dispensation of the most bargain-basement propaganda, as seen through the plight of a rich personality who just can’t take what’s happening. It’s gross and stupid, and it’s not satire. What I would love to see is media companies actually expanding the playing field and not being afraid. I’m astonished that we are still living in a world of boring white men — and I am one of them — constantly getting to run shows and share their narrow view of political struggle in this country. I would like to see so many people who are out there be able to have the opportunity to do what seems to come so easily to a lot of boring, spindly white men in their 20s who are a waste of fucking space and haven’t had an original idea in a century. As you can see, I’m not concerned about working anymore.
The Comedy Showrunner Who Left the Industry to Work on a Local Political Campaign
In 2019, Hayes Davenport, co-host of the Hollywood Handbook podcast, had the sort of showrunning gig he had been working toward for more than a decade. But when the opportunity came to work on a progressive candidate’s L.A. city council campaign, he left it all behind. (Note: Davenport’s interview was released as part of a separate, bonus episode, which you can also listen to below or download at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.)
Hayes Davenport: When Trump won, I cried in the shower, and then I got out and booted up Facebook and posted. On the same ballot as the Trump-Hillary race in L.A. was a ballot measure to put billions of dollars toward housing for people who were homeless, and also one to fund a big transit expansion. And this stuff, even for a place that’s considered very blue, is locally hard to do. And they both crushed; they did extremely well. I just pointed to that and I was like, This is good. We can do stuff here. What I said at the time was, “This is what I’m going to be focused on now. This is what the next four years are going to be for me.”
Between jobs, I started working with the homeless-services nonprofit called SELAH. Through that, I met one of the people who founded it, Nithya Raman, and we became friends. Then one night we went to get drinks at a bar, and she told me that she was going to run for the seat, and I was just like, I cannot miss out on this. This will be so fun. So I quit my job to volunteer for the campaign, and she won.
Was Trump good for comedy? I would honestly say the effect was pretty neutral. The percentage of comedy that was good is about the same as it was before, and the stuff that had a much bigger effect was technology and platforms. I think it doesn’t really matter who is president.
The stuff I like ideally won’t be really influenced by a new president — the stuff Mitra Jouhari, Joel Kim Booster, John Early, Kate Berlant, Demi Adejuyigbe (all who helped with Raman’s campaign), and others are doing. I can’t imagine what would be different now that Joe Biden is in office. I hope it isn’t really. It’s been nice that they could all be so vocal and so forward with their values and not be penalized for it. For a long time, people were scared that talking about that stuff would make their comedy worse, that it would make it more difficult for people to separate a dumb tweet from a political one. But I think it’s turned out okay for all of them. My hope is that, from a comedy perspective, it just doesn’t change that much.