Before Trump was even elected president, comedians and comedy fans wondered: would he be good for comedy? Questioning the entertainment impact of a president who kicked off his run with racist comments and started his term by banning entry to the United States from majority-Muslim countries seemed trivial, like wondering how a large oil tanker explosion might affect the annual Christmas truck set from the Hess Corporation. But it's a question that has come up time and time again.
"It seems like the more fucked-up things he does, the more people seem to like him. I've never seen anything like it," comedian, TV host, and Daily Show alum Larry Wilmore told Mashable in 2015. In 2017, a Bloomberg article said "Trump Inspires a New Golden Age of Late-Night Comedy." In the same year, Vulture posited that "Trump Is One of the Worst Things Ever to Happen to Comedy." The president had some obvious comedic properties, as both a performer and target of ridicule. But even to some comedians, those attributes didn't outweigh the sobering reality that he is the president. To say his effect on comedy was good, as Lewis Black put it, is "like saying a stroke is good for a nap." An investigation from FastCompany earlier this month arrived at the conclusion that Trump was without a doubt, not good for comedy.
In fact, the Trump administration was uniquely bad for comedy. The president's bungled coronavirus response resulted in mass death—over 252,000 at the time of writing—so his impact on comedy can literally be measured by deceased audience members and performers. The spread of the virus put comedy clubs and theaters on pause, and some have shuttered for good.
After the 2016 election, an observation about Donald Trump was repeated often in the media: he was a highly visible symptom of a less apparent—and less funny—disease, an inflamed zit that somehow originated from the infected heart of the country. To understand what Trump did to comedy, one must also look at how comedy predicted Trump.
In a 2009 Times profile of Jeff Dunham, the ventriloquist-slash-comedian said he avoided needling "basic Christian-values stuff" in his performances in arenas across the country. His puppet characters included "Achmed the Dead Terrorist," and a grumpy old man that "shouts that all Mexicans should learn English." Dunham said the laughs following these jokes were an act of "catharsis" for his audience, hearing things they might utter in private but "you could never say out loud." There's a parallel to a modern Trump rally, down to the artificially colored man fans admire for telling it like it is.
In 2005, another comedy behemoth—the Blue Collar Comedy tour—was a $75 million per year operation, with merchandise ranging from calendars to barbeque sauce, according to the Times. A description of the show sounds very familiar.
"It's an audience that roars at Larry the Cable Guy's bawdy Southern good ol' boy observations (though [the comedian] is from Nebraska), appreciates that Mr. Foxworthy shuns four-letter words and titters at jokes that skewer their fear and distrust of minorities—as long as the humor doesn't express overt dislike for any single minority. Hillary Clinton and Michael Moore are targets of derision on general principle, but more pointed political commentary meets a cool reception."
Fifteen years later, Larry the Cable Guy said he'd lost Twitter followers for tweeting about "election integrity," so he'd move to Parler, one of the right-wing echo chambers also used to spread QAnon conspiracies. And "pointed political commentary" doesn't need to be run through a filter of a setup and punchline anymore. In 2020, it's more about call-and-response: the mention of a name at a Trump rally will evoke the "catharsis," whether it's Gretchen Whitmer ("Lock her up") or Ilhan Omar ("Send Her Back") or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ("AOC Sucks.") A performer (or president for that matter) can only "tell it like it is" so many times before fans want to join in, too.
There are some good spoofs of the president, to be sure. Anthony Atamanuik's impression deserves to overshadow Alec Baldwin's squint-pout on SNL. I was pleasantly surprised with the bipartisan and historically grounded roasting on Showtime's Our Cartoon President though I'd only become interested after the President contracted COVID, and I wondered what a cartoon TV show would do if he died. A buzzer-beater contender, James Austin Johnson, had the best Trump impression perhaps of all time, many people were saying it, as he applied the Trump brain and voice to absurd topics like Pokémon, Scooby-Doo, 100 Gecs, and the unfair treatment of Coolio.
Johnson had a theory why Trump impressions that do not border on absurd can fall flat. "The fact that we don’t all see Trump in the same light could be a reason for why a lot of the Trump comedy doesn’t hit," he told Discourse Blog.
Trump is indeed impervious to political satire, according to a sharp and comprehensive New York Times magazine piece detailing "How President Trump Ruined Political Comedy." The imperviousness is proven, in part, by correlating a surge and fall of "infotainment" shows: "The Break with Michelle Wolf", "Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj," and "Wyatt Cenac's Problem Areas," to name a few. Because of the news media's "open contempt" for Trump, and the rise of Trump showing that identifying hypocrisy is a toothless effort, these shows struggle or fail. But as left-leaning shows flounder, the right wing is able to launder its ideas through the deployment of "ambiguous irony," which is a type of bubble wrap in which jokes that flop can be labeled in post as "too triggering." The most successful humorist using this method is President Donald Trump, the piece argued.
One of the few "infotainment" shows to remain on air, as the Times noted, is "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee." Glenn Beck appeared on the show in 2016, in which Bee described him as a "deeply sincere and decent person." Beck also received a charitable interview in the Times and a story about his regrets in The Atlantic, as part of his image pivot as an anti-Trump Republican, though he's since course-corrected. In March 2019, he said a Trump loss in 2020 would be the end of the country, this year Beck said Trump was fighting "Satan himself."
This image-cleansing operation for Beck could be seen as an innocent gaffe of misplaced optimism. But some believe mainstream and corporate media could not "meet the moment" to effectively skewer Trump because they might be implicated themselves.
Nick Hayes and Naomi Burton, the founders of Means TV, saw cable news hosts who "continued to adhere to the logic of capitalism while at the same time refusing to identify it as the source of the chaos that has ensued," in news coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. The mainstream media and the far right both have deep pockets, which allow ideas to be legitimized through production value. It's the reason they created this platform, and why they're working to spin Street Fight Radio, an anarchist comedy podcast, into a TV show.
Because of these disparate sources of information, the last four years have felt like virtual reality, with each person wearing their own headset. That's because we are no longer operating on the same set of understood facts, if we ever were in the first place. For a light example, Vox described Kate McKinnon's post 2016 election performance of "Hallelujah" in costume as Hillary Clinton as "heartbreaking" in earnest. Spin described it as "SNL's worst idea," and Cosmo called it "a bunch of BS." In a less fun example, the coronavirus is approaching a quarter million plus body count in the United States, but still is treated as an issue of opinion by conspiracy theorists online and on Fox News and other more fringe networks like OANN or Newsmax.
Dave Chappelle bookended the Trump presidency by hosting Saturday Night Live. In his 2016 monologue, Chappelle wished Trump luck, saying he'll give him a chance, and demanded that Trump give the "historically disenfranchised" a chance, too. In an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in August 2017, Chappelle clarified his statement, but still looked for the bright side: Trump was providing the country with a crash course on the presidency and ethics, in a way that would create more informed voters. He called Trump a "bad DJ at a good party." To stretch that metaphor further, Trump is a DJ playing a racist Hokey Pokey remix, and you're finding out who would enthusiastically dance to it; horrifying for both ethical and taste reasons.
After Joe Biden won the election, Chappelle returned to host Saturday Night Live, on the same day the Associated Press called the 2020 Presidential election for Biden. Similar to his 2016 address, his set ended with a sober and straight-faced appeal. This time, he spoke to white people, experiencing a decline in life expectancy, and police officers who feel like they have a target on their back. He said, "I know how that feels." Both his 2016 and 2020 monologues were packed with jokes, but Chappelle, one of the greatest standups of all time, made his largest points without a punchline. It felt like an acknowledgement that the moments were beyond humor. Three days after Chappelle’s monologue, the Secretary of State said there would be a smooth transition "to a second Trump administration." His comments were widely reported to be a "joke."
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