Please Stop Saying President-Elect Trump Is Good for Comedy
An anti-Trump protest in Denver.
Many Coloradans are still reeling from last week's election results. In the hours following the final tallies, social media was essentially one nationwide primal scream of despair. Friendships ended in an acrimonious storm of tweets, Thanksgivings were made even more awkward and hope was very nearly lost. But in a heartening number of cases, the anti-Trump fervor got swept up in a unifying call to action. Spurned voters pledged their renewed support to vital organizations like Emily's List, MALDEF, Planned Parenthood, CAIR and the Southern Poverty Law Center, gathering by the thousands in massive, mostly peaceful protests. Expressions of shock and disbelief gave way to displays of solidarity and reflection. For comedians, however, one particularly unhelpful conciliatory message was the assertion that President-elect Donald Trump would be "good for comedy."
It's an easy conclusion to come to. Donald Trump is a ridiculous human being, replete with mockable qualities. The jokes write themselves, don't they? Indeed, the jokes have been writing themselves for decades. Trump jokes are so pervasive that they practically constitute their own genre. No facet of his persona, from his grotesque appearance and dodgy finances to his race-baiting and woman-groping, has gone un-ridiculed. While the dumbfounded news media faces a moment of crisis over its failure to forecast this election and arguable culpability in the outcome, comedians can rest assured knowing they've done their jobs. Except for Jimmy Fallon, of course.
Yet the fact remains that, barring the miracle of faithless electors or early impeachment, Donald Trump will be our 45th president. Truth be told, I'd trade a million "Make Donald Drumpf" again segments to preserve the Paris Climate Agreement. Despite the best efforts of political comics, whose programs saturate the airwaves like never before, people still voted for the man in droves. According to entertainment-media hyperbole, Trump was "eviscerated" in nightly segments by the likes of Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers and Samantha Bee, yet his guts remained frustratingly intact. Even Barack Obama, whose natural comic timing ranks him among the funniest presidents in history, has roasted Trump to no effect. Judging from his performance on the Al Smith Memorial Dinner, or the time he hosted Saturday Night Live — a major low point for the series — Donald Trump's utter failure to ignite even the faintest spark of humor belies his lack of self-awareness. Pouting into the void, heedless of the chorus of boos greeting him, Trump struggles to maintain basic syntax and lacks the self-awareness that any decent humorist requires. There's no data to back up this assertion, but it feels like Trump's victory was a vote against comedy. After all, if jokes can influence the zeitgeist, how could such an oft-ridiculed candidate and spectacularly unfunny man win?
To begin with, the media landscape has fractured into thousands of different niches and no one program commands the viewership that Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson enjoyed in their heyday. Unsurprisingly, the audiences for programs like Last Week Tonight tend to comprise like-minded liberals. It's very difficult to reverse-engineer a joke from a fixed ideological standpoint. Humor and political rhetoric are strange bedfellows, and the only way they can coexist is if humor gets to be the big spoon. This explains the prevalence of clapter (wherein audiences signal their approval for a joke's politics rather than laugh), a pitfall even the best comedians fall into when they've got a point to make. (I'll concede that clapter is a mostly liberal affliction. Aside from Dennis Miller and maybe Nick DiPaolo, most conservative-leaning comedians avoid mentioning politics altogether. )
While comedy can be a vital coping mechanism, its lack of influence over policy was made devastatingly clear last Tuesday. Not only has the media's partisan divide bled into the entertainment industry, but it seems no gaffe, scandal or line of ridicule could diminish the alt-right's God-Emperor (their words). You wonder if Trump supporters are immune to irony; their behavior over the past few months of the campaign would suggest as much. Here's a challenge: Ask Trump supporters to explain their vote, hold your breath and quietly count the seconds until they resort to a logical fallacy or say something verifiably untrue. You'll be breathing easy. After all, the same people who popped a blood vessel when Brandon Marshall wouldn't kneel for the national anthem with a conveniently excised racist verse said nothing when their candidate openly disrespected living, breathing veterans. The same free-speech warriors who rail against political correctness (also known as speaking thoughtfully) applaud when their candidate threatens journalists for doing their jobs. The same values voters who endeavor to deny LGBTQ citizens of equal-rights protections in the name of saving traditional marriage supported a serial philanderer who's been widely accused of sexual assault.
Thursday's protest seen from above.
Trump/Pence supporters' repeated contention that they aren't as racist, homophobic and chauvinistic as the candidates they espouse are hollow words that pale in comparison to the action they've taken to empower these men. Like much of the arts community, standup scenes the world over are typically peopled by crestfallen liberals, many of whom don't feel especially funny at the moment. When faced with the reality that a little under half of American voters either endorse or overlook Trump's racist rhetoric and ignore the testimony of sexual-assault victims, telling jokes feels especially futile.
Furthermore, many comedians are poor, and many more of us work part-time for no benefits so that we'll have time to pursue our dreams. For many of us, Obamacare represented our first opportunity to obtain affordable health care in our adult lives. Even if President-elect Trump evolves to a more moderate position on health care, the fact remains that roughly 61.2 million Americans voted for its repeal. Pardon me for thinking that some of them don't deserve to laugh.
A Donald Trump presidency won't be any better for comedy than his candidacy was. If anything, standups must now redouble our efforts to permeate the monocultural bubbles that allow factual relativism to thrive. Moreover, we must face our inadequacy to effect positive change with comedy. Relentless mockery seems only to have emboldened Trump and his ilk. Even a truly sick burn can never replace grassroots activism.
Comedy is a palliative, not a cure. As an art form, it's woefully ill-equipped to do anything except make people laugh. For a truly inspiring example of post-Trump comedy, look no further than The Onion, which has yet again nailed the specific tone that its traumatized readership so sorely needs. The genius of articles like "Nation’s Optimists Need to Shut The Fuck Up Right Now" is that they're focused on national grief rather than policy.
Grief is always funny.
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