Can Comedy Survive President Trump?
Just before midnight on the east coast Tuesday night, Donald Trump finally stopped being hilarious.
Judd Apatow summed it up best on Twitter. While there is sometimes a feeling among comedians that comedy can heal all wounds, there was nothing funny about what had just happened in America.
Most of the late-night shows had the luxury of taking election night off, but there was The Daily Show’s shellshocked young host Trevor Noah, live on Comedy Central telling anyone who might have tuned in looking to laugh that they had come to the wrong place. “I genuinely do not understand how America can be this disorganized or this hateful,” he said. The pre-written jokes that followed mostly fell flat.
Over on Showtime, Stephen Colbert hosted a live, profanity-filled election night special of his own. But the proceedings lacked the urgently jubilant nature of his election eve show, which featured both Jon Stewart and the lead of Broadway’s Hamilton urging viewers to go out and vote to prevent “that angry tax- and draft-dodging little orange groundhog” from becoming president.
By the end of his hour Tuesday night, the jokes were over and Colbert was reduced to nervously pacing behind his desk and ranting philosophically about the “poisonous” nature of our politics. As planned, he concluded with a silly bit about the things all Americans should be able to agree on. “You cannot laugh and be afraid at the same time,” he said. “And the devil cannot stand mockery.” But for many of those on the losing side, it just felt too soon to laugh.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. If there was any upside to Trump defeating Clinton it was that his sheer ridiculousness would be a boon to comedy. Like President Obama, Hillary Clinton has not been the easiest figure to make fun of—though Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon did achieve something magical with an impression that we are unlikely to see any more of after this week.
But Trump has been a goldmine for late-night television, from John Oliver’s most-watched-ever #MakeAmericaDrumpfAgain takedown to Seth Meyers’s nightly “closer looks” at Trump’s horrific behavior to Samantha Bee’s too-convincing conspiracy theory that #TrumpCantRead. In every case, the jokes were funny because we all knew this man would never actually be president… right?
His ultimately doomed quest for legitimacy was also the cornerstone of President Obama’s most searing jokes about Trump, from the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech that many believe drove him to run to his #phonedrop moment on Jimmy Kimmel Live just a few weeks ago. In response to a “mean tweet” from Trump about Obama being “perhaps the worst president in the history of the United States,” the president replied, “Really? Well, @realDonaldTrump, at least I will go down as a president.”
See what I mean? Not so funny anymore.
It is also notable that while SNL was one of the only comedy shows that found a way to make Hillary Clinton funny, they never quite managed to do the same with Donald Trump. The type of satire that show trades in works when there is something to heighten, whether it’s Dana Carvey’s manic George H.W. Bush or Will Ferrell’s dimwitted George W. Bush. But over time, as our real-life politicians have moved closer to parody, their job has gotten more difficult. Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression was really only funny because of how accurate it was. The same can be said for Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump.
“He’s the head writer of his own comedy routine,” Baldwin said of Trump on Election Day in his first interview about the SNL portrayal with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer. “When we sit down and think about what to say, and the writers write down what to say, Trump is supplying them all the material that they need.”
But as we learned after the novelty of Baldwin’s technically accurate impression wore off, there was nothing inherently funny about hearing him elaborate on Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” rhetoric. Even Baldwin grew weary of embodying Trump, breaking character in what he thought would be his final appearance as the candidate this past Saturday to apologize to McKinnon for being so awful toward her this whole time. “Don’t you guys just feel gross all the time about this?” he asked.
Now, SNL has to decide how to handle President Trump. They got rid of Taran Killam, who briefly played Trump last year before he was replaced by Darrell Hammond, who was in turn cast aside in favor of Baldwin. In his interview with Lehrer, Baldwin said he “hoped” his run as Trump was over, indicating that if Clinton won, he would be done, but if she lost, he would likely be back for just one more episode. “I want my weekends back so I can go be with my kids,” he said, wearily.
Perhaps SNL can just do what they did in September of 2015 and have Donald Trump play Donald Trump from now on.
Of course, all of these aforementioned shows, and others that are bound to pop up in opposition to him—looking at you female, Latino, and Muslim comedians—will find a way to make Trump funny again. But will a man who has praised authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin tolerate being the target of satire?
Trump once sued Bill Maher for joking that his father was a orangutan. Four months ago, Trevor Noah told me that if Trump were to become president the future of The Daily Show could be in jeopardy. “I mean, this is the same man who says he wants to open up the libel laws,” he said, “change them so that people like you and me can be sued if he feels that what we’re saying about him is damaging—even if it’s based in fact.”
The night before the election, Samantha Bee aired the second part of her series from Moscow, which highlighted the parallels between Trump and Putin, who has all but eliminated satire from Russia. “The only worse thing for a dictator than being criticized, is being laughed at,” one pro-democracy Russian journalist told her.
“But that could never happen here,” Bee said, optimistically, before revealing Trump’s calls for SNL to be canceled after he took issue with Baldwin’s harsh portrayal of him.
Let me preface this next statement by saying that I do not equate the election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land with the killing of thousands of innocent Americans. But there was something about the way we started to see late-night hosts grapple with President-elect Trump—and will see several more do so tonight—that was reminiscent of those first few comedy shows after the 9/11 attacks.
Something has happened in this country that doesn’t feel remotely funny and yet there are comedians who are tasked with going on television and trying to navigate their way through the abyss. Don’t be surprised if the late-night shows are at a loss for comedy once again tonight.
On September 20th, 2001, Jon Stewart sat behind his desk at The Daily Show and choked back tears as he said, “This show in general, we feel like is a privilege. Just even the idea that we can sit in the back of the country and make wise cracks, which is really what we do. We sit in the back and we throw spitballs, but never forgetting the fact that it is a luxury in this country that allows us to do that. A country that allows for open satire, and I know that sounds basic and it sounds as though it goes without saying—but that’s really what this whole situation is about.”
We can only hope at this point that America’s new president will come to see it the same way.