I can predict with almost absolute certainty the winner of the 2016 presidential race. Nope, I’m not talking Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, and definitely not Ben Carson. The hands-down winner will likely be comedy. In fact the 2016 presidential candidates are already job creators, at least in the comedy field.
In the past week alone there have been more jokes inspired by the 2016 candidates, especially the Republicans, than Obama has launched in his seven years in office. (OK, that may be a slight exaggeration, but only slight.)
And more importantly, these jokes are beginning to create the comedic narrative for the leading candidates that will likely stay with them throughout the campaign. This is more significant than some may realize because these comedic narratives often define the candidates in the minds of voters, especially those who don’t follow politics that closely. (Think Sarah Palin in 2008.)
Let’s take a look at some of the best political comedy from this past week. Saturday Night Live opened its 41st season this past weekend with a smart and very funny look at Trump (played by Taran Killam), together with his wife, Melania, hilariously played by Cecily Strong.
The jokes in that sketch comically reinforce the narratives emerging about Trump. For example, we heard about Trump’s failure to offer details in response to policy questions with the joke, “You want to know my plan? Here’s my plan: ‘I got the smartest guys.’”
The sketch also touched on Trump demonizing Latino immigrants for political gain. They even raised the issue of Trump modeling himself after some dictators with Trump bragging that his “humble gold house” was designed by the “same interior decorator as Saddam Hussein.”
SNL also lampooned Hillary Clinton. Now, I’m sure some will say that SNL was “tougher” on Trump. That may be true but Clinton appeared on the show Saturday night and I can tell you as someone who worked at SNL for eight years (late ’90s to mid-2000s), politicians are in on the jokes. I’m not saying they have veto power, but they do have some degree of input just as Trump will if he appears on SNL during the campaign.
Still, Clinton mocked herself in the sketch. She played a bartender while speaking to the character “Hillary Clinton” played by the very talented Kate McKinnon. The jokes included some about her seemingly calculated wait to embrace gay marriage and oppose the Keystone pipeline. SNL also gave us a joke about Hillary’s obsession with being president, noting that her granddaughter calls her “Madame President.”
But SNL was the tip of the comedy iceberg this week when it comes to the 2016 race. On The Daily Show, new host Trevor Noah compared quotes of Trump and those of past African dictators like Idi Amin. They were eerily similar, such as Amin boasting that he, too, was very rich and very smart. This again furthers the narrative that Trump models himself after dictators.
And on The Nightly Show, which airs immediately after The Daily Show on Comedy Central, host Larry Wilmore comically eviscerated Jeb Bush for his comment that black people want “free stuff.” In fact, Wilmore gave us more info on this topic than most cable news outlets by reading from Bush’s 1996 book Profiles in Character, to make the point that Bush “thinks the systemic oppression of black people by white America is a black strategy.” As Wilmore joked, Bush apparently thinks black people have meetings to figure out how “to be more victim-y.”
Over on HBO this past Sunday night, John Oliver took on the GOP’s hypocrisy when it comes to gun violence. Oliver, who delves into the details of substantive issues like no other, ripped into the likes of Mike Huckabee and Trump for suddenly caring about mental health issues after mass shootings. However, as Oliver noted, “the vast majority of gun violence is committed by non-mentally ill people.” Adding, “In fact, mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.”
And then there were the late-night hosts who served up a buffet of political jokes. One of the best last week was from Seth Meyers, the host of NBC’s Late Night: “New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has declared a state of emergency in preparation for Hurricane Joaquin. And Donald Trump declared a state of emergency as soon as he heard the name ‘Joaquin.’”
That joke is a good example of comedy furthering a narrative about a candidate. It works because of Trump’s past comments regarding Mexicans.
Now for those who don’t believe political comedy can influence voters’ views of candidates, all I can say is you don’t understand the power of comedy. Just ask Sarah Palin about how much Tina Fey played a role in how people viewed her in 2008. I have heard countless people claim that Palin had said, “I can see Russia from my house.” In actuality, Palin never said that line, Fey did on SNL, proving that comedy can define a candidate.
Of course, a joke about a candidate has to be grounded in how we collectively perceive the candidate—at least to some degree—to resonate with people, and that one about Palin did. Comedians simply heighten reality, they don’t create it.
So while we are in for a crap-load of comedy thanks to the 2016 race, if I were Trump, Clinton, or one of the other top-tier candidates, I would pay close attention to how I was being portrayed by the comedians. These comedians are playing on what people really think of them and their jokes may end up defining the candidates more than they realize. In fact, if the election is close, comedy may very well play a role in deciding who takes the White House.