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No, President Donald Trump has not been good for comedy: An investigation

As we come to the end of either Trump’s first term, or his presidency altogether, a look back at how he changed comedy for (mostly!) worse.

No, President Donald Trump has not been good for comedy: An investigation
[Photo: Joyce N. Boghosian/The White House/Flickr]
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The key element in comedy is surprise, and 2016 closed out with a big one.

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It was the end of a long election, in what many agreed at the time was among the worst years ever.

It was also the end of a long season-and-a-half of Saturday Night Live, following Donald Trump’s escalator announcement that he was running for president, and that Mexicans are rapists.

To observers who have since taken in the relentless horror show of 2020, the political sketches from SNL just before Election Day 2016 now play like janky dispatches from an alternate universe, one in which President Hillary Clinton’s coronation is still just around the corner. In those sketches, and according to the conventional wisdom of the time, that outcome was all but certain.

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Then, just like that, nothing at all seemed certain anymore.

Surprise!

As SNL’s Kate McKinnon performed “Hallelujah” on piano that first Saturday after the election, the initial shock of Trump’s unlikely victory had only begun to reverberate. Droves of devastated Hillary voters watched from home, having no idea what else to do. Despite the contrary evidence on their screens that night, one bit of cold comfort proved popular among some of them: Hey, at least Trump will be good for comedy.

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It wasn’t necessarily the new conventional wisdom, or any kind of consolation prize, just a silver lining some sought within the massive dust cloud of fresh chaos.

But now that we’ve come to the end of either Donald Trump’s first term or his presidency altogether, with the country even further divided over everything from police power to “cancel culture,” the question remains: Has President Trump been good for comedy?

I went back—so you don’t have to—in an effort to get the definitive answer.

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Everyone was watching, but no one saw it coming

Just before Trump’s ascension, comedy was in a transitional phase. A handful of sunny, positive sitcoms like Parks and Rec and Bob’s Burgers were flourishing on network TV, riding the long tail of Obama’s hopeful message—if not necessarily the underlying reality—while cable boasted more cynical fare like Veep and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Comedy Central was awash with progressive programming, from Broad City to Inside Amy Schumer to Key & Peele.

The hottest trend at the time? Comedy series that didn’t always feel the need to be so funny.

These were personal shows, often rooted in their creators’ biographies, and following in the footsteps of Lena Dunham’s Girls and Louis CK’s Louie. (More on what became of him later.) Shows like Transparent, Master of None, and Togetherness had codified a new style, one that would continue to flourish under Trump and which Vulture would eventually dub post-comedy. It was as though people were simply less in need of laughter at the time, a tempting generalization in hindsight that doesn’t necessarily stand up to scrutiny.

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Then there was late-night TV.

As the talk shows increasingly gravitated toward Today in Trump recaps throughout the election season, they began foreshadowing how inconsequential this material would prove in the coming years. Try as they might, nobody could crack how to expose Trump through humor. He proved immune to Jon Stewart-style hypocrisy-shaming, choosing simply to create another breaking-news spectacle rather than own up to or apologize for the previous one. (Stewart himself, it should be noted, only remained at the helm of The Daily Show for just two months of Trump’s candidacy before leaving in August 2015.) Giving Trump enough rope to hang himself didn’t work either, whether it involved Jimmy Fallon tousling the candidate’s weird hair on The Tonight Show, or SNL inviting him to host. Instead, it only served to normalize him. Going long with John Oliver-style “explainer comedy” also failed to land a blow, since anyone who might’ve benefitted from seeing the damning material never did, and probably had their minds made up anyway.

Some moments from this era, like Oliver going all in on Trump’s true ancestral surname, Drumpf, have since become shorthand for ineffective #Resistance comedy. At the same time, however, late-night TV’s greatest enemy, Twitter, surfaced some lasting, incisive jokes about Trump from people either going after the great lie behind Trumpism or the unwavering certainty that it couldn’t possibly triumph.

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[Screenshot: Twitter]
Back on TV, where the potential audience was much larger, nothing could fully encase in amber the idea of Trump as total buffoon. He’d tapped into something within millions of fed-up voters around the country, at a level too deep for the surface silliness to remain the whole story. He never experienced a transcendent Sarah Palin moment where a gaffe like that fateful Katie Couric interview could combine with a Tina Fey impression on Saturday Night Live to shift public perception drastically against him.

The election ended up extremely close, probably tipped over in Trump’s favor by the black swan event of James Comey’s last-minute letter. In that moment, it no longer mattered that the comedy establishment considered Trump a joke; the nearly 60 million people who voted for him sure didn’t.

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In the end, the joke was on the comedy establishment.

Everything happens so much these days

After the election, Trump proceeded to make every issue, event, and idea in America all about him, and comedy writers had no choice but to follow suit.

Sure, he’d already been a self-centered news-generator throughout the election, but from the perch of his presidency, news networks were no longer in dereliction of duty by covering his every move; they would be derelict of duty if they didn’t.

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In the glare of a continuous roving spotlight, Trump quickly crystallized all the reasons he’d been a hard comedy target throughout the election.

How do you exaggerate the un-exaggerateable? How do you render more absurd the weirdest goddamn person who ever lived? And more importantly, how do you do so when that person is also simultaneously trying to ban Muslims from entering America and strip away millions of people’s healthcare without a replacement plan? The farcicality of life in Trumpworld, combined with the gravity of its stakes, rendered the concept of heightening impossible. HBO’s Veep, whose biting political satire hovered about half a foot above reality for five seasons, seemed to crash on the White House Lawn in the new normal. (It remained funny, but it was never the same.)

Even before the novelty wore off from Trump’s ranting, all-caps tweets suddenly becoming official presidential messages, the abundance of potential material was too plentiful to turn into comedy gold anywhere other than Twitter.

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In his first post-election special, Annihilation (2017), Patton Oswalt described the experience of getting blasted with a constant firehouse of comedy fodder as more overwhelming than professionally rewarding. (Previously, he’d scoffed at the idea that he should be thankful for the material he’d gotten out of George W. Bush’s presidency.) Other comedians, like Emily Heller and John Mulaney, also found ways to reap laughs from cleverly capturing the deluge of Trump news, rather than dwelling on the details. However, the late-night shows—which had been canonized since at least the early 1960s as where America turns for a comedic slant on the day’s news—didn’t have that luxury.

Talk shows did their best to keep up with Trump’s destructive doings and random acts of doofery, often all focusing on the same four-alarm fires. With a sharp uptick in the number of people processing the day’s news in real time, though, racing to beat Twitterers to the punchline became harder than ever. Kellyanne Conway would invent the euphemism, “alternative facts”, or Trump would tweet the brain fart “covfefe,” and those moments would be mostly wrung dry of humor by airtime. As a result, anyone who delighted in Stephen Colbert’s satirical Comedy Central series, forged in the Bush era, may have been disappointed to watch him and his fellow talk show hosts flail at punching up whatever already-bonkers thing the president said or did that day.

Over the years, the impulse to find out-of-the-box ways to cover Trump on talk shows would take the writers to some truly strange places. It just seems utterly macabre, for instance, to lightly riff on Trump’s secret police when the headline of the moment is HOLY CRAP! TRUMP ACTUALLY HAS SECRET POLICE!

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Since Saturday Night Live obviously got under Trump’s skin, it quickly became the late-night comedy show in which viewers most emotionally invested themselves.

In the same post-election episode where Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton played the piano, the show already had some incredibly insightful material. A sketch starring and written by host Dave Chappelle mined humor from white liberals being the last to see which way the wind was blowing. (Katt Williams would later joke about the white conservatives who did see it.) The following week, the show turned the liberal bubble into a literal place. Trump-era SNL was off to a smart, reflective start.

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As time wore on, SNL produced a lot of funny sketches about Trump, especially when using women to puncture the macho facade of his administration. However, the writers also seemed to take the wrong lessons from the success of Melissa McCarthy’s run as Sean Spicer. One high-profile guest star after another regularly appeared on the show to reenact the biggest political moment of the week, aping what Trump or whoever had done this time. The mere presence of Robert De Niro as Robert Mueller and Ben Stiller as Michael Cohen signaled Hollywood’s already-assumed abhorrence for Trump, and did too much of the heavy lifting in place of jokes. Politically, SNL often got stuck in comedy cruise control. While the show still has the same high highs and low lows of any era, the cold open political sketches have become reliably, thunderingly redundant.

Why bother with tweaked reenactments, when just showing actual clips of the man being weird as hell on TV, heightened by some surreal editing tweaks, can sometimes makes the same points even better.

“The right is starting to get better at comedy . . .”

When people suggested Trump would be good for comedy, sometimes it just meant that they personally found Trump funny.

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He certainly has that effect on a lot of people. Even now, when he’s clearly lost his fastball, his rallies are packed with supporters chortling like hyenas at every grievance. While President Obama could be funny—he has a sharp delivery and solid timing—he didn’t often try, and left only occasional openings for decent jokes at his expense. Trump, on the other hand, comes from an entertainment background and has both an entertainer’s need for attention and facility with getting it.

In fact, Trump’s tactical clownishness has helped keep him untouchable all these years. Any time he says something that threatens to get him in “trouble”—such as the suggestion that he remain president for life, or that people inject bleach to cure COVID-19—his handlers dismiss it as just goofin’.

Considering that the president goofs around so much, one of the keys to understanding why he hasn’t been good for comedy is what his supporters find funny.

They laughed when he mocked a disabled reporter. They love his repetitive schoolyard nicknames. They cheer his misogynist and racist jokes. They whoop it up for his petty spitefulness and trolling. Because some of those supporters had previously harnessed that same type of humor to help get Trump elected, perhaps there would be a place for it in the new mainstream. (Besides ABC’s reboot of Roseanne, which didn’t exactly work out as planned.)

“The right is starting to get better at comedy and it’s making lefties nervous,” InfoWars stooge Paul Joseph Watson tweeted in 2018, a statement that, ironically, is now often used to denote a particularly unfunny joke by conservatives on Twitter.

Interestingly, the comedy that Trump’s fans tend to eat up consists mostly of elements that left-leaning comedians had largely discarded over the previous decade. It was no coincidence that the Trump era coincided with what has been dubbed, incorrectly, as cancel culture. (“Consequence culture” would be more accurate.)

The #MeToo movement arrived in late 2017, at least partly in response to the election of a man who has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women. Although it started with Harvey Weinstein, pretty soon the movement also found its way to comedians like Louis CK, who had been dogged by persistent rumors of masturbating in front of women comics, and to a vastly lesser extent, Aziz Ansari, who appeared as just a garden-variety sex pest in one woman’s shadily rendered account. The fact that Louis CK had become one of the top comedians in the world while his fans ignored the many hints of his fiendish side led to a lot of introspection in certain comedy circles.

The influx of post-#MeToo comedic sensitivity, though, eventually led popular comics such as Bill Burr and Dave Chappelle to rail at length against “cancel culture”—picking up a lot of Trump fans along the way.

Of course, those new right-wing fans, who simply can’t abide the idea of taking anyone to task over jokes, were conveniently AWOL around the time Michelle Wolf was being torn apart for making a joke about Sarah Sanders’ eye makeup during her 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner roast. Nor did they go to bat for Pete Davidson when he was getting death threats for making fun of Dan Crenshaw on SNL that same year. And who can forget all the despisers of cancel culture who forgot to defend Kathy Griffin after she posed with a photo of a dummy Trump’s severed head, and lost a substantial portion of her livelihood as a result.

Funny how that works.

The Orange Man? He’s Bad, folks

In the darker days of the last four years, the ability to make fun of Trump at all felt like a tiny act of resistance in itself. He could force us to think about him far more often than any rational human would care to, but he couldn’t control what we thought about him.

Laughing at the expense of a cruel dictator is cathartic, so it’s easy to get hung up on how ridiculous this would-be autocrat looks and sounds. The desire to laugh at Trump, though, quickly led to an overreliance on puddle-deep jokes about his oafish appearance—that impossible hair, radioactive skin tone, penchant for ill-fitting clothes, and his museum-bear posture. At some point, Trump became the comedic safe space where you could not only fat- and body shame with total impunity, but make the same easy homophobic jokes about Trump and Putin over and over again.

Comedians both pro and otherwise also fell into a trap of thinking that if Trump’s supporters only saw the right over-the-top angle of his grotesqueries, the fever would break. If we could all just agree that he was Mango Mussolini or Pineapple Pinochet or the Cheeto in Chief, somehow that might be enough. But while it may have been funny to describe the Nerf-like hue of Trump’s well-foundationed flesh before he started providing cover for white supremacists, afterward there were much more pertinent things to discuss regarding Trump and skin color.

Because he is indeed such a distinct and distinctly preposterous person, though, one of the most common modes of comedy in the past four years has been impersonation.

Trump is now one of those people just about everyone thinks they can approximate, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, though very few people can actually pull off. Because these interpretations of Trump are so popular, the most comedically successful ones are those that bring something more to the table than mere verisimilitude.

Anthony Atamanuik, who created The President Show in 2017, picked up on certain mannerisms early on, but more importantly, he used his platform to predict future Trumpian developments with astonishing accuracy. (The jury’s still out on whether Trump will fulfill the below prophecy of declaring victory in 2020 even if he loses, although he did recently refuse to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.)

In the years since Atamanuik and Alec Baldwin kicked off the Trump-impersonation renaissance, Sarah Cooper’s lip syncs have brought Trump’s child-diva affectations to the forefront. Drag Race UK star The Vivienne has highlighted how his otherworldly confidence seems borrowed from the drag world. And most recently, comedian James Austin Johnson has perfected the unchartable trajectory of Trump’s train of thought.

There is something kind of sad, though, about the urgency with which people share any impersonation of Trump, or random funny video about him, and it’s gotten even sadder as the years have passed. “It would be a real shame if everyone shared this video,” someone might tweet about a Trump speech with fart noises edited into it.

Why do people still seem to believe any of these funny things might matter in some way? Sure, you laugh to keep from crying, but it’s probably also because there’s a worn-down nubbin of hope in there somewhere as well.

What it may come down to is that America entered the Trump era fully primed for a comeuppance that never came. (A feeling that should be familiar to anyone who also lived through the George W. Bush era, though at least Bush was widely despised on a bipartisan level toward the end.) Even though Republicans in power clearly decided at the start to always back up Trump so long as he delivered the promised tax cuts and judiciary changes, the hope remained that a reckoning was en route. Accepting that it might never arrive goes against every ingrained morality lesson most of us learn as kids, making that hope feel ever more desperate. So people kept waiting for a magic bullet in the form of a Mueller Report or an impeachment hearing (or a Pee Tape, lol), and when legal channels failed, the hope that a hilarious video might do the trick burned that bit brighter. How fitting it would be if comedy is what took down the authoritarian clown!

And if not, well, hey, at least we would be entertained in the meantime.

The laughingstock of the world

Before he became president, Trump would often deride his predecessor by claiming, “The whole world is laughing at us.” But despite the fact that being mocked in public by President Obama is rumored to have inspired Trump’s presidential ambitions in the first place, he either never seems to know, or doesn’t care, that the whole world is now, inarguably, laughing at him.

In fact, the most revealing moment of his final presidential debate occurred when opponent Joe Biden referred to the man who frequently compares himself with the Great Emancipator as “Abraham Lincoln here,” and an outraged Trump attempted to prove he had not been owned.

What poetic justice that a member of the Obama administration successfully mocking Trump in a very public way might mark the final days of the Trump era.

Needless to say, though, that era has not been very funny overall.

The streaming wars have produced way too many so-so comedy shows, making it harder for the good ones to find their audience, let alone break out. Meanwhile, Netflix went from 27 original comedy specials in 2016 to 54 in 2017, inciting an arms race that flooded the market with half-baked hours, and diminishing what had once been the pinnacle achievement of a comedian’s career.

Comedy Central has quietly gotten rid of its most interesting shows in an effort to save money that ended up costing its identity.

Many comedians who turned into activists, or counter-activists, got their wires crossed and had trouble figuring out when they were supposed to be doing what.

The modestly budgeted studio comedy was on its way out of theaters even before the pandemic made it so that very few movies command a theatrical release these days.

Finally, speaking of the pandemic, Trump’s handling of it relegated almost all live comedy to Zoom and outdoor venues from March 2020 until a yet-to-be-determined future date, perhaps the most damning data point of all about whether Trump has been good for comedy.

Just as the current president himself never laughs, laughter has been stifled by his very existence over the past four years. When he is gone, whether it be after the coming election or later on, no comedian will play a winsome tune on piano; they will dance a jig atop an effigy of him.

And nobody watching will care whether or not the dummy is orange.


A wildly incomplete list in no order of good Trump-era comedy

Some of the best comedy of the past four years has satirized Trump in an oblique way—like Succession, Tim Heidecker’s Mister America, and The Righteous Gemstones—or satirized various facets of the world Trump inhabits, without focusing on the man himself—like the new wave of front-facing videos from comedians like Brent Terhune, Kylie Brakeman, and Blaire Erskine—or didn’t seem to give much of a damn about Trump at all—like A Black Lady Sketch Show, Blockers, and Girls Trip.

Here are some of our favorites from all three categories:

Sorry to Bother You
The Favourite
Ramy
Pen15

Ziwe Fumodoh’s Instagram show
Las Culturistas (Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang) live show “I Don’t Think So, Honey”
I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson
Sam Jay – 3 in the Morning
Corporate
Long Shot
Brigsby Bear

Roy Wood Jr – Father Figure
The House

John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch
Dolemite Is My Name

Desus & Mero
Rough Night
The Big Sick

Game Night
Hasan Minhaj – Homecoming King
Jerrod Carmichael – 8
Mike Birbiglia – The New One
Palm Springs
Borat 2
A Simple Favor
BlacKkKlansman

Hannah Gadsby – Nanette
Ali Wong – Hard Knock Wife
Chris Rock – Tamborine
Julio Torres – My Favorite Shapes
Big Mouth
Booksmart
Detroiters
American Vandal
An American Pickle
Atlanta
What We Do in the Shadows
The Death of Stalin

Los Espookys
Nailed It
Black Monday