When Trump was elected, a sentiment I heard was “man, political satirists are gonna have a field day!”

They did not have a field day. The overwhelming consensus (both among mortals on earth and devils in hell) is that Trump-based comedy sucked: it was more boring than a male pig digging a tunnel to South Africa and hackier than Angelina Jolie and Keanu Reeves typing on the same keyboard.

There were exceptions. Tim Heidecker portrays a thin-skinned, blustering Trump pastiche in On Cinema At the Cinema. He is sometimes funny.

But overall, Trump comedy falls into two camps: jokeless “can you believe he said/did that?!?!” reactions, or juvenile “Drumpf is an ugly orange peepee poopoo cheeto Hitler fartbaby” insults that seemed more designed to hurt Trump’s feelings than to elicit on a sapient lifeform’s face the ghost of a smile.

Steve Benson, The Republic

Trump-era comedy had a horrendous heat-to-light ratio. There is only so much mileage to be had in Alec Baldwin pursing his lips and saying “yuge”.

What went wrong?

Trump was already a comedy character

The greatest comedian of the Trump years was Trump himself.

The man is hilarious. He has a diabolic gift for finding the most inappropriate thing possible to say, and then saying it. Calling Apple’s CEO “Tim Apple”. Talking about an African country called “Nambia”. Saying “Belgium is a beautiful city.” His “eulogy” for Colin Powell reads like literal satire, particularly the halfhearted backpedal at the end. “He made plenty of mistakes, but anyway, may he rest in peace!”

This overt jokiness presented a problem for comedians, because it gave them little to work with. The favorite mode of satire is to take something serious, and twist it so that it’s ridiculous. It is difficult to parody a thing that’s already funny.

I’m not even saying “Trump’s too ridiculous to parody, folks!” I’m saying he conducted himself in a broad, facially absurd way that was possibly intentional. He became famous to younger generations as a media star, after all, and surely knows how to play that game.

The cleverest thing Trump ever did was brand himself as a clown. If you’re a clown, people tend to ignore factual errors, inattentiveness, etc. You are judged by a different standard than the rest of humanity. No scandal ever sticks to you. Your gaffes make people laugh. While your opponents get dragged down by seriousness, you can skate through. Eventually, people stop caring about the clownshow. It becomes “oh, he’s just doing that thing he’s always doing.” But the question is: will people elect a clown as President? Apparently (for a brief moment in 2016, at least) the answer was yes!

Once, I was convinced by Scott Adams “Clown Genius” hypothesis: that Trump was knowingly weaponizing absurdity to judo his enemies into submission. Now, I think he mainly got lucky. He was born the way he is, and about ten fortunate things coincided (a timely scandal for Clinton, and so forth) that allowed him to become the President. He was a beneficiary of circumstance who humped the White House door until his dick picked the lock.

Regardless, lots of other people are trying to become tactical clowns. I remember seeing this Dan Crenshaw campaign ad, which turns him into an action hero who jumps out of a plane, does a Marvel landing on the hood of an antifa car, and punches through the windshield. I never saw stuff this cartoony before in US politics, at least not from major candidates. Trump paved the way.

Nobody wanted to laugh at Trump. They wanted to cheer or boo.

One of the better political parodies I’ve seen is Key & Peele on Obama. The bit I linked basically suggests that Obama’s famed “relatability” was cynical, calculating act from a cynical, calculating politician. But here’s the important thing: this is not anti-Obama. It’s basically just exploring a side to his character.

You could never do a bit that subtle about Trump. Firstly, he is not a person who has those kinds of hidden depths. And even if he did, nobody wants to explore them.

In 2016, the US was heavily polarized. The kind of “let’s just laugh at politics” bipartisanship of Yes Minister was no longer possible. Today, you have to take a side. In the media, usually a liberal side. Yes We Can, Minister.

Sara Schaefer had this to say about Trump comedy.

I was talking about this to my friend, fellow comedian Nikki Glaser, and we both agreed that in many ways, we’re too angry and scared to find the funny in Donald Trump’s rule. For me, dark material has to incubate for a really long time before it can make its way to the stage. (To give you an idea, it took me a decade to be able to find a way to write jokes about my mom’s death.) Comedians are now struggling to get the distance needed to make something awful hilarious.

And it’s not just raw outrage aimed at politicians – many of us are dealing with the emotional fallout of the 2016 election in our personal lives. We’re grappling with family members, co-workers and friends who voted for the other side. Everyone is very angry at each other. Nikki summed it up well when she said: “I hate doing Trump jokes because if a section of the audience doesn’t laugh, then I know they voted for him and then I have to spend the rest of the show hating part of my audience.” It’s a two-way street. Not even the comedians can avoid succumbing to The Great American Butthole Tightening.

For these people, comedy had become tangled up in morality and politics possibly to an unhealthy degree.

This jibes with societal shifts I noticed in the late Cracked era. Nobody, nobody gave a rat’s bum about jokes. I remember the imprecations, which usually started with preachy assertions of what comedy is or isn’t. Comedy doesn’t punch down. Comedy comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. Comedy has always been political!

It’s all well and good to try and use comedy for socially productive purposes. But…well…have you ever seen one of those Evangelicals who help the poor and needy, but underneath it is their real goal, saving souls for Christ? Yeah, it always comes out in the end. Most comedians, circa 2016, were like that. Yes, they told jokes and made audiences laugh (or at least clap)…but that was incidental. Their real purpose was to change the world.

There was a strain of thought among the left that it was almost morally wrong to joke in the age of Trump. “We should be fighting and raging and mourning, not laughing!” Others took the view that joking about Trump could be done, but it was like joking about rape: something to be done very carefully and respectfully.

Steve Almond, writing for WBUR, castigated Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, not for being unfunny, but for being calm. He wanted to see rage and fury. He asserted that the ability to make jokes at all about the incoming administration was a luxury not all Americans could afford.

“The political fate of this country isn’t a joke — especially for our most vulnerable citizens” (…) “the difference between a Biden and Trump presidency is a direct threat to your life, not a punchline” (…) “[believing otherwise is] what the voice of privilege sounds like”.

If you find Trump funny, you are a privileged white person.

Olivia Cathcart states this case even more strongly in Trump Isn’t Funny.

If tragedy plus time equals comedy, then it’s going to be a long time before any Trump jokes can pack a punch again. Trump is a tragedy but one we haven’t had any space from yet. The storm still rages and a new wound opens every day. Desperately trying to wring comedy from such an evil man is like trying to tell knock knock jokes while the Titanic’s going down. I have no interest or patience for your “zany” sketch while mid-drowning in frozen waters, and I cringe just thinking about the first way-too-soon Vice-esque movie we’ll get about this.

Nothing about Trump is funny. Nothing about him can be funny. Stop trying to force it.

Earlier, she says:

I’m so tired. I’m so exhausted. Each bombshell feels more like a fallen acorn. Not because it doesn’t matter, but because it doesn’t seem to work as a weapon against him, neither as fact nor fodder for jokes.

She reveals that she thinks of jokes as weapons. Their point is not to make anyone laugh, but to inflict damage on Trump, a person she hates. And if they are not doing that, she has little use for them.

On the other side of the aisle, conservatives who took even the mildest jabs at the President became inundated by angry Trump supporters calling them a cuck and a traitor and a RINO.

I have not discussed “conservative comedy”, but here’s a flawed but interesting video on where they were at as of 2016. They had fallen prey to many of the same ailments of the left. They were too angry to be funny. Or too something to be funny.

There was simply no room for equivocation where Trump was concerned. You were with him or against him.

Trump is confusing and complicated

As Sam Kriss once noted, Trump makes little sense. He is like a fictional character created by a bad writer.

He’s a man’s man who refuses to drink beer and eats pizza with a knife and fork. He’s the voice of Rust Belt America while being a New York liberal with a gold toilet. He’s fanatically obsessed with his appearance, yet thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to look like…that. He’s a classless boor who’s also a germaphobe. He thinks handshakes are “barbaric” and gets angry when someone dips the same nacho into guacamole twice. He’s the first President to like soccer instead of football.

His qualities are strong, but you cannot assign a one-note character to them, like you can for Nixon (“crook”), Clinton (“sex pervert”), or Bush (“dumb redneck”). It’s hard to “nail” Trump with a comedic portrayal, much as it’s hard to nail an octopus to a wall. He doesn’t appear to have an inner life that can be pulled apart. He exists as a series of flamboyant poses and gestures, many of them contradictory.

Political views? Bad news, he doesn’t have any! He’s essentially a man who likes being on TV, likes being popular, and who likes having people chant his name and applaud when he speaks. He wants to save America, not out of principle, but so that he’ll be the one to save it.

He does have strong viewpoints, but they never come from a coherent ideology. As far as I can tell, he sees a social issue on TV, gets an idea on how to solve it stuck in his head, and gets so excited he won’t metaphorically change the channel for years or sometimes decades.

“He might read something in the paper and immediately you’d get an impromptu meeting on trade,” said a person familiar with the president’s scheduling. “It’s just more impromptu than like a month in advance you have a policy time set that you’re going to work up to.”

Yes, he got sucked into the Republican Party applause-circle, and has learned to mimic their speech patterns. But he’s fundamentally not one of them, as displayed by the fact that he often forgets the script and says what he really thinks.

“I like taking the guns early. Like in this crazy man’s case that just took place in Florida, he had a lot of firearms – they saw everything – to go to court would have taken a long time, so you could do exactly what you’re saying, but take the guns first, go through due process second.” — Donald Trump

He is curiously stuck in the past. I don’t mean he’s conservative. In many ways, he’s not. His biggest interests were:

  • the war on drugs
  • inner-city crime
  • reviving US industry, particularly coal and steel
  • winning trade wars against China

These were all talking points from the 80s and 90s.

I’m not saying Trump’s concerns aren’t important. But he campaigned on them to the detriment of more timely issues. He had to be prodded hard before he reacted appropriately to, say, COVID, or the opioid crisis. Imagine a left-aligned politician who’s obsessed with overpopulation, holes in the ozone layer, and saving pandas. Yet he dived into social media addiction with mind-numbing force.

None of it really adds up to a character.

It’s hard to insult Trump without “punching down”

Given that Trump’s character is a maze of contradictions, what’s left? His physical aspect. But what can you say about that?

That he’s fat? That’s sizeist. That he’s old? That’s gerontophobic. That he has small feminine hands? Homophobic. That Melania is a trophy wife? Misogynistic and xenophobic.

Additionally, Trump’s tastes…

  • Pro wrestling
  • Junk food
  • Action movies
  • Daytime TV
  • Conspicuous spending

…Are decidedly low-class. They sound like they belong to either trailer trash or a rich black rapper. The only “high-class” activity he conspicuously engages in is golf. And making fun of golf is the only thing hackier than making fun of Trump.

Trump Fatigue

I was tired of hearing about Trump. You were tired of hearing about Trump. We were all tired of hearing about Trump. The way he seemingly seemed to insert himself into every conversation is something I remember with a shudder.

There was nothing to say about him. Nobody understood him. It was just “Trump, huh?” for four long years.

Overfamiliarity is the enemy of every comic.

Because of the extended phenotype

This is a little awkward to explain, but makes perfect sense when you think about it.

Basically, our bodies are larger—much, much larger—than we give them credit for. Richard Dawkins writes about “extended phenotypes”—the idea is that although our genes solely encode proteins via DNA bases, they do more: by modulating our behavior, they allow us alter environments in ways that benefit our (meaning their; meaning the genes) survival. From a genetic perspective, there is little difference between a beaver’s fur (a dead covering over the beaver that has undergone a form of cell death called cornification), and a beaver’s dam (a pile of gnawed sticks and logs). Both have (or neither) could be considered part of the beaver’s body. In essence, there is no real place where the beaver’s body begins or ends. Where does the life begin under our skin? We are surrounded by a tight-knit halo of death: a nebula of flaking skin and hairs dying according to a keratinocyte differentiation programme. We are humans who have modified the world to suit us. So according to the extended phenotype theory, the entire world—and shortly the universe beyond it—is also part of our bodies. My lawn needed a shave. So did my beard. I found the two concepts becoming entwined in my mind. As I started mowing the lawn, I felt bitter eruptions of pain all across my skin, like fireballs stinging me. I looked down and saw hair falling from my body as I pushed the lawnmower. Next, I started pulling up weeds. Blood began gushing from the earth, then I realized it wasn’t coming from the earth, but from my own body.

This is the reason why Donald John Trump (born June 14, 1946) was bad for comedy.

No Comments »

Comments are moderated and may take up to 24 hours to appear.

No comments yet.

RSS TrackBack URL

Leave a comment