Tomorrow, Alec Baldwin will host S.N.L. for the 17th time. He’s the most prolific host in the show’s history, but something tells me that this weekend’s casting has more to do with politics than legacy. Baldwin has been on Donald Trump duty all season (you can watch all 11 Baldwin-as-Trump sketches here), and the spoofable content is piling up.
S.N.L. is famous for its political commentary, but our particular situation feels hard to laugh at sometimes. It makes me wonder: What, exactly, is the point of political comedy? Levity? Education? Protest? Commiseration?
Laurie Kilmartin, a writer for Conan, believes it’s more about relief than anything else. “A huge space is opening for artists who want to punch back,” she told Variety. “I don’t think partisan comedy helps candidates get elected, but it does help the audience get through it.” Fair enough.
Judd Apatow also questions comedy’s power to incite change: “We would hope the brilliant satire [of] people like John Oliver and Sam Bee and Bill Maher and Seth Meyers ha[s] woken people up to things they should be concerned about, but I’m not sure if it did. I don’t know if they’re preaching to the converted or they’re helping a new, younger generation decide what they believe. It’s hard to know the impact of comedy in this regard.”
The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch recently broke down what sort of jokes he believes can bring about change and which can’t. “Many popular comedians went in hard against Trump,” he wrote, (referring to earlier in the election season), “ridiculing him as being brazenly unfit for the presidency — and, by extension, ridiculing anyone who might consider voting for him — only to find that their arguments had little effect in the places where it turned out to matter.” He goes on to call out Aziz Ansari’s political S.N.L. monologue as a middle-of-the-road success. It was clever and light-hearted enough to get through to a wide audience, but perhaps undersold the seriousness of the situation. Most effective, Crouch argues, is a joke the Trump administration tells about itself, i.e. “alternative facts,” which took on a life of its own and traversed tons of different media spaces.
Comedian Kyle Kinane of Loose in Chicago thinks stand-up and sketch comedy could bring about more than just a laugh if done the right way. “It can be more political, but maybe making fun of his hair or calling him orange isn’t the best call to arms for a revolution,” he said. “If you’re gonna make comedy about it, make GOOD comedy about it.” I definitely agree re: the hair jokes. Ditto his “tiny hands.” I just don’t see the point when there’s so much more substantively wrong with Trump.
But is it as simple as making the right joke? “There’s no such thing as a snappy five-minute evisceration,” wrote Slate’s Sam Kriss, who thinks political commentary in the commercial entertainment space will inevitably fall victim to its own business needs. “[I]n a media economy where everything is always a distraction from something else, there’s no point taking risks on sustained nastiness. And when a company’s survival depends on every post being shared as much as possible, real polemic — the kind that doesn’t make you feel secure in your prejudices but shocks and grates and summons forth the sort of bilious hatred that starts revolutions — is only going to limit your brand engagement potential.”
On the other hand, more than a few writers believe that the virality of Tina Fey’s portrayal of Sarah Palin was ultimately key to Palin’s downfall, so maybe there is some function to mainstream evisceration. Ideally, humor serves multiple purposes. “Comedy will hopefully be both a distracting source of joy and a check on Trump’s sour, bullish ignorance and potential abuse of power,” said comedian Eugene Mirman of Bob’s Burgers. “Stalin was always famously four jokes away from feeling ridiculed enough to step down and allow for a regulated, free-market economy. I think comedy will both get more political and also more silly — sometimes together, sometimes totally separately.”
There may not be consensus on comedy’s role in activism, but it’s hard to argue the virtue of levity — especially during these fraught times. (Trump-induced anxiety is a real thing.) I guess I wonder how funny Trump can really be.
“His style has rendered him, weirdly, almost comedy-proof,” wrote James Poniewozik in the New York Times. “Election parodies traditionally exaggerate candidates. But Mr. Trump exaggerates himself — he’s the frilled lizard of politics, inflating his self-presentation to appear ever larger. Satire exposes candidates’ contradictions and absurdities. But Mr. Trump blows past those, while his supporters cheer.”
Maybe this very conundrum — that Trump himself seems like a sick joke — is why making light of his absurdity doesn’t always sit right. “[C]omedians are struggling to balance the cartoonishly comedic character that is Trump with the gravity of the political situation ushered in by his victory,” reported Vulture.
What do you think? Is comedy working for you right now? To what end?
Photos by Al Levine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank and © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images; collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.