Should We Laugh at Trump?

Comedians weigh in

02.10.17
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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. 

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  • Suzan

    For us, me and my boyfriend (Europeans living in Europe), John Oliver and Seth Meyers are big parts of both information gathering (especially the indepth pieces on Last Week Tonight) and a much needed comic relief from the regular news outlets who give us the information more straight forward (and with that I mean the leftist opinions of the aforementioned hosts/their writers).

  • EP

    The comic satire is essential — particularly for Trump. It actually really bothers him because he has no sense of humor about himself. Even satire of his appointees, like Sean Spicer, pisses him off. I don’t think it is a bad thing to continually remind him that no one has any respect for him. Even Iran doesn’t take his threats seriously. He is a weak, pathetic person.

  • Alexis Thomolaris

    I’m torn on this one. As a serious sufferer of Trump-induced anxiety, (when I found out Besty Devos had been confirmed I felt like I was punched in the gut) I’m not sure if comedic relief temporarily eases the pain, or makes me think “why is an administration generating SO much content???” Isn’t that fact alone insanely alarming?! I get it, Trump is a total nut job!! But are we normalizing his crazy by turning his actions into laugh-worthy sketches? Not sure…

  • tmm16

    The comedic relief from SNL and the cast has definitely helped me during this stressful time. It’s kinda refreshing to see the skits on my timeline with all of the other political posts, including my own. I’m also a big fan of John Oliver.

    I do wonder if the satire actually bothers Trump or if he reacts like it does just to get a reaction, you know? He knows he’ll definitely get one. Maybe he doesn’t mind Alec Baldwin’s portrayal, but he knows if he tweets about it and makes a statement, the media will cover it, and the headlines will come rolling in rapidly. “Alec Baldwin, horrible actor. SNL is a failing show. Fake NEWS! Sad!”

    One theory I’m starting to consider is this entire administration’s agenda is to create controversy and an uproar throughout the country. They’re all sitting in the White House brainstorming ways to create the new ludicrous headline. Because how can a group of people feel this comfortable and confident saying and doing the things they’ve done in the last 3 weeks and sleep at night?! IDGI.

  • Kay

    You know in Harry Potter when the best way to defeat a bogart, which takes the shape of whatever you fear, is by turning it into something ridiculous? This is based in a reality- ridicule of bullies is a way to keep from letting your fear overcome you. When someone wants you to fear them, it’s because they want to control you and remove whatever power you have, and by not letting your fear of them control you, you keep your power. Trump clearly wants to be feared, which is why he threatens, insults and bullies. He hates being made fun of not only because he is sensitive, but also bc it undermines his fearsomeness. If you take an angry man seriously, he’s scary, if you don’t take him seriously, he’s just annoying. This isn’t to say there is nothing to be afraid of- there really is. But feeling fear is different from letting it rule you by hiding from what you fear, doing anything the angry man wants in order to make him happy, giving up your happiness and power just because fear asks you to. Ridicule makes it way easier to face scary people. And of course tyrants who rule by fear know this, and that’s why they take political comedy so seriously, and outlaw it and punish it with death, which always seems so out of proportion until you consider political humor’s ability to undermine the powerful.

    • Katrina Elizabeth

      Harry Potter analogy ftw

    • Suzan

      This is a wonderful break down and some great life advice to boot! Thank you for writing this down!

  • CayC

    I think that black humor is an important part of keeping sane in terrible situations. It helps that it clearly makes Trump really angry. And if we’ve lost the ability to laugh, really, what are we fighting for?

    However, I don’t think that we should fall into the trap of thinking that it is doing anything to convince racists or misogynists that Trump’s policies are horrible or that they’re on the wrong side of history. I think that our country is more divided now than it was when Tina did Palin on SNL, and while humor used to be able to build bridges, things like SNL are looked at now as an extension of the “lying liberal media.”

  • Nina

    First, I want to say that I really appreciate the message boards on Man Repeller. Reading the comments on sites like Refinery29, everyone just bashes one another back and forth. It is so refreshing to come here and engage with people who are respectful of one another’s views.

    Second, I believe that comedy helps in showing how ridiculous the Trump administration is. Everyday a new story comes out that is more disheartening than the last and I think that Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert do a great job highlighting how absurd some of these stories are (though I don’t even know if “story” would be the correct wording because, unfortunately, it is our reality). It does make me feel better to laugh, if just for a five minute clip. I would hope that it enlightens moderates and maybe even some conservatives, but party alliances seem to just be strengthening as the days go on. I also think that the media really gets under Trump’s skin, which is a (petty) comfort as well.

  • Emily

    This reminds me of the revisionist history/Malcolm Gladwell (aka Leandra) podcast about satire (I think it was entitled the satire paradox)–asking whether it really makes a difference.

  • Paula Rodio

    Of course comedy is working for me right now. Comedians are supposed to make fun of tragic situations and boy…is this a tragic time? (not a question). It is our duty as citizens to march, protest, demand, stay informed (from reputable sources), contact our senators and representatives, and most important vote. In every election, not just presidential…in 2018 we can change the senate to be a democratic majority so let’s do that. In the meantime, let’s have a good laugh every Saturday night (or every time we go on Twitter for that matter). It’s all about balance.

  • Of course comedy is working for me right now. Comedians are supposed to make fun of tragic situations and boy…is this a tragic time? (not a question). It is our duty as citizens to march, protest, demand, stay informed (from reputable sources), contact our senators and representatives, and most important vote. In every election, not just presidential…in 2018 we can change the senate to be a democratic majority so let’s do that. In the meantime, let’s have a good laugh every Saturday night (or every time we go on Twitter for that matter). It’s all about balance.