How Donald Trump is Killing Comedy
When the Physical Manifestation of Bloviating Hyperbole and Self-Satire Takes Over TV
Over the weekend, roughly 200 people (out of an arena of 20,000) walked out of Amy Schumer’s performance in Tampa, Florida as she lambasted the Republican nominee for President as an “orange, sexual-assaulting, fake-college-starting monster.”
The superstar comedian, known for her razor-sharp sketch comedy show Inside Amy Schumer and her film Trainwreck, has never shied away from politics (or political correctness). In fact, on this current tour, she has strongly advocated for stronger gun laws in the wake of two women, Mayci Breaux and Jillian Johnson (whose names she makes a point to say during every set), being shot and killed in a movie theater screening her film.
During this politically charged segment of her show, Schumer had women who’d been sexually assaulted stand while she discussed the would-be President’s alleged sexual assault. To her credit, Schumer even brought a Trump supporter on stage to discuss their views, telling security to throw out anyone who booed them during their discussion.
And yet, some people walked out, wishing Schumer had left politics at home and just brought jokes.
Another person who probably wishes comedians left politics out of their shows would be Trump himself. Also on Sunday, Trump went to (WHERE ELSE?) Twitter to claim that Saturday Night Live, where he was the guest host less than a year ago, was not only boring, not only unfunny, not only in need of retiring, but an active cog in the liberal machine that is “rigging” the election.
People look to sports, religion, and a number of other pastimes to get away from the soul-crushing minutiae of political life. But in election years, especially those without incumbents, the political realm is like a sun exploding and taking those of us in orbit down with it.
To counter, we laugh. To keep from crying.
Trump’s behavior seems ripe for the comedic picking, but how does Schumer, SNL, or any comedian begin to joke about, lampoon, skewer, or even mock someone who is setting up shop in the furthest wing of embellished rhetoric, exaggeration, and hyperbole?
When Trump toyed with a presidential run in 2012 behind a wildly incendiary and wholly debunked Obama Birther campaign, the ubiquitous refrain heard around whatever offices have instead of water coolers now was “WELL, THE LATE NIGHT HOSTS AND COMEDIANS ARE GONNA EAT THIS UP! AND WHERE’S OUR WATER COOLER?”
We expect our nation’s comedians to aptly assess, critique, comment, poke, and prod our political candidates as the last vetting process of the not-superdelegated hoi polloi. And they’ve succeeded brilliantly in the past. Will Ferrell’s turn as George W. Bush, a likable Luddite you’d like to share a beer with and then talk about over many beers with completely different people, lasted nearly a decade across stage and screen. All Chevy Chase had to do was fall down to foil Gerald Ford. Stephen Colbert stayed in character for nine years, through sketches, interviews, and frank assessments. Not only did Tina Fey pageant walk IN FRONT OF SARAH PALIN, but Fey also relished putting out 2012 Palin for President stickers a week before the 2008 election. . . while the erstwhile candidate John McCain stood feet behind her.
But so far, the blows dealt to Trump, comedic or otherwise, have mostly been his own doing. Maybe that’s by design, to somehow get ahead of an inevitable maelstrom of bad press. But I don’t know many comedians who’d kill on stage with a rendition of a physically disabled person. He’s encouraged his throngs of supporters to beat people up (usually in protest of minorities, if you needed it painted by the numbers) like a ringmaster in a 19th-century old timey bar brawl.
All of these things that he’s said, done, and doubled down on in real life sound like a really, really bad comedy writer drew them up at a late hour under an impossible deadline. And that disconnect is on display every time people say “Why doesn’t [this comedian/comedy show/character actor] go AFTER him harder?” The prevailing opinion seems to be that the usually hilarious criticisms of our politicians aren’t sticking to him. Some even fear that by talking about him and not successfully lampooning him, perhaps they’re helping Trump.
The unprevailing notion is that doing so probably wouldn’t be funny. And you’d still be asking for the comedians to go after him harder.
Parody, satire, and (by extension, in my opinion) any other joke of any kind, relies on a couple of routine building blocks. Yes, you remember that old line about dissecting comedy is like dissecting a frog. Yes, I’ve got a grocery bag full of loose frog guts over here, but bare with me. Here’s how a routine joke (that definitely won’t make you laugh right now) might be created:
One has to establish a conceit or premise (e.g. George W. Bush is a doofus). You have to escalate that conceit or premise out of the realm of statement of fact (e.g. George W. Bush is such a doofus he can’t pronounce any of the countries in his Axis of Evil). Then you either twist or double down on the conceit to reach a place that is both logically consistent with the premise but wildly outside the realm of actual possibility (e.g. “Math is very much a part of the Axis of Evil.”)
Here’s the source of the disconnect: where on Earth are you supposed to go to escalate Trump’s wildly bombastic, insensitive, and unimaginably insane statements? In comedy lore terms, this would be like Chris Farley making his entrance as Matt Foley by falling through the table. How do you go beyond to get to an unexpected punchline when the subject of the joke is hyperbole personified?
Well, there’s mimicry or impersonation, mastered in this election cycle by Anthony Atamanuik, as the Donald, in his fictional debates with Bernie Sanders facsimile James Adomian. Trumpressions (oh God no) have also been expertly dealt by SNL’s Darrell Hammond in more benign times of yesteryear, from the 1990s to 2015.
There’s also juxtaposing Trump with something that’s very normal and rote, then reveling in the disparity. Hammond’s straight recitation of Trump was recently replaced by Alec Baldwin. Baldwin’s mimicry is less dead on than Hammond’s but there’s a subtlety, and frankly, a Big Actual Movie Star™ magnetism that makes Trump’s “…grab women by the pussy…” all the more outrageous when said by Big Actual Movie Star Alec Baldwin (very closely and loudly into his own lapel mic).
Juxtaposed with a CNN correspondent or, oh, I dunno, another normal acting political candidate like Hillary Clinton? The stakes are elevated and the tension rises to a comedic pitch that can make a joke land that much harder.
But sometimes it still feels like it might not be landing as well as it could be. At least some people think that. Maybe it’s just the fact that we, as a nation, feel like we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying to hurl comedic barbs at this guy, and he remains unfelled until the election.
Other comedians, like Samantha Bee, John Oliver, and Trevor Noah, in the vein of their one-time boss, Jon Stewart, simply recite Trump’s words along with a measured, witty retort, the intelligence of which dwarfs Trump’s endlessly fact-checked and debunked sentiments. Some of these retorts include screaming in anguish into a camera. And it works. It’s often brilliant, enlightening, hilarious material reflecting the absurdity we’re all seeing.
And yet, Trump persists.
As a comedian myself, I tend to stay away from it (it being him). Most of my stand up material is stories lined with non-sequiturs and loud, theatrical characters and act-outs. Adding Trump would be like fighting fire with fire. There’d just be more fire. That’s a really stupid expression.
We’ve seen comedians struggle to capture politicos on stage. I’m not sure SNL ever figured out how to lampoon President Obama, a well known cool black guy. They went weird with Fred Armisen, and spot-on mimicry with Jay Pharoah. Jason Sudekis played well known rich robot Mitt Romney about as well as anyone can play a rich robot.
This looks like a case in which we comedians don’t know what to do with a person because of too many character traits.
My guess is that we won’t have to wring our hands too stressfully about this after a few more weeks. Unless this is a high-wire immersive Andy Kaufman bit. And if so, holy crap, I might have to vote for Kaufman.