There’s Nothing Funny about Donald TrumpPhoto courtesy of the Library of Congress Comedy Features Donald Trump
A big orange baby. Cheeto-in-Chief. The concept of overly pursed lips. You give a thousand comedians a thousand laptops and this is what you get. But it’s not comedy’s fault Donald Trump isn’t funny. He hasn’t been funny in four years and our constant need to squeeze humor from this nightmare has proved exhausting and futile. Trust me when I say I absolutely do not want to hear another Trump joke.
Despite what everyone’s most annoying coworker told us, we knew Trump was actually bad for comedy. Lord knows that has not stopped anyone from trying though. With the president in the news every day, the need to mock him follows. The problem is supply is meeting demand a little too well. There’s no more gold to mine.
Unlike most political candidates, we knew Donald Trump as a punchline and a civilian well before his campaign. He was an easy, go-to impression like Christopher Walken or JFK. And like Walken, there’s nothing fresh about a new Trump impression. He’s a hacky subject.
Part of the problem is that Trump comedy is mainstream, which doesn’t inherently make it subpar, but like many things, the over commodification of mainstream ideas often leads to a flattening of content. The product becomes overly broad and gutless in favor of being more accessible. Instead of speaking truth to power, it’s about speaking to Dave in Branson, Missouri.
Again, we’ve always known Trump as a joke, but he also held the unique position of being someone frequently let in on the joke. His Comedy Central Roast was an invitation to laugh with us. His hosting gig on SNL was an invitation into the cool kids’ club alongside Tom Hanks, Melissa McCarthy, and Alec Baldwin, the very man who would erroneously win an Emmy impersonating him. His inclusion in such iconic comedic institutions renders the later mockery fruitless. If you let him in the club you can’t suddenly kick him out and think your comedy can serve as an effective dagger into the heart of his appeal. What leg do you have to stand on after you let him sit on your couch?
Some of this content doesn’t even bother to transform his garbage into something new. The Tik Tok trend of creating content around unedited soundbites of Trump, popularised by comedian Sarah Cooper, has proven to be very popular but ultimately it’s all an empty offering. These videos take his words verbatim as users lip sync along, sprinkling in some crazy eyes and cringy smiles and calling it a day. That’s not an impression, that’s fascist karaoke.
The actual impressions we’ve been subjected to have become devoid of standards. You don’t need nuance or an uncanny vocal inflection anymore, you just need a frizzy wig, too much bronzer, and to purse your lips like you’re trying to expel them from your face. Baldwin’s Emmy is about as pure an example of giving a trophy to the most famous face in the room there ever was as his big head is about all that brings him close to a likeness of Trump. Unlike Darrell Hammond’s rudimentary impression, there was a silliness to the simpleness, but he also satirized almost a completely different person. He impersonated a version of Trump better known by his weirdest traits instead of his ugliest. And that’s a big issue; we know too much about him to accept such a narrow and sanitized portrait of the man today.
A Trump impression has to be spot-on to work or else it feels lifeless and wasteful at best and tasteless and tone-deaf at worst. Even Anthony Atamanuik’s Trump, the definitive portrayal, lost all appeal after the election (save for his truck bit from The President Show). Part of what made Antamanuik and James Adomian’s cross-country Trump vs Bernie show so entertaining was that Trump’s words, while real, were perceived by most (in hindsight, naively) as no more than a ridiculous stunt from a powerless individual, a political wannabe that will be neutralized if we do the right thing on election day. But that hope waned and both the parody and real campaigns went on. Even Atamanuik seemed to sense some direness during a live show in Atlanta I attended. After feeling tension from the audience after comparing Trump’s rhetoric to Nazism, he somewhat broke character to address the audience. Still with his patented Trump affectation in his voice, the comedian warned the audience clearly as himself that if these words are disturbing then the fact the real Trump is saying them should worry us more.
For many people, election night 2016 flipped a switch. Whether you woke up that day morbidly firm in your prediction for how the night would end or desperately hanging on to a shred of optimism, this shit suddenly became real. Suddenly, Trump stopped being funny.
Was he ever funny? No, not really. Yes, his hair is dumb. Yes, he sits weird and wears suits two sizes too big, but that’s surface level. He’s always been awful, but so are a lot of things we joke about (9/11, Hitler, cancer, etc.). But a joke is not inherently entertaining or useful just by being a joke. Comedy requires context and the context accompanying Trump jokes often nullifies their impact.
Since the election, new Trump jokes are dead on arrival, each feeling overdone as soon as they’re spoken. You can’t satirize a man who’s self-parodying, and it’s impossible to overlook the atrocities he’s inflicted upon this country in dazzling stupid fashion in favor of a laugh. It’s not that comedy is not wanted or needed during this time, but that it’s hard to be in the headspace for the subject matter anymore. It’s airplane humor being sold to plane crash survivors on day 1,386 on the deserted island.
So why is there such a demand for Trump jokes?
We know why we seek out comedy in general: To laugh, to escape, to try to make sense of the world around us. The weight of Trump’s presidency creates a constant demand for all three. People seem desperate for Trump content in the same vein we stubbornly need to refer to him as 45 instead of “President Trump,” because we refuse to validate his administration.
I see a desire for these Tik Tok videos in 2020 the same way I latched onto John Oliver’s uncharacteristically toothless Make Donald Drumpf Again segment in 2016. It wasn’t good commentary or punditry at the time either but we ate it up, sharing it far and wide in desperate hopes people that might follow us would see how ridiculous of a candidate he was. It wasn’t quality, but if people can be blinded by trivial pro-Trump bullshit, maybe you can be fixed by righteous bullshit. When the emperor has no clothes, you’ll grasp at any flimsy straw you find to try to restore some common sense.
We are so inundated with Trump content, news and comedy, that you really have to rise above the noise in order to break out. It rarely happens, and at this point, I don’t care if it ever does. No matter the style or the mouthpiece, it all falls on deaf ears.
“Can you believe he said, ‘Person. Woman. Man. TV. Camera.?’ “ YES. Yes I can. There are kids in cages and white supremacist militias patrolling cities. It’s extremely believable whenever Trump does anything stupid, malicious, or downright inexplicable. Did he try to look at a solar eclipse? Of course he did, what else would you expect?
It’s not that I can’t juggle two ideas at once, but the notion that anyone can be surprised by any soundbite after saying Mexicans are rapists, after mocking a reporter’s disability, is baffling. Who cares if he mispronounces Yosemite? We’re turning weeks long jokes and resistance merch to hock out of something that would trend for less than three hours if Kanye said it.
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.
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.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.