On election night I watched Stephen Colbert’s live Showtime special, I suppose, in the vague hopes that it would resemble the Colbert Report in some capacity, though deep down I knew those days are long behind him. It was hard to watch. As Colbert has said since, he and his writers did not prepare for the possibility that Donald Trump might win. What resulted, aside from prewritten segments that ended up making no sense, was a sad demonstration of late night’s inability to deal with the real world. His guests, including the comedian Jena Friedman and Bloomberg journalists Mark Halperin and John Heileman, were often visibly on the verge of tears, and yet Colbert pressed them to find a bright side in the still-unfolding calamity. Then, on learning that Trump was rapidly approaching 270 electoral votes, he lamented, “I can’t put a happy face on that, and that’s my job.”
Is it the job of comedy to put a happy face on bad news? To find the bright side of something that means real, lasting unhappiness for millions of people? I don’t think so. But the culture of late night comedy demands that we get a punchline at the end of our day, or in the Tonight Show’s case, a children’s birthday party. The rush to find what is funny about a thing often ends up diluting or ignoring what is legitimately horrible about it, as is frequently the case on Saturday Night Live. Not all comedy is late night comedy, but the most visible parts of the culture influence the rest, and the formulaic allure of monologue jokes has proven especially influential. The reason so many stand-up comedians tell the same basic jokes about the same basic things is because they’re all approaching mostly the same news, pop culture and life experiences with the mindset of “Okay, how can I turn this into a joke?” Within this narrow scope it becomes difficult to see crises for what they truly are—complex, devastating, irreconcilable with most norms of civil life—especially if your goal is also to make a roomful of people laugh hard enough and often enough that you get booked again. Hence, I think, the pervasive sense that finding the funny supersedes any other possible goal of comedy; that a funny joke, no matter its subtler social or political messaging, justifies its own existence. It’s the same logic under which Trump refused to disavow the divisive, hateful rhetoric of his campaign: “No, I won.”
This is not to say one cannot tell a good joke about a terrible thing, nor that there is less merit to absurdist bits that elide the issues of the time. Distraction can be as enlightening and fulfilling as polemic. All things considered, comedy ain’t worth much, and these days it seems worth much less. Satire couldn’t save us from Trump. Viral late night clips couldn’t save us from Trump. Twitter couldn’t save us from Trump and it sure couldn’t save us from the hordes of white supremacists he granted new, horrifying power. As the fog-like specter of January 20th grows closer, bringing with it a darker and more humorless future than we’ve known in some time, it’s hard not to wonder: What’s the point of jokes?
So we asked. We asked actors and producers, filmmakers and humorists, standups and improvisers. We asked, among other things, what they see as the role of humor in an illiberal, potentially authoritarian Trump administration; how comedians should balance escapism with truth-telling; whether it is the job of comedy to search for a silver lining; and what change comedy can actually make. Here are their answers, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Alice Wetterlund, People of Earth
You have to be careful, because we can see that this administration is capable and very determined to destroy anyone who speaks out against them. And one thing Trump is very aware of is that if you burn him good, that sticks around a lot longer than someone debunking one of his bullshit tweets. Really the only thing he seems to be bothered by is comedians. So, comedians are both more important and more compromised in this new reality.
My job gets harder. I won’t try to be grandiose and define the role of comedy because I assume you’re interviewing men and they will probably do that. But I will say that if people like my comedy, it’s because I get as close to being who I really am when I perform. And I am not someone who is confused about what the fuck is going on, so I have to speak to that reality. If I curtail my jokes because I’m scared about repercussions, I’m not really doing my job, so whats the point.
The idea that political satire and truth telling are this new menace to people’s good time at the comedy club is a historical fallacy. Comedy has always been about truth. I have jokes about farts. But I don’t fly out to Nashville or Salt Lake City to lull already complacent people with escapist silliness. I get onstage because theres people who are tired of living through this bullshit and tired of feeling powerless. I get onstage to show people that you can actually be scared, lonely, outspoken, feminist, angry, and you can still have fun with that. And if people, mostly men, get uncomfortable or heckle me, guess what? I still have the mic, this is still my show. The women in the audience appreciate that.
You don’t have to put a happy face on a tragedy. I don’t know why anyone would. The people out there who got him elected aren’t laughing. They are screaming into a void. At the very least I get to have fun in my life because I don’t believe Beyoncé is a pizza terrorist and that gay people are trying to make my dad gay or whatever the fuck thing is keeping those people up at night.
Comedy isn’t about finding a silver lining on a cloud that is actively shooting you with bolts of lightning. You talk about the cloud, and how it’s shitty, and everyone laughs together because Jesus is that cloud really shooting bolts of lighting and raining and also theres black ash coming from it and it has glowing red eyes? Holy fucking shit! Fuck that cloud, right?
Dan Pasternack, Producer (Portlandia, Seeso’s Debate Wars)
Comedy under Trump will be essential. Maybe more than ever. The strongest voices in political comedy have always risen to their full potency in scary times and under the most extreme circumstances. Mort Sahl, Tom Lehrer, Dick Gregory, The Smothers Brothers Show, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report were all at their most vital during the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate and the Bush/Cheney regime. Can comedy make a change? Possibly. But we should also calibrate our expectations of our satirists. Despite the brilliance of these comic minds, Nixon was elected twice. So was W. But if all the practitioners of political comedy can do is help get us through it all, that’s enough.
However here is my hope. A quarter of the nation is red. Another quarter of us are blue. I don’t see either of those groups defecting and switching sides. BUT… fully half of the nation opted out of this election because nothing moved them enough to get involved. I do think laughter can reach some of those people. Not all. Not even most. But some. Let’s go get ‘em.
Stephen Falk, You’re The Worst
Satire of even the harshest beast, like The Great Dictator, have their role in undermining and poking the air of reality into a completely unreal situation. It seems that no matter how much facts and reality are put forward, it doesn’t matter. We’re somehow in whatever that post-truth thing is, so it feels to me like the only way to make certain people wake up is to shine a big dumb funhouse mirror on what’s going on—to make people realize, “Oh, this is not really a comedic exaggeration; this is exactly whats happening.”
Caitlin Barlow, Teachers
Comedy is a way to get eyes on an issue. No one wants to look at a pile of shit, but if I say, “Hey look at how ridiculous this pile of shit is!” and I make you laugh, you’ll focus on the pile of shit, think about it and maybe be moved to action to get rid of it. My job as a comedian is to shine a light on problems in our culture, further a national dialogue and keep people from slipping into complacency. We have a lot of work ahead of us for the next four years.
Sarah Pappalardo, co-founder of Reductress
At the root of comedy is truth, and it’s our job to speak the truth. In times like these, it might not always be the kind of truth that makes you laugh, but it’s our job to shine a light not just on the glaringly absurd stuff happening right in front of us, but the more insidious parts of our culture that were ultimately the cause of this political shift. What’s going to separate the women from the girls in the next four years is to see who takes the easy road and makes fun of his hair or how he talks, and who tries to go deeper and find some of the harder truths for us to face. Laughs, to me, are an afterthought.
Beth Newell, co-founder of Reductress
As a satirist I prefer jokes speak to the truth of the moment rather than distracting us from it. That said, in times like these we do sometimes need a light distraction to remind us what we’re fighting for (the freedom to make fart jokes).
Anthony Atamanuik, Trump vs. Bernie
I think comedy plays the same role it always has. Some humor will be just for pure entertainment, but in terms of satirical or political comedy I think it will continue to remain a source of both truthful and humorous insight. I also think that political comedy should work to undermine and undo any authoritarian actors, corporate as well as governmental.
Funny is the most important thing—the message, if that is the thrust of your comedic expression, has to be couched in funny material. Even though I tend to tread in the social and political criticism arenas. I certainly enjoy doing a stupid funny show that has no point.
It can be hard. I remember election night being at The View when Trump won Ohio. The audience was bummed out, the ladies of the view were bummed out, as was I. I don’t think comedy is necessarily about finding the joy in things. It is about presenting the truth, whether the truth is dark, or strange, or obvious, or joyful, or sad. The silver lining is that we are, for now, able to express ourselves freely and criticize whatever issues—social, political, artistic, et cetera. And if that changes, art, music, performance and comedy will sustain us in the possible darkness to come.
Eliot Glazer, New Girl/Broad City
I’m lucky because most of my stand-up revolves around music, but music is political, and it’s hard to avoid talking about such an unprecedented historical moment. I’m not sure how you can spin Trump into something funny when he, himself, threatens more to our democracy that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney at their worst. Those guys were easy to lampoon because they were political animals. They fit into the universe. Trump is nothing of the kind—he’s a bad guy, a villain, a demagogue of the most dangerous breed: one who doesn’t read. It’s just not funny simply because there’s TOO much to lampoon, too many things that deserve to have the wind taken out of them: dangerous rhetoric that directly threatens the lives of women, gay people, brown people, trans people, immigrants, Native Americans, and anyone who isn’t a straight Caucasian male.
We could laugh at Reagan because he was such an airhead. We could laugh at Clinton because he was a sleazy horndog. We could laugh at George W. Bush because he was the village idiot. But at least those guys could get their shit together and go through the motions of holding political office, whether for nefarious reasons or not. But Donald Trump is a joke, a sociopathic game show host hellbent on doing whatever it takes to get attention like a trained monkey. He doesn’t read, he doesn’t write, and he doesn’t condemn the worst of humanity before he does Rosie O’Donnell. Voting him into office is not different that voting in Chuck Woolery or Pat Sajak or Wayne Brady, as long as those guys kept mum on rancid hate crimes done in their name, striking fear into the hearts of young children nationwide. No big deal.
In all honesty, It would be great if we could make fun of President Trump for his synthetic mullet the color of cloudy urine. But he’s dangerous, and if we stop to laugh at the “small” stuff, we forget—and thereby normalize—that the small stuff IS the big stuff, and all of the stuff in total makes him a direct threat to freedom and the very things that already make America great.
Keisha Zollar and Andrew Kimler, Applying it Liberally
The role of jokes during the Trump administration is more important than ever. They serve to provide levity during these stressful times and to avoid normalizing hatred towards marginalized people.
Jokes help empower people to speak up and say, “hey, you’re right, that’s totally fucked.” It’s easy to make jokes that are superficial about Trump because he looks like a walking talking orange clown, but now more than ever, it’s important to use comedy to dismantle the system. It’s now more important to dig deeper than superficial blows. Comedy won’t always do the best at punching up and dismantling the oppressive systems, but hell we damn will try.
Lynn Bixenspan, Relationshit at QED
“Joy” seems like the wrong word. Laughter doesn’t always come from a 100% happy, care-free place. Comedy can also illuminate truths in a way that makes a pointed statement. Sometimes it’s an escape but sometimes it’s a different spin on reality.
Andy Richter, Conan
I’m a TV comedian, but I’m a TV comedian that’s fairly apolitical in my professional life. As a private person I’m very political and very involved. Honestly, one of the reasons I’m not a political comedian is because I don’t know how to make a lot of stuff funny. A lot of it just feels too serious to me. I don’t want to make light of things, and quite frankly I don’t want to be impartial when it comes to politics. The notion that “oh, I’m doing political comedy, so I have to give it to both sides equally”—I don’t feel like doing that. I’m a Democrat, and that isn’t to say there isn’t some fun to be poked at Democrats, but that doesn’t interest me that much. I don’t think the scale is weighted equally. I think that one side’s a lot more fucked up than the other. And I can’t imagine people not thinking that.
The show I work on, the show I’ve been working on the bulk of my career, is hosted by Conan O’Brien. He’s of the belief that doing the kind of absurdist comedy that we do is possibly more valuable in the long run, to humanity, than to make salient points based on today’s headlines. And it’s a choice that he’s made. It’s something that’s suited to his personality and actually to my personality, too. If I had my own show I don’t think it would be a Daily Show or a Samantha Bee show. It would be silly nonsense. When it comes to making comedy, that’s the way I’m driven.
But we are on a show that is somewhat topical, and we were aware that with Trump coming in that he’s not Mitt Romney, he’s not John McCain, you know, a Republican executive politician. He is a whole different breed, and if you do make jokes about him as if “here comes the new Republican guy” you are kind of normalizing a lot of aspects of him that shouldn’t be normalized. You can’t just treat him as, “here comes another guy with his tax breaks for the rich,” or “boy there sure are a lot of white folks in his cabinet.” Yeah, there are a lot of white people in his cabinet, but he’s pussyfooted and played footsie with white supremacists, basically. He has white nationalist fans. He’s endorsed by the KKK. He was aided and abetted by the goddamned Russians. Putin’s ideological hero is a guy that preaches a doctrine of white male supremacy. All these things are dovetailing in a way that aren’t particularly funny. So if you’re going to make jokes about it, you’ve got to make sure that you also touch on the horror.