What is Comedy's Role Under Trump?

Keegan-Michael Key, Jen Kirkman, Rob Corddry and More on Why Jokes Matter

Comedy Features Donald Trump
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Jeff Ross, Roastmaster General

Unfiltered comedy is more important than ever. We can’t water it down. It must stay potent. Journalism is compromised and biased—making comedians the only truth tellers we have left. We are the resistance.

Ed. note: Jeff Ross Presents Roast Battle II premieres January 26th on Comedy Central.

Keegan-Michael Key, Don’t Think Twice

It’s going to be an interesting tightrope to walk because if things continue to be as ridiculous as they are, it’s going to be very difficult to satire. I think something people might want to do is extrapolate what we think the effect [of Trump’s presidency] is going to be; that’s one way to go. The other way to go is to actually try to figure out a way to relate to where his psyche is. That’s a tall order. If somebody can figure out comedically how to do that it might pay dividends, comedically. Like the show, That’s So Bush on Comedy Central? It missed the mark a little bit, as it was trying to do a parody on top of another parody, it was parodying a genre and a man, and it might’ve tweaked around the mark a little bit. But yeah, that comes to mind. How do we improve upon that, I guess?

Trying to see it from his point of view, it makes me wonder if the style of comedy that was very prevalent in the ‘90s, you know how in the ‘70s and early ‘80s the smartest guy in the room was always the hero of the movie. Stripes, Ghostbusters, the smartest, cleverest guy is always the hero. In the ‘90s, the manchild archetype was what was popular, and going into the turn of the century, when we had what one would call a buffoon in office. Now that that’s happening again, there’s going to be a new style with more of an edge because I believe a good deal of the electorate believes that this man’s actually [dangerous]. It’s funny we think of him as more dangerous, even though Bush is the one that started a war.

Adam Conover, Adam Ruins Everything

Our show is non-partisan and non-political. Instead, our aim has always been to deliver surprising, hilarious facts that will enlighten and entertain any American, from any walk of life, who watches the show. In a time when the very idea of an “objective fact” has been called into question, I think that mission is more important than ever. We’re going to do our best to help Americans think more deeply, question what they’ve been told more thoroughly, and stand up for the intellectual and democratic values that are critical to our society. And if we do it right, we’ll be damn funny doing it.

Jen Kirkman, Jen Kirkman: Just Keep Livin’?

The reason that I say I’m not a political comedian is my brain doesn’t work that way. I don’t know how to write jokes around this stuff as fast and furious as I can about my own life. So it’s a challenge because I don’t want to do jokes that normalize [Trump] and just make it seem like, “Oh, we’ve got this wacky president!” I am also despondent and I haven’t done stand-up since the election—and that’s kind of a coincidence, too. That just more has to do with the fact that I taped my special and I don’t have new material to work on yet.

But because I do personal material, I don’t want to [do stand-up] right now. I don’t think it’s right, and I feel like unless my personal material can keep highlighting the causes that I care about—like women’s issues—then I’m a little silent for right now. I do need new stuff because I’m going on tour in September and I’m sure something will come to me but, yeah, I don’t want to do Trump jokes per se.

But I think that notion that I’m a political person but a personal comedian is going to have to shift this year because I don’t wanna be another distraction for people and I also don’t wanna say the same thing that everyone else is saying. I also don’t want to normalize it with humor and I don’t want to preach at people, so I have to figure out a way to—well, I think that street harassment bit I do is a perfect example of a bit that’s political but it’s sociopolitical so I could do more stuff like that because I think, under Trump, we’re going to see a lot of women’s rights being annihilated.

So I think in that vein I probably might have more material. I don’t know if I’ll be talking about Trump directly. I’m sure there will be a whole cast of characters I can talk about. But yeah, I don’t wanna do “orange” jokes or “Oh, look at his Twitter!” It’s just too serious. I don’t have any practice in doing jokes about how our democracy as we know it is ending so it’s almost like I’m a new comic again. But I just wanna make sure that I do it right, so I’ve been rendered silent in the humor world since November 8th

Connor Ratliff, Search Party, Debate Wars

When I was a little kid, I was fascinated by animated cartoons made during WWII. I think I had watched shorts like “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” “The New Spirit” and “Draftee Daffy” before I ever learned about the events of that era in a classroom. I know for certain that I saw images of Hitler as a cartoon character (devouring a carpet in 1943’s “Scrap Happy Daffy”) before I ever saw actual real life footage of him. Thinking back, it was a bizarre introduction to one of History’s Greatest Monsters— I saw the Comedy version before I learned about the real thing.

I’ve seen it written that Western propaganda mocking Hitler infuriated him, and that characters like Mickey Mouse were banned in Nazi Germany for this reason, although I can’t personally think of a single Mickey Mouse cartoon that took on Hitler. That territory seems to have been dominated by the Warner Bros & Disney Ducks, and Bugs Bunny.

Did these cartoons make a difference? I don’t know. I realize looking at my previous paragraph that the phrase “I’ve seen it written” is just a slightly more highbrow version of Donald Trump’s “many people are saying,” so perhaps all those crazy propaganda cartoons didn’t really make much of a difference. It might be wishful thinking on my part, but I do like to think that Adolf was extremely agitated by a bunch of cartoons making fun of him.

Donald Trump  loves attention but hates being made fun of. You can tell how much he hates it by how viciously he does it to everybody else, and how utterly thrown off his game he is when someone else lands a comedic punch. It would never make it to the highlight clips at the end of the news day, but if you ever watched him fail to deliver a comeback, it was something to see. He flounders if you catch him off guard.

“Oh, you… you’re so, look at you, look at you, you’re so… oh, what a, look at you, you’re so…”

It’s like watching someone sinking into quicksand. When he has a little time to formulate a comeback on Twitter, he’ll usually default to saying something is “not funny” or has “low ratings.” He calls himself a counterpuncher but the truth is that he isn’t so great at it. He’s an aggressor who likes to pretend he’s defending himself. He knows it sounds more impressive to say that.

Garry Trudeau recently published a collection featuring decades of his Trump cartoons, dating back to the 1980s, and the book is adorned with an astonishing array of pull quotes from The Donald, who was irritated, infuriated and baffled that he had become the target of the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist’s ridicule. Donald hates being the punchline.

A popular part of his presidential origin story is that he made his mind up to run only after being made fun of by President Obama and Seth Meyers at the White House Correspondents Dinner. This may be too tidy an explanation, but it has the ring of truth to it. If so, what a terrifying thought, right? When we eventually build that time machine, do we go back to 2011 and tell those two to “go easy on him, maybe massage his ego a bit”?

In a broader sense, does Comedy change minds? It can help, certainly. Tina Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin in 2008 at the very least captured the public imagination in a way that was more influential than a thousand op-eds ever could be. This is why it’s important to pick your targets well. I’ve often wondered if a little less energy spent making Al Gore “lockbox” jokes in autumn 2000 on SNL might’ve made the difference in that famously close election. Many of the really on-target Bush jokes arrived too late, once the death toll had started to rise.

Elvis Costello  has a lyric in a song that strikes me as worth considering: “It’s a dangerous game / that Comedy plays / Sometimes it tells you the truth / Sometimes it delays it.”

I’ve read think pieces saying that Donald Trump is somehow beyond satire, that he’s so ridiculous that he’s immune to its powers. I disagree, but I do think that weak or unfocused satire can do more harm than good. I think you need to know what you’re saying, and why. Anybody can make a joke that he looks like a pumpkin with a bad wig. You think he doesn’t know what he looks like? Low-hanging fruit is fine, but if you’re going to venture into this realm, it’s worth it to be a little more ambitious.

I’m not sure if the excellent “Closer Look” segments on Late Night With Seth Meyers made any difference in 2016. For the moment, it would seem that they didn’t. However, I am heartened that they continue to do them, because they are smart and funny and I’m an optimist, so I think if they haven’t made a difference already, surely they WILL. Maybe that’s naive. Maybe I’m living in a bubble. Or maybe I just want to believe that smart Comedy always prevails, eventually. I honestly think it does.

At bare minimum, it’s a comfort to be told the truth in a funny way. I know that watching the first three seasons of Arrested Development as they aired during the Bush/Cheney years made me feel like I wasn’t losing my mind. The way the show addressed the dark side of that era as it was happening gave me some solace, even if a huge chunk of the country wouldn’t come to its senses for a few more years.

There were some comedians in 2015 who were thanking their lucky stars that Donald Trump was going to run for President who are now deeply regretting that their wish came true with a vengeance. They thought it would be a bit of silly fun to watch a reality star fall on his face, and instead a nightmare came true. In a way, those comedians were the first wave of people getting it wrong—the pollsters and pundits would essentially make the same mistake a year and a half later. So I think a lot of Comedy people also might need to take a moment and reassess before they figure out their next move. And that’s fine. It’s okay for Comedy to be confused for a little bit. Everybody else is, including The Donald.

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Jena Friedman, American Cunt

It’s difficult to be funny at the moment, partly because I’m still sad about the death of America but also because Trump is a joke and it’s hard to write a joke on a joke.

The biggest challenge, and one I am most interested in, is figuring out how to use humor to bridge the divide and reach out to all the racists—sorry “white people”—who voted for him. Also tricky will be finding ways to be critical of The Orange Scare while trying to not get arrested or “disappeared” in the fascist police state he’s about to turn our country into. I guess it’s safe to say, I’m optimistic!

Adrienne Truscott, Asking For It

Comedy might not be easy for the next four years, but it’s imperative. If there’s a way for it to be relevant, perhaps it is about laying bare, with ferocious, ruthless satire, the insanity of the truths in front of us—to use comedy as the best of the best have; to use punchlines as the smart bombs that explode any kind of silence or normalizing that might encroach in public and private spaces. To bring diverse groups of people out of their houses and in to rooms together to have emotional and social release and comic relief and fun—all that is powerful shit. Racists and homophobes and sexists don’t really have fun, they just have weird angry gatherings where they sweat and break blood vessels and wear terrible outfits. But the difference now might be that for the next four years, and starting right now, comedy isn’t about ego, or about “dying” or “killing.” Comedy was one of the only places having intelligent, challenging conversations in the mainstream during the Bush years. The kings are back in their thrones, they look real, real white, and we need court jesters—truly diverse line-ups of court jesters, court jesters of color and court jesterettes – now more than ever. But yeah, comedy feels serious as fuck right now.

Sam Reich, Producer (College Humor, Adam Ruins Everything

We made a lot of anti-Trump videos, but, given the way that internet algorithms work, we were preaching mostly to the choir. More anti-Trump videos are likely to do the same, and therefore probably won’t be very effective in terms of converting his supporters. I’m not inclined to make more of those videos unless he starts fighting back, in which case it becomes a freedom of the press issue and I’ll make videos in which he dances naked with the Devil just to annoy him.

I’ve been having this conversation with a lot of my comedy friends lately: ultimately, what’s more effective in terms improving society—Last Week Tonight or Modern Family? Last Week Tonight is very political but speaks mostly to the bubble; Modern Family isn’t political at all, but got the entire country to empathize with a gay, married couple. Ultimately, I think they probably both serve a purpose: one to mobilize our base and the other to speak subconsciously to the other side.

These kinds of questions are popping up right now because we’re all looking for more meaning in our work; to make sense of the fact that we’re sad, sick and scared, but still have to write jokes for a living. It very suddenly doesn’t seem like enough to say, “We provide the world with a welcome distraction.” Ultimately, that may be the case—politics is politics, and entertainment is entertainment—but if Trump can cross over, maybe so can we.

Amanda Duarte, Dead Darlings

In this administration, truth-telling will in and of itself be a form of escapism, so I don’t think there’ll be a problem balancing the two. I think that comedians will have an incredibly important job in the next four years—and a risky one. Satire is the sharpest arrow in the oppression-fighting quiver. So many people get their news through the lens of satire, with shows like John Oliver’s and Samantha Bee’s, and it has incredible power to move people and make them think. However, we’re dealing with a president-elect (my fingers just threw up typing that) who is such an emotional toddler that he can’t stand to be criticized or satirized, and who uses Twitter to blast and threaten anyone who satirizes him, therefore throwing raw hamburger to his base and ammo to the culture war that they define themselves by, which is the source of his power. So, we’re walking a bit of a tightrope, I think. Of course, we are all going to have to laugh at the absurdities as they unfold, and even in our bleakest hours, we will need to be reminded that this horrible national Twitter troll has tiny hands and a face like a shrimp and his third trophy wife doesn’t even want to live with him and that old men like him do this kind of final death rattle of power thirst and desire to control people because their dicks don’t work anymore and they’re freaking out. There is no happy face for some bad news, but there is room for that kind of “LOL” that you type while you’re sitting silently with a slack jaw and dead eyes. So, just remember that T***p’s dick doesn’t work, and probably hasn’t for years. LOL.

Jason Selvig, Undecided: the Movie (Netflix)

It’s a really difficult time to make jokes about politics. There was a moment after Trump won where I think people thought, “maybe he is going to appoint some qualified individuals because he obviously doesn’t know what he’s doing.” And what has he done? Appointed the scariest people possible. What’s the joke that you make about the president-elect appointing a white-supremacist to his staff? That sounds like a punchline but it’s reality. Not good! On top of that, he is living in a weird place where he is above parody because he is so over the top. The SNL debate opens were basically reenactments more than sketches.

In the last few days he got in a Twitter-war with Hamilton and called out SNL. This guy can launch a nuclear missile and he is feuding with artists. I do think its kind of empowering because your art could legitimately impact him and the country because he is so thin-skinned. If Trump saw Undecided: the Movie he might decide he needs to parachute into the inauguration to prove he’s not boring. He could miss his target and land in the Million Women March… and THAT would be funny.

Davram Stiefler, Undecided: the Movie

I think it’s incredibly hard to put a happy face on this news. I hope that will change a bit over time. Trump is such a ridiculous character that perhaps comedy itself can be the silver lining of this election result. Right now, it’s hard for me to think of anything else to which I can look forward in relation to his administration. I think it’ll be a slow road to finding any of this funny but there IS a point to making jokes about it. Laughing can take some of the sting away and it can energize people. I think humor has a place in almost every situation and this is no different. I would say, however, that there’s some added pressure to do smart stuff. Making jokes about it doesn’t necessarily mean making light of it.

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