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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Thomas Middleditch, Silicon Valley

I think it’s really tricky. I think we’re all in a position where we all want to speak our minds, but we don’t want to alienate the other half, because talking and communicating with the other half is how potentially we can get to the next level of this whole thing. And that goes both ways, for whatever alt-right comedians there are out there reading this. You want to talk about the elephant in the room, but you also want to be finessed about it. And I know I’m definitely not that on Twitter—I’m like, “Fuck you, Trump!” which doesn’t get me many good responses. So I don’t know. The solution will present itself over time

Erin Gibson and Bryan Safi, TVLand’s Throwing Shade

If people can’t see a silver lining themselves, we can at least hand them umbrellas to keep them from getting soaked in this election’s torrential downpour of liquid shit. I’m sure we’ll have a tough job balancing entertainment with truth-telling. But we just need to approach it the same way a gymnast balances on a beam—by asking, “Do I have the skill and the daring to pull this off, or will this literally get me killed?” Best-case scenario we’re in a full-body cast.

Katie O’Brien, Teachers

Before the election, I spent my day to day life as a comedian making jokes online and writing my television show, Teachers, with my five female co-stars. My life was easy. It was fun! I watched reality TV! I ate frozen yogurt! I even routinely checked my blood pressure at Rite Aid because, well, why not?! Life was good because I knew, like every other dumb happy liberal, that Hillary Rodham Clinton was going to be our 45th president, and that we were going to shatter that highest and hardest glass ceiling, and that everything was going to be just fine because that’s how my sheltered, well-educated liberal life—which is exclusively shared with other sheltered, well-educated liberals—had worked out so far. Oh, how wrong I was.

As I watched the electoral votes come in, my stomach turned. Pennsylvania? Red. Wisconsin? Red. Michigan? Red! I even pathetically blurted out “Hawaii?” knowing we were already dead in the water. “What just happened?” I said aloud to my fiancé. Donald J. Trump, a man I knew from reality TV as a slinger of steaks and faux business advice, just won the presidency. Unfortunately so did his Muslim ban, his wall, and his deportation promises.

I sat there crushed, thinking about my future. I thought about my female friends and their reproductive rights, my LGBTQIA friends, my Muslim friends, my Mexican friends, my black friends. All of them, I can only assume, feeling marginalized and separated from the new Trumped-up version of America. A sickening realization came over me: The only group protected by making America great again is the white man.

So what do we do now as a group? As a comedienne, where do I personally go from here? Do I encourage everyone I know to join me in the woods for a Jonestown 2.0 as a means of recognizing Armageddon as we know it? Dramatic but tempting, and it would make a powerful statement as they cleared out our bodies, shamefully saying to themselves, “we should have gotten rid of the Electoral College.” Idealistic for sure, but then another realization came over me—one that I am embarrassed to admit since it took me so long to form. I am going to use this unique comedy platform I have to speak out and fight for what I unequivocally believe is right. I am not going to stay silent. I will speak out and fight for the rights of women, minorities, the disenfranchised, and for everyone else Donald Trump orally cast aside during his campaign as a way to garner votes from those white men. How rich is the irony that white men think they are the ones who are being oppressed! As I see it, from now on my job is to never shut my nasty woman mouth.

In times like these small gestures can make a huge difference. Are you a standup comedian? End your sets with, “To all my Muslim friends, I will make sure you’re safe.” Are you a YouTuber? Sign off with, “I vow to protect my LGBTQIA friends.” Are you a late night host? Let your audience know that you don’t believe that women are disgusting pigs or that fat women are useless.

If you have a platform—and thanks to the internet, ALL OF US DO—you also have a duty to speak out and to fight for those who will no longer be heard or respected because they are not part of Trump’s vision of America. By staying silent, we give the tacit impression that we agree when we do not. I do believe we are the majority, not the other way around. Let’s make sure our vision of America is broadcast to everyone, because we have the platform to do it. In times like these we don’t need big gestures, but rather we can tactically employ small ones to make impactful changes.

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Janet Varney, Stan Against Evil

Admittedly, it’s painful to imagine comedy’s role in these early stages of accepting that this has even happened at all. It’s almost like the answer to your earnest question elicits the response one gives to a joke in poor taste: “Ugh, too soon.”

But it’s certainly a legitimate question. I just had dinner with some writer pals last night and much of the conversation centered around how meaningless some of the more “frivolous” comedic projects we’ve been developing now feel. But at the same time, working on content that has nothing to do with what many of us see as a sort of national emergency also feels justified and important in its own right.

I guess for me it will be about doing both. I think right now all I have to offer is some real gallows humor type stuff—the stuff you say after someone you love dies and you don’t want anyone but your nearest and dearest to hear, if even that. Once I’ve crawled out of that space, maybe I can start thinking about where whatever comedic voice I might have about it fits into it all. In the meantime I’ll lean hard on all of those brilliant comedians who are far better at any of it than I—the Sarah Silvermans, Dave Chappelles, and Patton Oswalts of the world.

Jensen Karp, Kanye West Owes Me $300

I was in a writer’s room for a pop culture focused talk show the week of the election. I remember how many sarcastic “when Trump wins tonight” jokes we made on November 8th, legit living in a Hollywood bubble of what the outcome would be. Those jokes were funny on the 8th, but once we walked in on the 9th, we didn’t make another joke about the election. We talked about it for maybe 10-15 minutes to start the day, and then just put our heads down and got to work on bits that would be filming at the end of November. Anytime we felt there was room for a Trump joke, or really an election gag in general, we passed on it as a group.

I found it difficult to make jokes, or even poke fun at something, without knowing the extent of what we’ll be facing at that time. In my opinion, every day we now face another crime to our civil liberties or political system, as horrific names are thrown around for the cabinet or rumors surface about how little Trump actually knew about the office or his kids being added to the transition team. Terrifying things are happening so rapidly, I’m just not laughing about it because I’m too busy trying to understand why I shouldn’t be FREAKING out. I haven’t found the humor in it yet because I don’t think our nation should feel safe. I wanted this paragraph or blurb or whatever to be more optimistic or witty, but I’m having the same problem I had in the writer’s room on November 9th. It’s not there yet.

Jon Stern, Producer (Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp)

I’ve often found a rationale for working in comedy from the Preston Strurges film Sullivan’s Travels, about a Depression-era movie director who discovers the restorative value of comedy for a downtrodden populace. More recently, my solace has been in Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. I’m physically unable to look at the news via any normal news source. Information via comedy, however, can take a WAZE-like route into your brain, avoiding the standstills of the more direct information highway. For example, a recent Last Week Tonight was able to engage me in a very enjoyable 20-minute lesson about hidden management fees in mutual fund pension plans.

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John Ross Bowie, Speechless

I feel like we’re gonna see a spike in really silly but slyly anti-authoritarian stuff, much the way the Marx Brothers rose to fame during the Great Depression and the ascent of fascism in Europe. It’s hard, though, because this crass New Yorker who lives in a Gold Phallic Symbol is trying to convince people he’s one of them—how do you build comedy off of something that is that fucking absurd? Do you point out the conjunction of snob and slob and mock that? Direct satire towards ‘poorly dressed Henry VIII’ and hope for the best? My big fear is the spike in amateur comedy—people will think “Hey! We don’t have to be politically correct anymore!” and the next thing you know they’re trading black jokes in the break room at work. That was my dad’s America, and I don’t miss it.

Anna Konkle, Rosewood

I took a trip to India quite a while ago. I fell utterly, deeply in love with almost every aspect of the people, land, culture and spirit. But I didn’t get the TV and film entertainment. Bollywood. Over the top. Generic. Melodramatic. Non-subtle. The streets of the country were gritty and powerful. The expectations rigid. Women covered their bodies, some more than others, but none looked even the tiniest bit like the Bollywood stars I saw on their televisions. And these film stars were revered as gods and traded like athletic legends on playing cards swapped only for treasure. Posters of Bollywood movies on walls of even the most conservative Indian homes. I didn’t understand the obsession.

Craving a good ole dose of entertainment from the US of A I went to see a dubbed Harry Potter movie in Mumbai. Why did I enjoy Harry Potter? Because I cared about the characters. They would be in trouble, their lives in jeopardy and the lives of the school or their society as a whole. A dark force turning the minds of friends and family, not able to trust one character’s safety beside another. It was good against evil, and I held my breathe when good was in trouble. The audience around me, on the other hand, laughed far more than they gasped. There wasn’t much silence at all for those two hours. The moments where fear froze me sent the rest of the theater into chatter or wrapper-touching. The jokes grabbed the people around me; the pressure of a moment seemed to send them away.

I sensed a different interest in the content than I was experiencing. But now, at the heels of a governmental tragedy in the U.S., I feel myself craving a different kind of engagement with entertainment. In private, I’ve cried like my home has been intruded and now the intruder owns it. I’ve buried myself in bed for days like an active war is just around the block. And then there’s the literal rash on my body, saying, “your body isn’t yours anymore, it’s his. It’s theirs.” I know I need rest from the chaos in my mind. And I wonder, if in a country like India, where the people for so long have been victims of their corrupt democracy, realized long ago they must revel in the laughs to have energy for the hard work at the beginning of the next day.

Google defines entertainment in five ways: 1. the act of entertaining; agreeable occupation for the mind; diversion; amusement: 2. something affording pleasure, diversion, or amusement, especially a performance of some kind: 3. hospitable provision for the needs and wants of guests. 4. a divertingly adventurous, comic, or picaresque novel. 5. Obsolete. maintenance in service.

Maybe in my privileged “pre-2016 election” existence, entertainment fell under category five. Obsolete. Maybe I filed “entertainment” alone, as too simple, meaning something minor, and not deep. As an artist I’ve often reached, achingly, for my work to “mean” something. And I hurt when I feel I’ve fallen short. Which feels like most of the time. I think I’ve been overlooking the depth of levity and I find myself turning from the entertainment I watched pre-election: ironic, heady, hyper-real. I guess for now, I choose entertainment meaning something affording pleasure. Diversion or amusement. Especially a performance of some kind. If the rest of crestfallen America is feeling like I am, Bollywood, funny faces and stories that transport us far far away, might be just the entertainment induced rest needed, to get up bright early tomorrow, excavating our land in the morning sun.

Rob Corddry, Children’s Hospital

For the most part, my personal history has veered towards absurdist comedy which is not inherently political, so it’s “business as usual,” at least regarding that particular realm.

However, in light of recent events, I’m drawn to reevaluate my feelings regarding socially conscious comedy. That may sound odd given my Daily Show roots, but our philosophy at the time, at least as I understood it, was “jokes over relevance”. I don’t feel that way anymore and I’m currently reconsidering my place in all this. I should also add that I’ll be looking to masters of the art like Colbert, John Oliver and Sam Bee for my cue.

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