At last year’s Just For Laughs comedy festival President Trump was still inconceivable. Everybody knew it was a possibility, of course—he had officially accepted the Republican nomination a week before the highest profile comedy shows started at last year’s festival. The Clinton hagiography of the DNC was running concurrently with the fest, though—at least one comic, Sarah Silverman, performed at both Just For Laughs and the DNC—and between the faux enthusiasm often engendered by those events and the simple unbelievability that he could even be nominated, much less win, Trump jokes were almost always delivered with an unspoken “I know he won’t win, but…” Last year’s Just For Laughs was overfilled with Trump jokes, but they were almost all framed around the clear inevitability of his loss, an almost universal belief that America, as bad as it could be, was still smart or good enough to not elect this diseased sack of filth to the highest office of the land.
Well, it’s been a year. And what a year. Really, what a six months. Shit, what a six hours, we can say like clockwork four times a day, between the latest disgusting parliamentary tactics and healthcare assaults and unthinkable tweets and rank class warfare and blatant attempts to dismantle the government. The day I flew up to Montreal for this year’s Just For Laughs the media hailed John McCain as a maverick for angrily speaking against a process he just fully supported with his vote; by the same time the next day there had seemingly been four more controversies, including a tweet from Trump that vowed to bar trans people from serving in the military, seemingly without the knowledge or consultation of the military itself.
The existential weight of the Trump presidency is constant. It’s unrelenting. It’s exhausting in almost every possible version of the word, exhausting our patience, our goodwill, our faith in our institutions and fellow man. Despite a flood of Trump jokes as unceasing as these embarrassments, it’s still hard to actually tell a good joke about the guy and what he represents. His presidency is a black hole devouring everything around it, even the idea of satire.
This brings me to this year’s Just For Laughs. I’m two days in, and have seen four shows featuring a dozen or so comedians. Probably half of them have mentioned Trump, but none of them have really focused on him. Trump’s used as a stray reference or a throwaway applause line. Mark Forward, a semi-brilliant Canadian performance artist, opened his show with intentionally unsure references to that day’s politics, but the joke was that he was transparently stalling by doing “topical” humor of the kind mocked by The Simpsons 25 years ago. (“Looks like those clowns in Congress did it again. What a bunch of clowns.”) Jeff Ross’s Trump jokes during his set at the David Spade Gala were clearly warmed over from decades of making fun of the guy, including roasting him twice (as Ross mentioned repeatedly during his time on stage.) If the Lucas Bros., who are explicitly political in much of their material, mentioned Trump at all during their hourlong show, I can’t remember it; they definitely didn’t touch on him during the shortened set the next night at that same gala.
Of all the comics I’ve seen so far, Godfrey has spilled the most words about Trump, devoting half of his gala set to one of the better Trump impersonations I’ve heard, but without really saying anything about his politics. He used his spot-on Trump voice in a riff on how the President’s mouth looks and sounds like an actual asshole. (This was before Godfrey did a torrent of Asian voices that somehow killed with the Montreal crowd but probably wouldn’t sit so well with anybody of Asian descent.) Not exactly biting stuff.
I’m not trying to draw any broader conclusions from two days of a festival so far. There are a lot of factors at play here. Canada, believe it or not, is a foreign country, so perhaps some comics are trying to avoid US politics. There are dozens of shows every night during Just For Laughs, and I’ve only seen four, so it’s entirely possible every other comic on every other bill is laying into Trump. One of the shows I’ve been to was a taping for a Canadian TV special that will air months from now, so it probably wasn’t the best scenario to whip out timely jokes about US politics. It’s also hard to tell Trump jokes that don’t immediately feel like hack work, especially since he was a living, breathing punchline for decades before he was elected.
Still, despite the limited sample size and anecdotal evidence, it’s hard not to feel like stand-up is still trying to come to grips with Trump’s election, that the shock of these eight months have been so constant and wide-ranging and fast-moving that it’s trying the skills of the best comedians on Earth. And with an increasing spate of late-night talk shows spiraling out into the void, perhaps stand-up doesn’t need to tackle Trump. There’s no lack of political comedy in America right now. There has been at Just For Laughs so far, where “Justin Trudeau is hot” jokes have outnumbered Trump jabs, and that’s surprising.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. In 1968, 1972, 1980, 1988, 1992 and 1996 he voted for Pat Paulsen.