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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.