Comedy is Not Funny
Is political satire even possible in the age of Trump?
My first awareness of “Saturday Night Live” came pretty early in the show’s run. It was, oddly enough, the October 1978 issue of Marvel Team-up, featuring Spider-man and The Not Ready for Prime Time Players. I was living on a US military base in Germany at the time and found the issue on the Stars and Stripes newsstand there. I don’t recall whether I actually bought it. I do remember becoming a devotee of the show the next year after moving stateside. I’ve watched it off and on ever since, albeit mostly not live in recent years and fast-forwarding through everything but the political sketches and Weekend Update segment unless something else caught my eye.
Like pretty much everyone else, I’ve frequently thought the show wasn’t all that funny. Despite having their pick of the best comic writing talent and sketch performers in North America, the bits often haven’t connected with me. But I’d almost always enjoyed the political sketches. That hasn’t been true in a while.
For whatever reason, I don’t have much recollection of SNL’s takes on Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Chevy Chase’s take on Gerald Ford is legendary, but before my time. The Dana Carvey George H.W. Bush impression was fantastic. The Bill Clinton sketches by Phil Hartman and later Darrell Hammond were hysterical.
This early one was a personal fave:
The George W. Bush – Al Gore debates were must-see-TV and Will Ferrell’s continued run on Bush was great.
They never really got Barack Obama. The impersonations were well done, they just weren’t particularly funny. Whether Obama’s personality was too matter-of-fact or the writers just liked him too much, it just didn’t click. Whether they used a white actor or a black one.
Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton, though, was fantastic.
Alec Baldwin is excellent as Donald Trump but, alas, not funny in my view. Baldwin is a terrific comedic actor and I thought he made “30 Rock.” And his Trump is spot-on. The problem, though, is at least twofold. First, Trump himself is such a broad character as to almost defy parody. Second, unlike all the other presidential impersonators, it’s rather obvious that Baldwin despises the man he’s satirizing.
And I think that’s really the problem with political comedy at the moment. Even as someone much more politically conservative than I am now, I enjoyed SNL’s parodies of Republican Presidents. For that matter, I enjoyed the even more pointed parodies by Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert.
Conversely, while I dislike Trump more than any President in my lifetime, I find most attempts at anti-Trump humor unfunny. I’ve long given up on the post-Stewart “Daily Show” and Colbert’s turn on “The Late Show.” I’ve got several episodes of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” on my DVR but no longer prioritize watching them because they’ve become more vitriolic than comedic.
Similarly, while I’m disgusted with the lengths Senate Republicans went through to get Brett Kavanaugh confirmed and have written many posts arguing that his over-the-top partisanship and bald-faced lies during his hearings were disqualifying, I haven’t found the SNL takes on them all that funny. The cold opens the last two weeks simply weren’t going to be enjoyable to people who didn’t already agree with the writers’ point of view. Beyond that, they really added no insight that only satire could provide.
I thought Matt Damon did a fine impersonation that’s particularly impressive given how little time he had to prepare. He nailed it as an actor. But it was simply a slightly mean-spirited recreation of the event more than a satire. The Senate victory party cold open from this past weekend was at least legitimate satire. But, again, it was just playing to the prejudices of those who already agreed.
I’ve started listening to the Origins with James Andrew Miller podcasts’ SNL episodes that dropped a few days ago. Like the mini-series on ESPN and Nick Saban, they’re extraordinarily well done. The discussions with Lorne Michaels, Baldwin, and others on the tribulations of dealing with the Trump phenomenon in the first installment are particularly insightful. Michaels, in particular, is quite cognizant of the possibility of going too far.
But my point isn’t so much that they’ve gone over-the-top in their critique of Trump or the Republican Party. It’s that, perhaps because we’re even more polarized than we were during the Clinton and Bush eras, comedy seems to have lost its ability to serve as a bridge. The levels of rage on both sides of the divide may just bee too high to make this a laughing matter.
Dave Chappelle has done a good job with it in his most recent Netflix specials. But even his stuff isn’t so much comedy as self-confession and political commentary with some humorous observations mixed in. Bill Burr’s special right on the eve of the election was amusing as well but it was mostly of the “they’re both awful” variety; it’s easier for both sides to laugh at that.