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.

 

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    Trump is the Pennywise of American politics, a sewer-dwelling, malignant clown. You can’t parody a clown.

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  2. Kathy says:

    For whatever reason, I don’t have much recollection of SNL’s takes on Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

    Johnny Carson owned the Reagan sketches in the 80s.

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  3. Kylopod says:

    I’ve mentioned this before, but the really revealing moment for me was when SNL in 2016 tried to satirize Trump’s line “Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” How did they do it? They had Baldwin’s Trump speak the line verbatim, then they cut to an image of the entire planet laughing.

    That’s the problem: Satire has to exaggerate in order to make its point, but in this case there’s nothing to exaggerate. It’s hard to come up with anything more ridiculous than what the real man has said and done.

    It’s not just the comedy shows: take also the constant references to 1984. That book isn’t funny per se, but it’s definitely a satire. Orwell was observing what he saw in the Soviet Union and other totalitarian systems and exaggerating it. What would he have thought if he learned that a US president’s lawyer would one day be saying with a straight face that “Truth isn’t truth”? I’m not sure it vindicates Orwell, because I’m not sure Orwell ever believed what he was writing about would ever become literally true. It’s like if the earth were invaded by aliens tomorrow and all those ’50s B-movies would suddenly come to look like prophecy.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I think that’s pretty much it.

    @Kathy: Yes, I recall the Carson sketches quite well. His “Yasir Arafat” phone call bit, an homage to “Who’s on first?” particularly sticks in my memory.

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  5. CSK says:

    Kate McKinnon doing “Kellyanne Conway’s Day Off” was pretty funny.

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  6. Kathy says:

    @Kylopod:

    That’s the problem: Satire has to exaggerate in order to make its point, but in this case there’s nothing to exaggerate.

    Pretty much so. Trump is like a parody of a rich, entitled, white supremacist, misogynist, among other negative character traits. How do you parody that? I think it would be funny, for one sketch, if you had him acting like a well-mannered, respectful gentleman.

    I think SNL once did a sketch with a fictional president who was illiterate. I mean really illiterate, who couldn’t read a single word. If memory serves, there was a bit where he touted a plan or policy at a press conference, holding a restaurant menu he thought contained the written plan.

    El Cheeto is not actually illiterate, but he comes close.

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  7. Ratufa says:

    @Kylopod:

    It’s hard to come up with anything more ridiculous than what the real man has said and done.

    Yes! How do you satirize Trump’s “very stable genius” comment, or events like Stormy Daniel’s describing Trump’s genitalia as “like the mushroom character in Mario Kart”?

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  8. Gustopher says:

    I never found Steven Colbert’s faux right wing character funny — it wasn’t enough of a satire of what was out there in the wild, it just seemed like a winking re-enactment.

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  9. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    My favorite late night comedian is Trevor Noah, in part because he knows that he should not be taken so serious (I think that the fact that he was widely panned by the same journalists that saw Stewart and Oliver as heroes in fact helps). His impression of Trump always make me laugh – he makes Trump sounds like a toddler, more than he really is.

    Samantha Bee takes herself too seriously. The same for Oliver – his best segments are the shorter segments, not the long and didactic segments about serious issues.

    I’m so used to the apolitical Brazilian comedy segments that I simply love the more political tone of comedy in the anglophone world.

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  10. Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    SNL Ronald Reagan – Mastermind! This was great sketch!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5wfPlgKFh8

    SNL should do a sketch of Trump as secretly Woke.

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  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Kathy:

    I think it would be funny, for one sketch, if you had him acting like a well-mannered, respectful gentleman.

    That might actually work.

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  12. James Joyner says:

    @Joe: I do remember that sketch! I didn’t remember that Hartman had done Reagan. He was really a great impressionist.

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  13. SenyorDave says:

    @Kathy: I think it would be funny, for one sketch, if you had him acting like a well-mannered, respectful gentleman.

    There was an old SNL sketch that portrayed Reagan as an incredible mastermind in private, but put on the image of a genial, uninformed president.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5wfPlgKFh8

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  14. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @SenyorDave: The best Reagan was the Reagan of Spitting Image, even if that never took off in the US:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cb71YBLCqYU

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  15. grumpy realist says:

    It isn’t political, but I had to snicker at Banksy’s latest prank.

    (OT, but Montserrat Caballe just died. A great opera singer, and a charming diva. Look for her singing “Barcelona” with Freddy Mercury on YouTube.)

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  16. Kathy says:

    @SenyorDave:

    I think I remember that one. But I also remember one where Marilyn Monroe is portrayed as advising JFK on policy in the Oval Office, and when anyone intrudes on them they begin to make out.

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  17. Moosebreath says:

    In words ascribed to Tom Lehrer, political satire became impossible once Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

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  18. Stormy Dragon says:

    For whatever reason, I don’t have much recollection of SNL’s takes on Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

    One that does stick in my mind is one from the Iran-Contra era that was set in the oval office and various people were being ushered in and out and Reagan’s characterization was erratically flipping back and forth between “amiable grandfather” and “james bond villain” depending on who was in the office from one moment to the next.

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  19. Mr. Prosser says:

    I think the best fun anyone had with President Obama was the Anger Translator of Key and Peele. Maybe someone could come up with a Sanity Translator or captive soul crying out translating for Trump.

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  20. Leonard says:

    The show is safe, which can’t be funny.

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  21. Modulo Myself says:

    SNL has not been funny in decades. You need the total scorn of West’s A Cool Million or Gaddis’ JR to hold a mirror up to Trump or his cult.

    Or weird twitter. Here’s @dril:

    ah, So u persecute Jared Fogle just because he has different beliefs? Do Tell. (girls get mad at me) Sorry. Im sorry. Im trying to remove it

    or:

    “im going to be one of thsoe guys who writes ebooks named like “Brain God: Calculation Master” then spend all day screaming at people on here

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  22. Kathy says:

    BTW, not quite on topic, but I’ve adapted a few old political jokes for Trump. Here’s one:

    Joe decides to get a new brain, so he goes to the brain store to buy one.

    The salesman shows him a few generic ones and quotes some low prices, but Joe informs him he has money for something fancy. So the salesman takes him to the showroom, where brains are kept in individual jars, and begins to describe them:

    “This, sir, is a very special brain. It belonged to a physics professor who won a Nobel prize. It’s 55 years old and it goes for $50 per gram.”

    “Not bad,” says Joe, “but I’d like to see something else.”

    “Of course, sir. Here’s one that belonged to a successful stock broker. It’s 60 years old and it’s worth $75 per gram.”

    “Nice. But how about that one with the double-walled glass case?”

    “Ah, that’s our prized possession. It belonged to Donald Trump. It’s 72 years old, and is worth $1,000 per gram.”

    “Why is it so expensive?”

    “It’s never been used.”

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  23. Tyrell says:

    I remember very well the wry humor of Bob Hope. He could poke fun at everyone and nobody was offended. Jay Leno was also great at political humor and did very good with the politicians who came on his program.
    Jerry Seinfeld remarked a while back that he probably would not be able to do his type of humor on college campuses these days. That shows how rigid and closed off a lot of people and groups have become. The least bit of satire is out now.
    Re-runs of Seinfeld’s tv shows are still being shown. I never heard of anyone being offended or any controversy by his shows.

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  24. Slugger says:

    A world in which The Hangover gets made and engenders two sequels is a world where humor does not live. And I say this as a guy who could have passed as Moe Howard when I was young.

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  25. Guarneri says:

    “Is political satire even possible in the age of Trump?”

    I knew it. I knew it!!!! Its all Trumps fault………..

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  26. Kylopod says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    His impression of Trump always make me laugh – he makes Trump sounds like a toddler, more than he really is.

    Hmmmm. I just got the impression Noah doesn’t know how to do a New York accent, so he just sort of falls back on a generic American accent when doing Trump.

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  27. wr says:

    @Modulo Myself: “SNL has not been funny in decades.”

    Let me guess: The last time SNL was funny somehow coincided with the time when you were in your early 20s.

    But it’s all about how the show has gone downhill.

    You want to compare notes, I’ll tell you the last time it was great was when Bill Murray was a regular. And it’s a complete coincidence that I was 21 when he left…

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  28. wr says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa: ” (I think that the fact that he was widely panned by the same journalists that saw Stewart and Oliver as heroes in fact helps).”

    Really? You choose what to laugh at based on how he’s perceived by people you don’t like? That’s kind of sad…

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  29. Modulo Myself says:

    @wr:

    In my twenties, I loved Mr Show. I think I liked SNL in my teens, but it was always hit or miss and beat things to death. I had a good idea that Sprockets was tedious even when I thought it was funny because of Dana Carvey. To me, early SNL is far closer to Trow’s National Lampoon in the 70s or Spy in the 80s. Early SNL is basically for adults. Everything after that…meh. I mean,I love Chris Farley to death and he was well-suited for Matt Foley, but a genius like Phil Hartman was far better in Newsradio than he was as Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.

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  30. steve says:

    Slightly OT, but your photo reminds me of the first time I ever saw Steve Martin perform. It was on the Johnny Carson show (how I will always think of it). He came out did his bit with the banjo, arrow and everything. Just blew me away. Then when he went to the sofa, the other guest (older, well established guy who name I cannot remember, Rickles?) kept trying to be funny and Martin was just os much better. Could see the older guy getting frustrated as it hit home this new young guy was going to steal his job.

    Steve

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  31. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @wr:

    Really? You choose what to laugh at based on how he’s perceived by people you don’t like? That’s kind of sad…

    Nope. I just think that material produced to pander to journalists that write articles with headlines like “John Oliver DESTROYS XXXX” is going to be less funny. Simple as that.

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  32. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’ve never much liked SNL. It’s sloppy sketch comedy held to formatted lengths that too often kill the humor – there are things that are funny for two minutes that are deadly at seven minutes.

    To me SNL is guest stars reading off cue cards. Desperate efforts to create franchise characters so the writer/performer can go do movies. Failed characters revived again and again. My only interest in it is meta: what does it mean culturally and politically. But personally, it’s just not funny enough often enough.

    While we’re at it, I also don’t think Larry David’s show is funny. I don’t lie improv, it’s self-indulgent and undisciplined and smug. As a writer it’s painful because it all sounds like a bad first draft. I don’t want the shtty first draft, I want to final cut.

    And let’s not even get started on Big Bang Theory.

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  33. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    To me SNL is guest stars reading off cue cards.

    Some. Others are more talented. I still recall when Patrick Stewart hosted. He was good.

    And let’s not even get started on Big Bang Theory.

    Which one? I haven’t analyzed it formally, but it’s like at least three different shows with the same characters. This happens often to comedies on TV if they last long enough.

    I do like “The Big Bang Theory.” In fact, it’s the only show I try to watch regularly. But I think I liked the first version better.

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  34. Kylopod says:

    @Michael Reynolds: @Kathy: I’ve never been a regular watcher of SNL. I have over the years seen many of the classic bits through specials and through Youtube, and ever since 2000 I have kept up with their presidential debates. It’s safe to say the show has had some brilliant skits, and it’s not surprising that after lasting for over 40 years the show would have many dry spells. Comedy is hard.

    I also think their role in political humor has become less effective with the rise of the Daily Show and its descendants. While the show’s writers are mostly liberals, they have always aimed for evenhandedness, and their approach is usually just to observe the latest thing a politician did or said and apply some spin to try to make it funny. The result is that a lot of their role over the years has been simply to reinforce and amplify superficial media narratives.

    Many of the impersonations over the years have been brilliant: from Dana Carvey’s HW Bush to Darrel Hammond’s Al Gore to Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin to Baldwin’s Trump. Where it lacks is in the writing and conception.

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  35. Kathy says:

    @Kylopod:

    One of the best moments in SNL was when Dana Carvey returned to host the show. He appeared as Bush the elder in the monologue, and they brought in the real former President Bush via video hook up.

    He complained that the impersonation Carvey does wasn’t accurate, but he did so imitating the way Carvey imitated him. It was hilarious.

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  36. Kylopod says:

    @Kathy: I remember seeing that at the time it aired! I was still in my teens.

    One of my favorites of the “real people going on SNL to confront their impersonators” bits was when Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci came on The Joe Pesci Show.

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  37. Kathy says:

    @Kylopod:

    Can you imagine Trump showing up like that on SNL? Or at all?

    Oh, I thought of some other way Trump could be parodied, sort of. Think of two lines said by Homer Simpson, especially when El Cheeto puts his foot in his mouth (oral anus?) and suffers the consequences. The lines are:

    1) Why do things that happen to stupid people keep happening to me?
    2) Oh! Why do my actions have consequences?

    I don’t mean saying the lines, though they’d be funny, but to play him as though every action he takes makes him think those lines.

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  38. Kylopod says:

    @Kathy: Trump actually did host SNL in late 2015. I didn’t see it, but I suspect it was softballed. Earlier this year Trump attacked “mediocre” Alec Baldwin and spoke fondly of his previous imitator Darrell Hammond. Which pretty much implies Hammond went easy on him.

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