Originally published on Crack the Spine October 19, 2017.
While my list of skills on LinkedIn include what some may call “invaluable knowledge” of Microsoft Excel and whatever “Team Leadership” means, I imagine the one general but crucial skill comedians must possess is to simply make people laugh. Straightforward enough.
Well, that’s what a high profile comedian told a friend of mine. After recently working with this man, she felt compelled to impress him with her comedic wit. Rather than treating the comedian like a regular client, she took it upon herself to speak in a language he might understand — through anecdotes and jokes. Immediately following her pedestrian attempts, he responded, “‘Being funny’ is my job, not yours.” Despite the jab at her ego and his inability to regard a mediocre up-and-comer’s feelings, he was right. The world was typically meant to serve as this man’s audience, giving him validation through laughter, and thus keeping him steadily employed. But her job as a member of an audience, though this man might not have known it due to his obese ego, was enormously more powerful than his own. Outsmarting a comedian with facetiousness of your own making is remarkably more satisfying than winning him over with a simple joke. Though, if it were me, I would have gladly accepted his laughter.
Comedy is a multifaceted means of discourse, creating stories that relay truths to its audience by a more attractive medium than blatant criticism. It is oftentimes, if not always, categorized as entertainment, but this pigeonholing strips it of its magnificence. Unlike some forms of entertainment that serve as distractions to the world, comedy as art is a direct acknowledgement of its problems. Layered with wit, satire, and irony, comedy’s purpose lies in its ability to instill power into its audience. By finding the absurdity in reality, a bizarre truth is recognized. Comedy’s ties to the political sphere create an intersection that is worth exploring, as it should not be dismissed as simple “fun.” It is much like democracy in that the audience holds the power to determine its trends and accept its commentary. Meaning, can whatever is being said make them laugh?
As with anything constructed, comedy can become obsolete due to the modernization of the culture it reflects. In lectures where a professor of mine attempted to explain jokes in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, as riveting as those 18th century men were with their whimsy, he was not rewarded the way these men might have been had they told the same joke at a bar. This professor was met with blank stares, later admitting, “A joke loses all its power when it needs to be explained.” Humor is relative to the situations of the given time, but the enduring jokes have always thrived in their ability to mock governing powers, thus keeping them in check.
The goal of any comedian is to make his audience laugh, because that, in turn, results in exposure, profit, and tolerating fans like my friend. Comedy’s influence lies not in its presenter or words, but rather, in its audience. True, the words being spoken, their delivery and relevance, are important, but the audience decides what, exactly, is funny. Its willingness to laugh means it acknowledges and accepts what is being said. It makes sense that as a group of people we are more inclined to seek out laughter; we are fundamentally narcissistic beings jealous of the fame and power we have created in others — celebrities, leaders, the rich — so why not constantly remind them that we can just as easily take it away with an embarrassing montage of faux pas or fart jokes? When President Trump and his administration chastise comedians much like they do journalists, they attempt to obscure Trump’s suppressing stance on free speech, the most powerful entity dangling over his head. Besides his hair.
In recent months, Trump’s Twitter mentions regarding Saturday Night Live have taken a dramatic turn. It is hard to imagine that back in November 2015, he tweeted:
Jarring dialogue compared to a tweet about the show following his election on January 15th, 2017:
When Donald Trump was the show’s host and thus in control of what jokes were being made at his expense (which were clearly restrained and not all that funny), he found the show “incredible.” He even claimed that his presence validated the show with “authenticity.” Since then, his complete lack of narrative command on the show’s Trump character has resulted in his constant beration of the program. President Trump agreed to Saturday Night Live when it would benefit him in popularity and poll numbers. He found it “funny” then because he supported his portrayal, namely, he could dictate what was said. During that brief hour and thirty minutes in history, President Trump had control over comedy.
Comedy’s ties to politics run as deep as the pockets of the Clinton Foundation. Past presidents and presidential candidates have appeared on a slew of late night shows, as well as SNL, in hopes of connecting with more voters. In recent years, President Obama, Senator John McCain, Governor Mitt Romney, and Senator Bernie Sanders all appeared on comedy-related programs during their respective elections. Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared on SNL in 2016 in an attempt to distance herself from the heavily constructed persona that was oftentimes critiqued for inauthenticity. In doing so, these individuals allowed the audience to view them through a much more humanizing lens — a lens that does not revolve around policy and rhetoric, but rather, silliness. It demonstrated a willingness for the candidates to acknowledge their faults, putting them in submission to the audience. The tagline of every joke comes at the expense of someone else.
NBC shows like SNL and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon were heavily criticized by Democrats and Trump adversaries for highlighting a softer side to President Trump, tossing him softballs in interviews that included hair tussling — mere days after he admitted his support for the birther movement against President Obama. Despite NBC’s later attempts to distance itself from Trump after his derogatory statements stereotyping Mexicans as rapists, the network allowed him to accentuate a different manifestation of himself, one that a majority of their audience did not want to see. In a brutal scolding of NBC, Samantha Bee blasted the network on her show Full Frontal, saying, “Why do so many Americans think playing footsie with fringe hate groups isn’t a disqualifier from polite society, much less the presidency? Maybe because that’s the message they get from entertainment giants like NBC, which gladly nurtured Trump’s celebrity for all the years he was running around… [and] show[ed] millions of Americans what a fun guy he is.”
In early March, President George W. Bush appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to promote his new book Portraits of Courage. In the interview, Kimmel mentions Will Ferrell’s SNL impersonation of him during his presidency that was neither flattering nor kind, but definitely funny. Bush claimed he was “not at all bothered” by the impersonation, and he even mentioned arguing with Lorne Michaels, creator of SNL, over who came up with the word “strategery” — himself or the SNL writers? He did ultimately take credit for the word, “misunderinformed.” Even Press Secretary Sean Spicer was able to find humor in Melissa McCarthy’s impersonation of himself, calling the SNL episode “funny” and only critiquing McCarthy by saying she, “needs to slow down on the gum chewing; way too many pieces in there.”
Bush’s and Spicer’s acceptance of the biting ridicule as well as their own lack of hostility mean they did see something worth accepting. Bush said so himself: “I love humor. And the best humor is when you make fun of yourself.” Doing so means a former leader like Bush can strip himself of power and put it in the hands of the audience. Kimmel quipped in, “Tell that to the president.” It is a submissive act, mocking yourself in order to create a favorable character, while also displaying a form self-confidence. To be able to subject yourself in such a way permits credence in the ability to eventually overcome the mocking with superiority. And when that person who also doubles as ruler of the free world submits himself (or herself if the popular vote meant anything) to the mercy of your average television-watching American, how can he not seem likeable, no matter what his policies are? Polling numbers and opinions of voters are oftentimes heavily affected by comedy, for these skits and interviews provide a means for the audience to relate to the subject being mocked. That being said, the pitfall for only receiving news through calculated satire and jokes authorizes comedy to have a biased agenda. President Trump refuses to put himself in the trajectory of comedy, namely because he believes the power rests not in the audience or citizens, but himself. And by doing so, the comedic representations of himself have only become more scathing.
Comedy and democracy align in their construction being that there is the figurehead speaking words to the masses. You can argue who or what thinks it has control, but the power is meant to be with the people. The audience’s laughter is their acceptance of what is being said, their silence at the end of a punchline a jarring rejection. A few years back, Kate McKinnon, a breakout on SNL for her impersonations of Hillary Clinton, Kellyanne Conway, and Jeff Sessions, called me on stage for what I thought would be our comedic duet, my dryness and self-deprecation accentuating her fearless spontaneity and deadpan delivery. Finally — my big break. No need to me to try and be funny. No, that came naturally. My self-deprecation certainly helped her case as she asked me, “Where is the best place for a private poop?” and how to hide a STD from your overbearing mother. The skit thrived off of my discomfort and acceptance that if I attempted to be humorous with my answers, it would appear as though I was trying too hard. McKinnon guided her questions alongside the embarrassment permeating on stage, but any sense of control rested in the hands of the audience, whose laughter dictated how much longer this could go on. Much too long, in my opinion.
To give up control, even if it is voluntary, is an extremely humbling experience. So to have a man, whose goal was to win the ultimate prize in American politics at whatever cost, enlist in the national joke being made at his expense seems unlikely. President Trump’s hatred of not only SNL, but also Hollywood is not so much in their actual mocking of him, which has been around even before his Apprentice days, but his struggle to have them accept the “alternative facts” he has curated despite the humorous character instilled by his own doing. There is some level of truth to Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of him, despite how mediocre and predictable it may be, and the audience sees that. Perhaps SNL’s hurdle to avoid is differentiating their own creativeness from the Trump administration’s natural ridiculousness. Some of the humor tends to be lost due to the writers attempts to elaborate a truthful situation that is funny in its own right; it needs not a new spin. The absurdity of comedy is its truth. By losing control of the narrative presented of him, Trump’s plan of action has been to discredit it through tweets like, “Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me.Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!” President Trump might be forgetting that the United States is a democracy — its people making the decision — not a dictatorship where he deems what is “funny.”
Trump recently waged a war with Stephen Colbert, after Colbert was slightly more vulgar than usual in his show’s monologue by saying, “In fact, the only thing your [Trump’s] mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s c–k holster.” His comments resulted in petitions to have him fired, rumored investigations by the FCC, and generalized outrage from conservatives who claimed his words were “Anti-American” and “homophobic.” And a ratings boost. Trump responded to the firestorm, not by tweeting, but rather, by calling him a “no-talent,” claiming, “[T]hey were going to take him off television. Then he started attacking me and he started doing better. But his show was dying. I’ve done his show. … But when I did his show, which by the way was very highly rated. It was high — highest rating. The highest rating he’s ever had.” Trump takes the same approach with Colbert as he does with Alec Baldwin, reshaping the narrative to match his own expectations and memories. The show apparently had the highest ratings when he was on, the exposure benefited himself and the show, Colbert is tanking, and the comedy performed on the show is mediocre. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
The importance of comedy in highlighting the missteps of Washington has been necessary for decades. Granted, it is a distorted version of the truth, but a truth nonetheless. It is much more livening to watch SNL’s take on the Democratic and Republican debates rather than watching the real deal. Comedy allows for the power to reside in its audience, not the comedian, which is something important to remember when keeping an eye on the Trump administration. Those in a democratic government have no say in anything without the backing of its people, and comedy does not allow political leaders to go unchecked. President Trump’s incessant need to remind his country’s people over Twitter that SNL is “a totally one-sided, biased show — nothing funny at all”, only distances himself even further from those who did not like him in the first place, giving them all the more reason to mock him. The delivery of a joke is nothing without its comedian, but a comedian without the laughter of his audience is only a fool.
Donald Trump, Twitter post, 7 November 2016, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/663046966180474880.
Donald Trump, Twitter post, 20 November 2016, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/800329364986626048.
Donald Trump, Twitter post, 3 December 2016, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/805278955150471168.
Donald Trump, Twitter post, 15 January 2017, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/820764134857969666.
Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, “George W. Bush/Adam Pally,” television, ABC, S15:E28, 2 March 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ir1hhpkwbo.
Samantha Bee, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, “Too Close for Comfort,” television, TBS, S1:E23, 19 September 2016.
“White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer Reacts to Melissa McCarthy’s ‘SNL’ Skit,” Extra, http://extratv.com/2017/02/05/white-house-press-secretary-sean-spicer-reacts-to-melissa-mccarthys-snl-skit/.