It is safe to say that the year of our lord 2016, might go on record as one of the unfunniest years in modern history. It was certainly the year that upended both the late-night industry and satire as we know it, thanks to the presidential election. Even the shows we call “comedies” are less reliant on actual, you know, jokes. There are many questions about what we should expect from next year, some of them more dire than others, but here is one that I have been wondering about as I’ve tried to make sense of things: How will we laugh in 2017? Will we embrace gallows humor, or be totally surprised and find lightness everywhere? Will comedy embrace politics, or avoid it? Will we find the funny again, or will the whole year feel like it’s Sunday at 7 p.m. after an MDMA bender the night before?
I couldn’t answer that question, so instead I found some of the funniest people I could think of — stand-up comedians, late-night show hosts, and comedy writers among them — and asked the big questions: What is the role of the comedian in times of global anxiety? How can you possibly make another Trump joke funny? And most important, what will comedy look like in 2017? Their answers, below.
Alexis Wilkinson, writer for ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ and ‘Veep’
I think the escapism aspect of comedy is more valuable than ever when dealing with a situation such as President Trump, which is literally a Simpsons joke. Literally. It will be even more valuable to live in some sort of alternate universe in which things make sense and people are nice and not everyone’s a crazy racist sociopath. But how do we maintain that escapism? How do we stay true to our characters, but also discuss these issues?
We do find ways to deal with things like racism and sexism [on Brooklyn Nine-Nine] and, this season in particular, gun control. One of my favorite jokes this season is in episode 2 or 3, and they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to get all these guns to defend themselves in Florida. And they go in, and they don’t even need an ID or anything and they go, “Cool cool cool, our country’s broken.” We talk about how Ace Ventura is inadvertently transphobic at the end. We have characters that talk about these things and are aware of them. We’ll continue to do that.
I’m a black woman so I’m always living my politics, you know what I’m saying? Like, I already got my Jamaican citizenship lined the fuck up. We all need a backup plan. Find some rich old dude in England and just catfish the shit out of him and get yourself some papers. But there are some things I don’t want to joke about, so I don’t talk about them. And it’s not because I don’t care about them, or because they’re not happening. I’m more concerned about what I personally can do or who I can affect one-on-one, than how to make a funny quip about it. Right now, it’s about finding that balance.
Daniel Kibblesmith, writer for ‘The Late Show With Stephen Colbert’
We talk a lot about how [The Late Show] is a comedy show, not an activist network. We want to tell the truth and be really well researched and validate people’s feelings, but we’re not actually a political action committee. Although on The Colbert Report, they did a have a political action committee. Stephen said something interesting once, that Jon Stewart did not prevent George W. Bush from being elected in 2004, and he did not get George W. Bush impeached before 2008. We can tell the truth and make it really funny and educate viewers who might not watch the news. But the actual impact that we have? We made fun of Trump just as hard as anybody for a year, and we couldn’t stop him from being elected. What I need as a person in this country is people becoming more politically active and get involved in their communities. I think that comedy can help lead to that, but I think the middle step of actual action is crucial, and not mistaking satire for politics or Twitter activism for volunteering. I don’t know that a comedy show ever got anyone impeached, but it might help steer a culture of people who say, “We will not stand for this.”
It’s hard, because [next year’s comedy is] really sort of a make-a-wish-on-a-star situation. In 2017, I expect that I’ll be making a lot of jokes about Trump’s utterly corrupt Cabinet and our increasingly warlike tensions with China. But I hope that I will be making fun of his impeachment hearings.
Chris Gethard, creator of ‘The Chris Gethard Show’
I don’t want this to come off like I’m going to benefit from election results that are horrifying, but I have a feeling comedy may actually work better in the next four years, just because people need to find ways to laugh. When people are nervous or stressed or scared, they want to escape somewhere else and have a good time. But you also cannot, at this point in history, turn a blind eye when people go, “Hey, that’s bullshit.” You don’t have to alter what you do as a comedian, but you also have to understand that now, doing what you do — or what you’ve always done — is a choice that’s going to get a reaction.
My stand-up has always been very confessional, telling stories from my past. My TV show has always been the most absurd, goofy thing, but it never really dealt with politics. It’s about sticking celebrities in dumpsters or dressing Jon Hamm up in a sumo suit and having him wrestle us. [Now] I want to do my part. I also don’t want to completely betray the platform we spent years building. When people look back on this time and analyze how pop culture reacted to all this, I think there will be very clear columns of who reacted to it and who chose to maintain the status quo. You either got to adjust your brand right now or sacrifice it, and that might mean going directly at politics. And I’m also sure there’s a lot of people who aren’t going to change a thing and they’ll come out totally fine. But there’s going to be a lot of people who have meetings with their managers and agents who will say, “You can’t start talking about this stuff; it’ll taint the brand.” I think that is going to show who’s real and who’s not.
I don’t have an answer yet. I’m going to roll with the punches. And I’m going to see if things are getting better or worse. If they’re getting better, I’m going to breathe a sigh of relief. If they keep getting worse, I’m going to keep diving in deeper.
Hari Kondabolu, stand-up comedian
I don’t like to think of stand-up as activism, because if you start thinking of it as activism, you pollute why you do it. You don’t do it to get people to agree with you, you do it to make people laugh. Those are different goals, right? This isn’t slam poetry. It isn’t a persuasive essay. This isn’t a film. This is stand-up comedy. It’s an absurd thing to do. When I started writing more thoughtfully and politically and sharing my points of view, I didn’t know how to make them into jokes. I just knew how to share my point of view, and I remember how ranty and unfunny and unsatisfying that was for everybody. I’ve been able to sharpen it. But there’s a sense of urgency that I feel right now that I haven’t felt in a while. And it makes me feel like I can’t hold back and I need to be thoughtful but I need to make sure things I truly want to say are said clearly and convincingly.
At this point in my life, I don’t think of it as writing political jokes. It’s all observational. When you say “writing a political joke,” that sounds like I’m taking things in the news and trying to figure out how to make them funny. But for me, that’s not what happens. For me, it’s — this sucks! This hurts! How do I make it stop hurting? That’s personal. If you’re somebody who wants to write like that, you have to believe it. Then you need to think about what you really believe and remember that your end goal is to write a joke and be funny, and that if it’s coming from the heart, it’s the purest thing. You don’t need to overthink it at that point.
But the thing is, do we really think that people are going to be sad every minute of every day? That like even in the most terrifying moment, someone farts and no one is laughing, really? Laughter and humor isn’t just an art form. It is a survival tactic.
Lizz Winstead, cocreator of ‘The Daily Show,’ and founder of the Lady Parts Justice League
I’ll never forget when Jon Stewart left The Daily Show. People were falling to their knees and clutching their pearls and weeping. What will they do now? It’s like, why weren’t you crying at the devolution of media? And requiring more of them? The person you trust most is a comic? That’s problematic.
Tapping into the fact that you can laugh is a really good barometer that you haven’t given up hope. But comedy has to be a companion to the larger narrative. For the past 15 years, we’ve relied on certain people to literally get our news, and that needs to stop. I think the role of the comedian is really important but it’s also at the pleasure of the comedian, whether or not they want to talk about [current events]. You need available, reliable spaces to get the information that makes you feel smarter. And then you can laugh because you should laugh at absurdity, even when that absurdity is toxic and heartbreaking.
With the Lady Parts Justice League [a group of comedians dedicated to fighting legislative blocks to reproductive rights] I wanted to use humor to raise awareness and let people know what’s happening, but also to just say the word abortion without any apology, which I think is really important. A lot of times we will tell the story using pop culture. And when people hear, they go, “Oh my god I had no idea. How can I help?” It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that they’re not looking for it. Humor is proven to be an avenue into getting people to pay attention. We’re trying to tell the story outside of activist spaces and inside of spaces where people look for comedy, look for satire.
Ashley Nicole Black, writer and correspondent on ‘Full Frontal With Samantha Bee’
Our show comes back on January 11. I have no idea what we’re going to talk about. We’ll just get in the room, and everyone will talk about what interests them in the news that day. Our staff, from Sam [Bee] and [showrunner] Jo [Miller] down to the writers, reflects different kinds of people, so we’re able to speak to where a wider variety of America is. Right? If your writing room is all white men, then what they’re reading on their Facebook feeds and what they’re talking to their families about and what input they’re getting is just one viewpoint of one group of people. If you have a really diverse writers’ room, then you’re going to hear from a lot of different communities, and that’s going to inform your work.
A lot of people who watch the show probably disagree with us politically, but it’s funny, so they’re watching it. I think that what we learned in this election, and what people have been trying to warn us of for the past couple of years, is: Don’t completely stop listening to people with different opinions. I’ve gotten to talk to so many different kinds of people working on this show. There’s a real sense that we’re just not having the same conversation, and that really interests me. Hopefully if we can make each other laugh, if we can talk in a way that’s not just yelling at each other, we can start to rebuild that thing where everyone is sharing the same conversation.
Desus and Mero, hosts of ‘Desus & Mero’
Desus: What’s weird is that the next day [after the election], people were like, “You guys are the new Daily Show now.” So now we feel like we have a responsibility to point out stuff that the rest of the media is not talking about. Now we’re acknowledging that there is some social responsibility as far as what we put on the air. There’s some wild stuff you can get away with. Like, I can say, “Yo, Donald Trump is going to bring back slavery.” And you know I’m kidding. But for me to be like, “Yo, I’m just a comedian, the stuff I say doesn’t matter”? To me, it might not matter but to someone like a student or a young person looking at the show, what I say may actually become their viewpoint.
Mero: We’re only gonna get better and better in 2017. By the end of Season 2, we’re gonna be looking like Barry Bonds out here, so y’all better get ready. It’s not just gonna be Trump we’re coming for. Look at his Cabinet. There’s so many arms on the octopus that is Trump — Giuliani, Ben Carson. He’s providing so much material for fucking jokes, it’s crazy.
Desus: What I’m looking forward to [covering] is now that Obama’s not going to be in office anymore, he can finally speak his mind. We’re gonna see him on ESPN, and he’s going to be on talk shows — he’s going to be out there saying wild stuff that he can get away with because he’s not president anymore. Maybe he’ll just start clapping back at everyone who was asking for his birth certificate, or maybe he’ll take over another show. Hopefully not a late-night show that competes with ours, though.
Mero: I’m going solo at the end of Season 2. I’m going to have my own show on Oxygen, me and Oprah, talking about shit that happened in the day.
Desus: They’re gonna talk about black hair tips.
Mero: That’s what we’re going to talk about. We’re gonna talk about black hair, and Oprah is gonna show me the vegetables she picks from her garden. And I’ll be like, “Uhhh, that is so impressive, Oprah.”
These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. Nicole Bae and Haley O’Shaughnessy helped compile this piece.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer