Monday’s presidential debate was the first in history with its very own laugh track.
The evening began with a representative from the Commission on Presidential Debates reading a fairly boilerplate warning to the crowd at Hofstra University: A hundred million people are watching this thing on television, the thinking went, so for their sake, keep it down. The man himself acknowledged the announcement was made more out of routine than necessity. In 50-plus years of televised presidential debates, audience reactions had never been a serious issue before. Why should they be now?
The answer, of course, is that all kinds of things that haven’t been serious issues before have become just that in this election — an openly bigoted demagogue giving a qualified public servant a competitive race, for example. In the grand scheme of things, the rowdy crew at Hofstra will barely register as a blip in the titanic shitstorm of this election. In the context of the telecast, though, they did something incredible. They turned a presidential debate into a multi-cam sitcom, complete with studio-audience reaction.
Throughout a long and blood-pressure-spiking 90 minutes, the audience didn’t hesitate to make its feelings heard, and except for a single, halfhearted warning from moderator Lester Holt, it did so unopposed. (Holt let quite a bit go unchallenged in the debate, hence the first question’s devolution into a full-on Donald Trump screaming fest.) In fact, once it was clear they’d get a response, the candidates seemed to be openly playing to the in-house audience. Donald Trump only had to say the magic word (it rhymes with “shmemails”!) for the crowd to go wild; Hillary Clinton just had to meet a particularly preposterous Trump rant with a theatrical sigh. But the most jaw-dropping moment came as the auditorium took on a life of its own: When Trump claimed he had “a much better temperament” than Clinton, his onlookers literally laughed in his face, doing more to puncture his bravura than his opponent ever could.
It wasn’t all the spectators, either. Both candidates were playing their roles in a farce, even if one was more self-aware — and successful — than the other. Trump’s seemingly endless, sputtering interruptions turned him into a real-life Archie Bunker, a screaming avatar of outdated masculinity who won’t give in to his foil without a fight, even if it means making a fool of himself in the process. And Hillary turned into a bemused onlooker herself, laughing in Trump’s face openly and often (subtext: “This doesn’t even merit a response”) or highlighting the comedy of what had just happened (the subtext of “Just listen to what you heard!” is “Can you believe this asshole?”). The Jim Halpert comparisons were immediate; the Curb Your Enthusiasm edits came just on their heels.
Comedy has been a running theme of this election cycle: Donald Trump is a stand-up insult comic; this whole train wreck is a joke; this whole train wreck isn’t a joke, oh my God, a Trump presidency might actually happen, please stop laughing. And the sitcom, particularly the old-fashioned weekday-taping-in-Burbank kind, feels like the perfect vehicle for this comedy. After all, it’s the chosen format of our most conservative new shows, the ones that see white male heroes lament their loss of authority and get massive ratings in return — just as Trump has ever since he descended that fateful escalator.
So it was both fitting and disturbingly on-the-nose to see that framing literalized in our first of three (Jesus Christ, there are two more of these) debates. The audience was laughing. The candidates were laughing. And at home, we were laughing too, if only to keep from crying. Hillary may have “[gotten] those jokes off,” but it’s doubtful our not-actually-lovable goof learned his lesson of the week. He’ll probably still tell it like it is, though.