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Tragedy Plus Time

After the 2016 election, many predicted a boon for comedy. But over the last four years, the 45th president of the United States has been nearly impossible to joke about

Rob Dobi

James Austin Johnson was sick of Donald Trump. The 2016 election broke him, the actor and comedian says. After going to therapy to help treat his rising anxiety, he tried to make sense of why a man who so thoroughly infuriated him could appeal to such a wide swath of the country. To find out, he started watching footage of the president’s public appearances. What he noticed was that coverage of Trump tended to focus on his fury and nothing else.

“The homogenous take on Trump as this angry guy—that was coming from the five seconds that CNN or MSNBC would air about a Trump rally,” says Johnson, who’s had roles in Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul and the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! Cable news would “take the most incendiary thing and forget the 90 minutes of [him] telling people their greatest wishes and dreams. He was, like, palm reading.”

Observing our 45th president led Johnson to set his mind to truly encapsulating him. He nailed down the nasally cadence and breathy voice—that was the easy part. What he was more determinedly focused on was his absurdity. Trump was, after all, someone who once went on a rant about how low water pressure was forcing citizens to flush toilets “10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once.” With every classic mode of comedy rendered useless, the only thing left to do was lean into the surreality of it all. The comedy that was successful in the Trump era didn’t speak truth to power—it looked into the abyss and simply asked, “What the fuck?”

“Once I got over my completely irked attitude about him, and that Christians selected him,” Johnson says, “it became clear that this guy is kind of hilarious.”

Over time, Johnson made his Trump bits more and more ridiculous. And by this fall, at the end of Trump’s failed reelection campaign, the comic’s self-made videos started to go viral. There’s the president criticizing the title character of Scooby-Doo for being ineffectual; the president claiming that he beat Pokémon; and the president rambling about “Weird Al” Yankovic being “mean” to Coolio for not asking him permission to parody “Gangsta’s Paradise.”

“With ‘Amish Paradise,’ what they do, they take the music and they steal the whole thing,” Johnson says in one video, which he shot while walking down a street in Los Angeles. “They just steal the music and they write new words and it’s a new song and everyone goes, ‘It’s so great how he writes new words to it,’ and suddenly it’s funny …”

The comedian zeroes in on Trump as “a dandy who inserts himself into stupid cultural conversations with no substance,” a broken, addled man desperate for affection. “This guy is all about love,” Johnson says. “He does these big shows so that he can get love. People clap for him and he feels like the special boy. It’s pathetic, but he doesn’t see it that way.”

As goofy as Johnson’s shtick was, it helped expose Trump. “Portraying him as this angry, fierce demon loses that he is developmentally stunted, underloved, and that his cruelty—it’s like at the end of Return of the Jedi,” he says. “They pull up Darth Vader’s mask and he’s just a guy under that fucking intimidating helmet.”

The problem is that the pathetic guy wielded an extraordinary amount of power. Power that satire can’t even begin to help curtail. That’s why so much comedy over the last four years—from late-night hosts’ takedowns to parody songs and stand-up bits—has failed to produce laughs. It’s hard to successfully mock someone who’s already a grotesque joke. The only humor that cut through the bleakness of the Trump era, it seems, is the humor that’s shown how nakedly ludicrous it was.

When Donald Trump announced his candidacy in an infamously xenophobic June 2015 speech, critics, journalists, and creative types asked versions of the same question: How would a Donald Trump presidency affect pop culture? The simple answer: abundantly. The self-proclaimed, self-obsessed mogul has been a ubiquitous presence, both literally and figuratively, in every cultural corner. But the more complicated answer is that his ascendance has debilitated the traditional tenets and practices of social commentary and, most exhaustingly, comedy. Skewering the president is a centuries-old American tradition, but in the face of such a vulgarian, what usually makes for good comedy has been rendered irrelevant.

Even before he became president, Trump was a joke. “Donald Trump is like what a hobo imagines a rich guy to be,” John Mulaney joked in a 2009 bit. With him as president, funny people have had a preposterously easy target. But an easy target is not the same as a good target. It is, after all, impossible to parody a parody, especially when that parody is sympathizing with white supremacists. Historically, those holding the office have attempted to mask their cruelty, corruption, and incompetence. Not Trump. No one in his position was as openly, lazily venal as him—but just as crucially, no one was as downright silly. Who else would literally hug and kiss the American flag? On top of being exhausting, the Trump era has been downright bizarre. Sketches that turned to traditional modes of parody—like Jimmy Fallon re-creating the president’s bizarre performance in an interview with Axios’s Jonathan Swan or James Corden and Shaggy singing “It Wasn’t Me” during the Mueller investigation—just couldn’t measure up to a reality that was already so ridiculous. “The essence of comedy is the child pointing at the adult, making fun of the adult,” comic Lewis Black says. “In this case, we had a child in charge. And now I’m supposed to be the adult. Well, that doesn’t work.”

The second drawback of an easy target is that everyone aims at it. Perhaps the biggest reason for the failure of Trump comedy over the last four years is the sheer surplus of it. The president’s stranglehold on the news cycle rendered originality—comedy’s most valued prize—nearly impossible. “I think everyone had a Trump bit,” says Ronny Chieng, a Daily Show correspondent who had a Netflix stand-up special released last year. But it didn’t take long for that material to go stale. “From a stand-up comedy point of view, we got over it almost a year in,” Chieng adds. “Because I think if there’s one thing I hate more than the Trump administration it’s probably hacky comedy.”

The issue was that as much as comedians might’ve liked to, Trump was impossible to ignore. “This is everyone’s lane now,” Kathy Griffin told GQ in 2018. Three years ago, Griffin lost her CNN New Year’s Eve hosting job and had stand-up shows canceled after she held up a fake severed Donald Trump head. “Maybe there was a time when comedians should only talk about X, Y, or Z, but now everybody is talking about it.”

Trump was constantly present—a reference every audience member would understand, and a topic that would provoke a strong reaction, one way or the other. “I have people that come to my stand-up shows and they’ll say, ‘Hey, why weren’t you doing more political stuff?’” says Daily Show contributor Michael Kosta.

Comics were left with two options, both of them bad: invoke him and throw their hats into an already absurdly crowded space, or ignore him and risk the opportunity to stay current—and to appear invested in the ongoing health of the nation. “You get numb to the outrageousness of the reality and you just make jokes about it, right?” says Chieng. “Because that’s your job.”

The best satire shocks people into seeing things in a way that they hadn’t before. Think “Word Association,” the Paul Mooney–written SNL sketch that ends with a righteously indignant Richard Pryor calling Chevy Chase’s racist job interviewer a “dead honky.” But Trump neutralized comedy’s capacity for surprise. As incisive as political satire like The Daily Show, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, or Last Week Tonight With John Oliver could be, there’s not much that they can say about the president that would shock their like-minded viewers. There’s nothing funny about preaching to the choir.

And for many comedians, going from jester to anchor has been a miserable experience. “I’m gonna look you in the eye, and I’m gonna tell you that Trump is bad! The news is bad!” Michelle Wolf said on her show The Break in 2018. “Which means that I, a comedian, have to do the news’s job. Not because I want to, not because it makes me feel important or gives me a false sense that I’m making a change, but because they’re out there doing their horse-and-pony show and they’re leaving me, a comedienne, to wrangle those ponies.”

And if there’s one thing comedians know, it’s that it’s very difficult to make people laugh when they’re distracted by the hooved animals on the stage.

Initially, there was one American comedic institution that embraced Trump and his campaign: Saturday Night Live. Not coincidentally, the show aired on NBC, the network that made Trump a reality television star—and bogusly burnished his legend as a skilled dealmaker—with The Apprentice. Amid protests, Trump took the stage at Studio 8H to host the November 7, 2015, episode of SNL. The lasting image from the episode is of him dancing in an eye-rolling send-up of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” music video.

“It was not enjoyable at the time and something that only grows more embarrassing and shameful as time goes on,” cast member Taran Killam, who for a short stretch did a Trump impression on the show, later admitted to NPR. “I don’t necessarily put so much weight into [the idea of] Trump hosting SNL helping him become president, but there’s definitely something where it normalizes him and it makes it OK for him to be part of the conversation.”

NBC Entertainment, which that summer had severed ties with Trump due to his “derogatory statements regarding immigrants,” defended the appearance. “At the end of the day, he was on the show for 11 minutes,” chairman Robert Greenblatt told reporters. “It wasn’t like the Earth fell off its axis.” In the end, the backlash NBC faced had minimal impact—9.3 million people watched the episode, the most viewers SNL had drawn in three years. Less than a year later, Jimmy Fallon was tousling Trump’s hair on NBC’s The Tonight Show. And a couple months after that, Trump won the presidency.

SNL opened its 2016 post-election episode on November 12 with Kate McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton, singing a version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” She ended the song by looking into the camera and saying, “I’m not giving up and neither should you.”

The performance was genuine, but it wasn’t funny. Given a chance to hammer the goonish president-elect, the once transgressive program chose to start by soothing its audience. The mood was so dour that Alec Baldwin, who began playing Trump on SNL that October, didn’t even appear.

Host Dave Chappelle was a tad more willing to cut through the maudlin bullshit. “I didn’t know that Donald Trump was going to win the election,” he said in his monologue. “I did suspect it. It seemed like Hillary was doing well in the polls and yet, I know the whites. You guys aren’t as full of surprises as you used to be.” (His closing line, however, was either too optimistic or too naive: “I’m wishing Donald Trump luck, and I’m going to give him a chance. And we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one, too.”)

The comedian later starred in the best sketch of the evening, a Brooklyn election-night party where he and surprise guest Chris Rock morbidly laughed as their flabbergasted white friends melted down at the slow realization of what was going to happen. It portrayed the kind of privileged liberal epiphany that shouldn’t have been an epiphany at all: Trump is the direct product of a nation that is, and has always been, a deeply fucked-up place.

After Trump took office in January 2017 and began implementing his noxious agenda, the network late-night talk shows dedicated hours of airtime to lambasting him. Stephen Colbert went in on the election interference scandal, going so far as actually taping segments in Russia. Jimmy Kimmel skewered Trump and the Republicans for their attempts to kill the Affordable Care Act. Among other things, Seth Meyers focused on debunking Trump’s lies. Even Jimmy Fallon gleefully clowned on the president.

The stream of criticism naturally drew the ire of the terminally tuned-in Trump, who whined on Twitter about the “one-sided coverage” and “unfunny” material. But instead of the complaints being a symbol of victory, they felt more like an unavoidable step in the content cycle: Trump does something bad, someone makes fun of him for doing it, he lashes out, and everyone moves on to his next bad thing. Owning Trump over and over never weakened him or the fervor of his supporters.

Which is why things like the May 2017 issue of The Atlantic rang so hollow. The cover featured a portrait of Baldwin wearing orange makeup and clutching a bust draped in his Trump wig. The title “Can Satire Save the Republic?” proved Betteridge’s law: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”

Rather than didactically breaking down his latest crimes, the funniest Trump-related material has embraced his inherent absurdity. Think: Vic Berger, a video editor who’s collaborated with comedian Tim Heidecker, cleverly doctoring clips of Trump in ways that help play up his strange behavior. Or comedian John Mulaney comparing the president to a horse loose in a hospital. “I think everything’s gonna be OK but I have no idea what’s gonna happen next, and neither do you,” he says during the extended bit, which he introduced to a national audience during a 2017 interview with Colbert. Or the satirical viral-story factory ClickHole creating a fake right-wing vertical called PatriotHole, which featured memes like this:

“PatriotHole gave us a show-don’t-tell way to comment on what was happening in right wing America without feeling like we were preaching to the liberal choir,” ClickHole editor in chief Steve Etheridge says over email. “By taking real elements from that culture and embodying them to a slightly exaggerated degree, our commentary became more demonstrative than explanatory, which I think, satirically speaking, is always a more effective approach. It was just cathartic, too. Like, if we have to live through this four-year nightmare then we might as well try to have some fun with it.”

Then there’s Anthony Atamanuik, a comedy writer and performer who turned his Trump impression into a TV series for Comedy Central. He first found his voice as the future president during an improv show in 2015. “Someone came out and said, ‘Mr. President,’ to start a scene. And I stepped off the back wall and I’m sure I probably did a pretty shitty riff of Darrell Hammond’s impression,” says Atamanuik. “It wasn’t like, ‘Here’s my new character.’”

Soon Atamanuik and James Adomian—who, among others, has done a hilarious impression of Trump extended universe minor character Sebastian Gorka on leftist podcast Chapo Trap House—debuted a staged fake debate: Trump vs. Bernie. In 2016, the pair embarked on a national tour, during which Atamanuik turned Trump into a clueless, gossipy cultural commentator. “I went on a whole jag about Star Trek II, about the plight of the Genesis Project,” he says. “Half of what I said as Trump had no meaning because he does that. He suddenly waxes about the Emmys or he talks about whatever.”

To fellow Trump impressionist James Austin Johnson, Atamanuik and Adomian’s show was both a revelation and an influence. “They were the first guys that I saw that turned stuff that was terrifying into funny comedy,” says Johnson.

Atamanuik, for one, didn’t exactly think what they were doing was groundbreaking: “Oh, here’s this character that would normally say these things and they’re saying these other things. That’s not new. That’s the fucking basis of comedy.”

The approach may not have been new, but it worked. And after Trump won, Atamanuik brought an idea to Comedy Central. “It was an easy pitch,” he says. “Which is Trump does fireside chats, but they’re in the style of a fucked Johnny Carson show.” On April 27, 2017, The President Show premiered with Keith Olbermann as its first guest.

Including specials, there were only 24 episodes of the half-hour comedy. But it captured a moment in time. When the TV networks called this November’s election for Biden, a clip of Trump being dragged out of a preschool kicking and screaming began making the rounds online. It was from The President Show.

A year into his term, the president’s seemingly endless parade of ugly actions had made joking about him even more joyless—and potentially more harmful—than it already was. That spring, the White House announced that Trump, a man eternally, performatively sensitive about how the media portrays him, would once again skip the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

The black-tie gala’s featured entertainer of 2018, however, appeared completely unbowed. In Trump’s absence, Wolf roasted him. “He’s not here,” she says early in her 19-minute monologue. “And I know, I know, I would drag him here myself, but it turns out the president of the United States is the one pussy you’re not allowed to grab. He said it first, yeah he did. You remember? Good.” Wolf aimed what would be her most memorable barb of the night at press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders: “I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”

While ridiculing Sanders’s appearance, the line was more about her penchant for selling Trump’s falsehoods as truth. Unsurprisingly, various right-wing figures pounced on the former. Of course the president himself weighed in on Twitter, calling Wolf a “filthy ‘comedian’” who “totally bombed,” and a handful of high-profile journalists criticized Wolf for making fun of Sanders’s looks. In a statement, White House Correspondents’ Association president Margaret Talev even maddeningly said that Wolf’s speech was “not in the spirit” of the WHCA’s mission. The comedian refused to apologize and had plenty of defenders, but not before she essentially was smeared by people who should know better.

If there was a lesson in the overblown controversy, it’s that the president and his allies’ strategy of ceaselessly attacking opponents and then claiming conspiracy when anyone is a smidge critical of them—in this case while appealing to propriety—works! Predictably, the fact that many Trump supporters have decided to collectively follow his lead and invent their own reality has been, well, bad for comedy, let alone society.

“Because there’s been the devaluation of news as truth, the accepted setups have gone away,” comedian Mike Birbiglia told GQ in 2018. “If we can’t agree on the setups, we can’t have punch lines.”

“He is so unabashed about who he is and what he does, and it can sometimes feel pointless to skewer him when he and his sycophants seem to exist in a completely different moral universe where the unconscionable is not only tolerated, but celebrated,” says ClickHole’s Etheridge. “It’s sort of like how hamsters eat their own babies—we as civilized humans know that this is obviously a fucked up thing to do, but to hamsters it’s just an easy way to get the caloric energy they need to make even more babies to eat.”

Disturbingly, it doesn’t seem like feeding time will be over soon.

This spring, a Google designer turned comic named Sarah Cooper began posting videos on TikTok that were simple in conceit but profound in effect. She was simply lip-syncing Trump’s ramblings—his comments on mail-in voting, his expertise on cleaning products. But by erasing his physical presence, Cooper isolated his bizarre words—making it slightly easier to laugh at them. The clips went viral and by the fall, she had a deal with CBS and a Netflix special.

Cooper was a rare instance of successfully aping Trump, an exception that proved the rule. But her popularity, particularly among liberals, also underscored the obvious: Even after four exhausting years, Trump continued to be an object of angry fascination. “A really frightening autocratic person showed up and that frightening autocratic person really put a scare in society and plus we unearthed all of these things that are already true about American society that we pretended weren’t true and it scared the shit out of people,” Atamanuik says. “That’s why everyone is making fun of him and [imitating] him because it’s the way people work through being freaked out.”

It’s why Johnson’s absurdist impression of Trump went viral. And it’s why you often just have to throw your hands up and laugh at the inanity, like the hosts of Desus & Mero, who three years ago dedicated an entire segment to the president’s habit of nervously moving objects in front of him for seemingly no reason.

“What the fuck?” indeed.

On November 7, five years to the day Trump hosted, Saturday Night Live aired its first episode after the 2020 election. Hours earlier, networks began officially calling the election for Joe Biden. Dave Chappelle—once again the host—delivered an uneven monologue that at once slammed Trump and urged empathy toward him and his supporters. The funniest sketch of the night featured Chappelle as an anchor interrupting a local news broadcast to narrate Trump’s escape from the White House in a Ford Bronco. Alec Baldwin first appeared in the episode as Trump, putting on the wig to give a fake concession speech and sing a sad, slow version of the Village People’s “Macho Man.” His last appearance of the evening was somehow more sickening: Standing to the left of Chappelle, he stood proudly and with a smile on his face, holding up a sign with a message to the world: “YOU’RE WELCOME!!!”

What gratitude anyone owed Baldwin, or SNL, or any comic, is unclear. Over the last four years, comedy has been both ineffectual and often unfunny. Trump-related humor didn’t open anyone’s eyes to his cruel incompetence. The president did that himself, consistently and thoroughly. Satire didn’t save the republic; it didn’t get Joe Biden elected; it didn’t even pierce the planet-sized Trump comedy bubble. More than anyone, Baldwin should know that. Four days after the election, he was back on SNL playing Trump, echoing a vow Trump made to his supporters that also harkened back to McKinnon’s 2016 plea: “I’m going to fight this thing to the bitter end. I will never give up and neither should you.”

In a way, it was fitting. This is President Trump’s final, poisonous gift to comedy: a vow to never go away. He is, Atamanuik says, “an infinite loop you can’t escape from.”

So with Trump on the way out, Atamanuik recently made a choice: “The minute he’s done, I’ll never do him again. Never. I’ll never do that voice again ever in my life.”

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