The jokes haven't been working. After enduring 100 days of a Trump presidency that pundits said couldn’t happen, we can declare that much with certitude. The gaffes have been repeated. The impersonations are granularly accurate. Headlines imploring us to watch irrelevant celebrities “DESTROY Trump” with canned zingers circulate and recirculate. But when the presidency is a punchline that writes itself anew every day for a hundred days, the joke is on the country that hosts the routine.
It can pretend to destabilize the performance—but comedy can also reinforce the once unthinkable reality that we’ve allowed to materialize.
The connection between comedy and political disempowerment is real. First aired in October 1975, Saturday Night Live survives as a relic of Watergate—a time when the illusion of accountability in American public life fissured and corruption oozed from the cracked façade. The show’s first famous bits were cruel parodies of unelected goofus-in-chief Gerald Ford, a forbearer of Trump’s presidential illegitimacy. Saturday Night Live never mattered less than it did during Barack Obama’s conspicuously scandal-free presidency. Its eight-year dormancy followed by a sudden spasm of relevancy, under the most widely discredited presidential administration in American history, reveals a link between comedic spectatorship and broken politics.
For the electorate, comedy is often correlated to a lack of control. If religion is the opium of the masses, satire is porn for the disempowered.
And yet there’s Trump: a cranky septuagenarian who glowers in anger and insecurity while watching SNL and expound on the show’s evils on Twitter. This past weekend, as one of the few presidents to skip the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in its 96-year history, Trump handed his satirists a moral victory. Historically, the WHCA dinner is an opportunity for the president to dish at the media while getting tweaked by colleagues and comedians. The purpose is to demonstrate that a democratic society values the free exchange of ideas and information—even in the form of humor that challenges power. Trump wanted no part of that exchange.
So just as football fans are emboldened when their cheers force a visiting team into a false start, the president’s critics—comedians among them—will continue to pile on. The jokes aimed at Trump will proliferate. In their wake, we should think twice about what we’re doing when we humor the humor.
Collectively, we want comedy to be a form of resistance. In recent history, it has been. Back when the country was suffering a similar malaise of deceit and division in the Bush-saddled 2000s, millions of Millennials started the pilgrimage of political engagement via the trinity of Jon Stewart, Steve Colbert and Dave Chappelle. With Barack Obama visiting The Daily Show on the campaign trail in 2007 and 2008, comedy helped progressive blocs articulate its resistance to the Bush administration. “What’s frightening is that you have an influence on this presidential election,” declared Fox News firebrand Bill O’Reilly when Stewart appeared on The O’Reilly Factor in 2004. “You’ve got stoned slackers watching your dopey show every night, and they can vote.”
As critical theorist Nancy Fraser wrote, the Internet beehives where Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert vids were shared were “discursive arenas where members of subordinate social groups invented and circulated counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests and needs.” A decade before Trump’s ascendancy, Steven Colbert sketched the cross-section of presidential power, public discontent and comedic provocation was sketched during the 2006 WHCA performance:
C-SPAN cameras cut to President Bush laughing nervously as Colbert compared his rise above plummeting approval ratings to the film Rocky: “This is the heart-warming story of a man who was repeatedly punched in the face.” With Bush bright red and a room full of conservatives on the ropes, Colbert pounded Bush’s post-9/11 resilience narrative: “I stand by this man because he stands for things,” Colbert declared. “Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world!”
Indeed, in the disaster-laden 2000s, the manipulation of images and symbols was central to the Bush Administration’s projection of credibility: Bush standing atop the rubble in the aftermath of 9/11 in New York; his triumphant speech on an aircraft carrier in Afghanistan; his declaration that federal emergency agents were doing “a heck of a job” in New Orleans after Katrina. In her 2009 screed Frames of War, Judith Butler wrote “throughout the Bush regime, we saw a concerted effort on the part of the state to regulate the visual field." Colbert’s sabotage of these spectacles resonated with people who challenged the president’s politics by comedically contesting his aesthetics."
It isn’t the humor of this era that's aged—it’s us. Colbert and Stewart were fine when the American left was reeling; when there was no end in sight to our embroilments in Iraq and Afghanistan and anti-war stances were still controversial; when the notion of a Black president seemed as farfetched as the idea that a Black president would one day be paid $400,000 from Wall Street executives for a speaking engagement. But just as we’re reasonably less enchanted with Obama’s “there are no red states or blue states” campaign cant, we find less comfort in watching comics—even talented, handsome ones like Hasan Minhaj—make careers out of pillorying Trump.
As a tool of resistance, humor is necessary; but in the shadow of 2000s comics whose jokes aligned with an actual political shift, it's not quite sufficient.
The experience of watching jokesters ridicule a realpolitik that had no credibility from the beginning is an inadequate proxy for resistance. In his upcoming CNN interview with neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, comedian W. Kamau Bell will probably pepper the episode with witty asides designed to discredit the alt-right. And who can forget Jimmy Fallon playfully patting Trump's hair during the 2016 campaign? These reconciliatory reaches place the burden of bridging the political divide on open-hearted liberals who are only too happy to do the devil’s bidding.
As cultural critic Chuck Klosterman put it, comedy can “unintentionally reinforce the preexisting world by not attacking the ideological foundations an institution claims to be built on.” To be effective, comics have to go for the jugular, even when they’re incentivized to rub the hair. With membership in unapologetically leftist groups like Democratic Socialists of America swelling since November 2016 and the Democratic Party devolving into a petri dish of prettified elitism, the public mood has swung toward discontent with superficial solutions to deep-seeded problems. Comedians who engage this pendulum in the center—and not on the hard left—risk losing all relevancy. Contemporary comics are compromised by the climate Colbert and others helped create.
Comedy once nudged us toward the promised land of real leadership, but it can’t return to being an opposition party without losing size and clout. The contortions of so many court jesters are actually a petty performance of moral authority in place of the real thing. Comedic subterfuge benefits from actual political backing. With no power to exercise and no roadmap to seizing it, liberal comedians come off as academics griping about power itself. And when the stakes are so high, low-hanging fruit won’t do—especially when all that’s available are sour grapes.