One thing I appreciate about doing comedy is that it compels you to think critically about stuff. Local comic Kermet Apio once told me that when he comes up with a new joke premise he plays a round of Twenty Questions with the idea: Why is this funny? How is it funny? Who is this about? What am I saying with this joke? It’s worthwhile to have a discipline—any discipline—that encourages you to view your preconceptions from multiple angles and tease out the underpinnings of your thinking. Comedy, when it’s done right, can do that. A joke that knows what it is and why it’s funny will always be a better joke.
If you adopt this practice of circumspection the result isn’t always hilarity. Comics, like everyone else, are up against a current reality that confounds easy laughter. I’ve written before about how I don’t think Trump is funny and last week I discussed how comedy isn’t the savior people are touting it as. In the wake of a few Saturday Night Live sketches that got under the President’s chemically discolored skin, people started making bold claims about the power of “laughtivism” (gag) to take down the autocrat. Last I checked comedians don’t have congressional subpoena power.
There’s something infuriating about folks looking to comedy as our savior in a time when nearly every American institution—save the judiciary, for now—has abdicated their responsibility to stop the collapse of civil society. I’ve got a few choice words for the academic who wrote this ridiculous thinkpiece for Salon in which she actually said: “Whether you share clips from Baldwin’s appearance on SNL tonight or create your own meme, you are making a difference.” I’d really like to see her workshop five new minutes of Trump material to a live comedy club crowd.
I’ve seen it, and it isn’t pretty. Last week at the Seattle’s Best Showcase at the Comedy Underground (currently the best weekly line-up in town, by the way) I watched a comic open his set by asking the audience if any of them were Trump supporters. Out of a crowd of 30 or so, one volunteered that he was. The jokes that followed fell flat—not because they weren’t funny but because the crowd was so concerned about the feelings of this one deluded soul. Whether you chalk that up to typical PNW passivity or the fear of poking a menacing, uninformed bear, the effect is the same.
Even South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have given up on trying to make Trump funny. They took our jokes!
I have a rule of thumb about raising difficult or painful topics in my act: the payoff has to outweigh the trauma of bringing it up in the first place. This is true for any hot-button, “edgy” topic: rape, death, racism, abuse, and now the Trump administration, which neatly bundles up all of the others into one toxic package. If your punchline can’t pay the psychic toll, don’t bother taking your audience down that road. Basically: Don’t bum people out for no good reason. I do believe that a good comic can make anything funny, but sometimes the most honest human reaction is not to poke fun but to gaze in horror.
At the Underground again this week, I saw another comic attempt some Trump jokes to a smaller crowd, with slightly better results. Still, there’s the sense of a turd in the punchbowl, of the loathsome tyrant tainting even life’s most enjoyable things, like laughter. I admire comics for confronting the dumb-as-rocks reality of Trump but I also want to preserve a place in my life uncontaminated by his specter; I want to have a good set at the club and make the people laugh and not be bummed out.
After the show I walked across Occidental Square and saw something I hadn’t noticed before. On the ground floor of the new Weyerhaeuser headquarters that borders the plaza, there are awnings extending over the sidewalk. The previous week as I walked to the show I noticed rain falling through the empty frames and thought, “Hm, I guess they haven’t finished installing them yet.” But last night I took a closer look and realized that they are retractable awnings. The rain is falling through them by design.
The realization hit me like a punch in the gut: In a rainy city facing an unprecedented homelessness epidemic, the occupants of the tallest and newest building in Pioneer Square appear to have shelled out extra for mechanized awnings that enable them to control access to shelter—the most basic human need—to keep the unwanted away. This might strike you as a trivial reality of urban life, but I see it as a mark of almost incomprehensible villainy. At its root is the same grasping, entitled, embattled impulse that brought us Trump and his legion of wild-eyed enablers. Closed borders, disenfranchised voters, rain-soaked indigents shivering in the cold: hallmarks of our city, our nation, our age.
I don’t know how to make any of this funny enough to pay the psychic toll it incurs. I can play Twenty Questions but it’ll never explain this awful thing inside humanity that makes us monstrous. I don’t have a joke for it and I’m not sure I ever will.