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'Decent Don' and the Pitfalls of Presidential Satire

Reality has outpaced satire and is now threatening to derail the whole comedic venture. It’s gotten harder to create pointed fictions that afflict the mighty when their own actions are more nonsensical and self-incriminating than even the most diseased mind could conceive. Every time someone says, “You can’t make this shit up!” a satirist gets writer’s block. I now view House of Cards with the same wistful nostalgia for a bygone centrism as Democrats once reserved for The West Wing. We live in a world gone mad.

Due to the difficulty of shaming the shameless, our current president has given us many opportunities to observe satire done wrong. I went on the record early (like, in the primaries) arguing that Trump is not funny; he’s depressing, traumatizing and loathsome and his presidency certainly isn’t “good for comedy.” Like many comics, I’ve avoided Trump jokes entirely because the reality is just too depressing and I want to make people laugh, not bum them out. I haven’t figured out a joke funny enough to pay the psychic toll incurred by even bringing him up.

In the wider world of comedy, results have been mixed. Stephen Colbert’s recent “cock-holster” rant was problematic as is the whole subgenre of comedy portraying Trump and Putin as lovers, presenting gayness as inherently comical and wrong. (Definitely check out this recent Lindy West column for some welcome nuance on the topic.)

Another large grouping of Trump satire centers on his ridiculous physical appearance, literally as shallow a critique as one could levy. Saturday Night Live’s much-celebrated jabs at the Trump administration haven’t been much better: facile caricatures that might actually have the unintended effect of making these criminals and sociopaths seem less threatening and more cartoonish and therefore more palatable (a theory proposed in this excellent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast).

Gay jokes, Sean Spicer played by a—gasp!—woman, Alec Baldwin successfully portraying a rich white New York douche: These aren’t the strongest takes one could put forth. The abject venality of Trump has left some of our best comedic minds grinding their gears, unable to find purchase in the slop.

The videos of Vic Berger have been a bright light through the darkness. He toys with actual footage, deftly tweaking an already highly tweaked reality. His videos magnify tiny, telling gestures in the funhouse mirror. Sometimes all you have to do to make effective satire is show the thing in all its overblown awfulness and let the madness speak for itself—with slight prompts [air horn!]. No one does it like Berger, who's lately moved on to other, less depressing subjects like the existential despair of Steve Harvey and the unending deceptions of televangelist Jim Bakker.

My new favorite piece of Trump-related satire is Decent Don, a tiny gem of a comic strip by JP Downer that’s been running since January. In each three-panel installment, Donald is portrayed as a regular guy engaging in small moments of thoughtfulness and humanity. Instead of portraying Trump as a hateful monster, Russian dupe or cartoonish buffoon, Downer conducts a much more unlikely thought experiment: What if Donald was a decent person? It’s a comic strip about quiet, familiar moments of goodness that just happens to star an alternate-universe version of the worst person in the world. The wide gulf between real life Donald and Decent Don drives the satire.

Reading the comic is exasperating at first; you’re expected to swallow the hardest premise of them all. It’s challenging to let your brain relax for a moment and conceive of Trump as the type of guy who’d hold an elevator for someone or dutifully refill the Brita pitcher. Read more of them and the unlikely conceit washes over you. You begin to grasp the hopefulness at the heart of this thought experiment: With the power of imagination, even the greatest monsters can become sweethearts. It’s preposterous and heartwarming at the same time, one of the most difficult maneuvers to pull off in satire. In a field crowded with lazy, depressing and problematic takes on Trump, Decent Don is good, clean exercise for the comedy brain. 

All art courtesy JP Downer. See more here.

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