Instead of going to an election night party, I did a bar gig at a gastropub in Renton. By the time I got to the venue Hillary’s defeat was starting to sink in. The show’s producer, one of the gentlest spirits I know, was sitting at a table looking shocked and crestfallen.
“Bad news,” he said. “The bar doesn’t want us to do any political material tonight.”
Even though he had specifically booked me because I host a political comedy talk show, I hadn’t planned to do any political jokes given the crushing realization of what was underway. At the same time, it’s not conducive to a good comedy show to flat-out ignore reality, which in this case was playing out on a dozen big-screen televisions. Failing to acknowledge what’s going on in the room makes the comedian a liar and the audience his accomplice. Comedy, unlike politics, is supposed to embrace the hard facts, not ignore them. You can’t just not say anything.
Nevertheless I resolved to phone it in, pick up my pay and pound as many beers as I could before my ride was ready to leave.
I’ve done comedy in all sorts of adverse conditions: after a major Seahawks loss, after a major Seahawks win, with a broken microphone, directly under a glaring disco ball that no one knew how to turn off, in a casino with the sound of slot machines blasting into the showroom. But I’d never done comedy during the self-inflicted collapse of America.
Underlining the absurdity of the night, a Seahawks Sea Gal was there for a promotional appearance, seated across from her chaperone and smiling blankly before a stack of glossy swimsuit calendars. She didn’t sell a single one.
As I waited for the show to start I eyed the patrons, trying to figure out which one of these shit-dipped fucksticks voted for Trump. Who here is the reason we can’t talk about the tragedy that's befallen us? Who here would have a problem with me expressing onstage that we are well and truly fucked? It was my first taste of Trump’s America, of the cold civil war now breaking out into open hostility, the call coming from inside the building. Who did this? Show yourself!
It certainly wasn’t the bartender, who took drink orders with barely concealed disgust, nor the Asian man sitting alone obsessively scrolling his phonescreen in a panic. I noticed the most stricken looks were on the faces of people of color: a black waitress sleepwalked through her duties in an anguished daze. The show’s producer, a black man, seemed as if he’d just witnessed a death. They made my attempt to put on a game face seem paltry and fake. The honesty of their horror rebuked my ability to power through it, rebuked my whiteness. For all they knew, I was a Trump voter. People who look like me went 63% for Trump. The fact that I wasn’t personally included in that number does not commute the blame. I knew, finally, what it feels like to be demographically suspect.
After the opening acts it was my turn onstage and as I pulled the mic out of the stand I realized the falseness of what I was about to do. Nevertheless, I did it. I told my jokes because that was my job. Even when I broke the prohibition on political talk by admitting the horror of trying to do standup on the eve of the apocalypse, it didn't matter. I had nothing to offer at this moment; my comedy was a frivolous irrelevance. A middle-aged black woman at the bar gave me the hardest side-eye I’ve ever seen, and she was right. Two-thirds of voters who look like me spawned this nightmare. What the fuck was I doing up there, trying to tell jokes? Hasn’t this country seen enough white men remaining glib in the face of certain ruin?
There’s a theory that modern satire not only fails to turn audiences against its objects of derision but actually makes those objects seem cartoonish and therefore more palatable. Think of Will Ferrell’s goofily endearing George W. Bush, or Tina Fey’s toothless Sarah Palin. A study showed that some conservatives didn’t even know that Stephen Colbert’s rightwing blowhard persona was a joke. We live in a golden age of liberal political comedy, from Samantha Bee to John Oliver. But Trump still won.
This election was about many things, and one of them is the failure of comedy in the face of collective psychosis. The catastrophic truth continues to outpace even the most ambitious satire. Many very funny people made many very funny quips about the ridiculous bloated gasbag and we all had a nice chuckle, but for every time Trump got “owned” in a tweet or “destroyed” in a blog post there were a thousand rural white voters who couldn’t care less.
Draining another beer at the bar after my set, I realized the place wasn’t riddled with Trump supporters as I previously suspected, but that most (if not all) of the people there were just as despondent as me. The bartender apologized that we even had a show on such a terrible night and explained that the “no politics” rule wasn’t his idea. It was the owner’s, who wasn’t even there to see me bomb.