If you like comedy, but you’re tired of Trump jokes, the last couple of years have been frustrating. Your choices for political comedy on American television range from The Daily Show, which is pretty much all about Trump, to three different shows from Daily Show alumni – Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and The Opposition with Jordan Klepper – which are also pretty much all about Trump. John Oliver’s turn towards Trump is particularly irritating because his show made its reputation on in-depth examinations of underdiscussed issues, like patent trolling, public funding of stadiums and the exploitation of chicken farmers, and had made a point of largely ignoring Trump for months before gradually becoming yet another Show Against Trump.
Shows without an explicit political bent offer no escape: Saturday Night Live features Trump so frequently that Alec Baldwin will likely be eligible for the Supporting Actor Emmy again this year, even though he’s ostensibly a guest star. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert does so much Trump material it was able to spin-off a recurring animated segment called Our Cartoon President into its own TV show. Colbert was always going to be more political than the average late-night host, except he’s actually not that much more political than the rest anymore: Seth Meyers does a weekly politics segment on Late Night called “A Closer Look” which is, of course, mostly about Trump and Jimmy Kimmel is constantly taking cracks at him. Even that spineless hair-ruffling weasel Jimmy Fallon has started to do regular Trump jokes now, and he’s Jimmy Fallon, the most inoffensive man who’s ever existed.
Nor is the phenomenon limited to television. Stand-up is just as oversaturated with Trump humour, if not more so, and almost all of it sucks. In his otherwise excellent stand-up special Annihilation, Patton Oswalt ends his opening ten minutes of merely decent Trump material with this explanation of the problem:
“People tell me, ‘Oh, you comedians must be so happy. Trump is president. Just all this free material.’ You know what, yes, there’s a lot of material, but there’s too fucking much. It’s exhausting. Being a comedian while Trump is president is like, imagine there’s like an insane man on the sidewalk, just shitting on the sidewalk and yelling about Hitler. So, you’re looking at him and immediately think of the funniest joke about shitting on the sidewalk, and you turn to tell it to a bunch of people, and then behind you he’s taken the shit and made a sombrero out of it. So, you turn and you tell your amazing shitting-on-the-sidewalk joke and everyone goes, ‘Oh no, that was, dude, turn around, he made a sombrero out of it. Do a sombrero joke.’ Like, ah, fuck! I can make fun of the shit he did the last couple of days, by the time this thing airs, you guys’ll be going like, ‘Wait what was that again? Cause he took his dick out when they lit the Christmas tree.’”
Jesse David Fox at Vulture highlighted the same section in his retrospective on 2017’s endless glut of terrible Trump jokes, and I think both are right to point to the sheer volume of nonsense Trump does on a daily basis as one of the major reasons why Trump-based humour has been such a failure over these past couple of years. In today’s fragmented media landscape, the fight for the viewing public’s attention is too often about throwing the first punch, not the knock-out. Good writing depends on taking the time to rework and edit, but the rush to churn out reams of responsive comedy on the tightest deadlines has turned everyone into Saturday Night Live, flying by the seat of their pants with perpetually underdeveloped material, and while SNL has launched the careers of lots of great comedians, it’s never produced a regular flow of great comedy. It’s been almost a year and a half since the election, and while a part of me believes that someone is gonna figure out how to write a good Trump joke any second, I’ve become ever more convinced that it’s an impossible task. I’ve seen too many talented people try their best and fail.
Worst of all, I’ve seen The President Show.
If you’ve never heard of The President Show, and God knows you haven’t, it’s a late-night talk show hosted by comedian Anthony Atamanuik in character as Donald Trump. Atamanuik is probably the world’s greatest Trump impersonator and a talented comedian besides. He and fellow comic James Adomian originated a live comedy show in which they debated each other as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, which resulted in an appearance on Comedy Central’s @midnight with Chris Hardwick and was later adapted into an hour-long special on Fusion moderated by fellow comedians Paul F. Tompkins, Brianna Baker and Rhea Butcher. Last April, Comedy Central announced it had picked up The President Show, with a number of great comics joining Atamanuik both in front of and behind the camera. I really like Atamanuik’s Trump and I love talk shows, so you can imagine how much I was looking forward to The President Show. But, like many a show with a great premise, it peaked in its pilot and quickly turned to shit.
There are a lot of reasons why that happened, and obviously I’m about to talk about them in detail, but I want to make something very clear up front. I don’t think anyone at The President Show is bad at comedy. Anthony Atamanuik is really funny as Trump in other venues. I’ve seen great work from so many people involved in the show, like Broad City’s John Gemberling and Veep’s Peter Grosz, and the show’s pilot features the only good Trump joke written in the last two years. I would honestly describe The President Show as the best producer of Trump jokes I’ve seen since he was elected.
And it still sucks.
There are many reasons why it sucks, many of them so specific to the show’s format that I’m not interested in examining them in the broader context of Trump comedy: the desk pieces are just roll-calls of the previous week’s Trump news peppered with jokes of wildly varying but mostly low quality; the highly-structured nature of the show rubs against Atamanuik’s skill at improv; the guest interviews are terrible; the weekly production schedule constrains the show’s ability to develop a coherent thematic through-line or even write jokes with wordplay as clever as the “white power” bit from the Trump/Bernie special. A lot of the problem is just that Atamanuik doesn’t go as dark with the character as he did in previous performances: his appearance on The Chris Gethard Show included an absurd and gruesome joke about fellow GOP candidate Carly Fiorina that makes even the darkest turns of The President Show seem light-hearted. But mostly it’s just the limits of Trump as a source of comedy, even in the hands of an impersonator this talented.
I tend to put comedy impersonations in one of two categories: inside-out and outside-out. An inside-out impersonation brings to the surface what is presumed or implicit about a famous person’s inner self, while an outside-out impersonation exaggerates what’s already most overt about a famous person, like their appearance, voice and mannerisms. Either way, the impersonation is less about creating an accurate representation of a person than creating an idea or sense of them for comic purposes. Neither is necessarily better than the other, and both can be done better or worse. A good example of a bad inside-out impersonation is Kate McKinnnon’s Hillary Clinton, who vocalises literally every thought, even when doing so would undercut a joke, like her “casual lean” bit from one of SNL’s debate sketches, which would have been funnier if she’d just done it without comment. In the same sketch, you can see a bad outside-out impersonation, Trump as played by Alec Baldwin, who superficially resembles Trump, but can’t iron the posh lilt out of his voice or find any mannerism but Trump’s mouth puckering to exaggerate. The best impersonations involve a bit of both, but even the best impersonations are basically worthless if they’re not paired with good jokes.
Anthony Atamanuik’s Trump is a winner on paper, and it’s worked really well in lots of settings. He has Trump’s mannerisms down to a fine art, especially his weird hand movements, and he tries his best to bring Trump’s inner working to the surface. The problem is that Donald Trump is so surface-level that there’s not much to expose. You don’t need a comedian to tell you that Trump is obsessed with having the biggest, the best and the most of everything, because that’s pretty much all Trump talks about. No matter how many jokes Atamanuik makes about Trump’s inauguration crowd, it will never be as funny as Trump himself petulantly insisting he had the biggest one ever, because there’s no room for exaggeration. Trump is a whiny lazy brat who wants the cool kids to like him and thinks the way to do it is to have all the shiniest toys, and he acts like it. When Bernie dropped by for a desk piece on The President Show, Trump’s desire to be best friends with Bernie is funny at first, but loses steam almost immediately, because there’s nowhere to go with it. There’s exactly one new Trump joke that works in The President Show, and that’s the truck monologue from the first episode, where Atamanuik ad libs a long rambling descent from excitement at a passing truck into suicidal ideation. I loved that monologue so much I ended up watching more than half of The President Show in hope of finding anything that could surprise and delight me half as much. Instead, I mostly got the same tired jokes as everyone else, occasionally sprinkled with further jokes based on the truck monologue that drove it into the ground, to the extent the season finale takes place inside Trump’s mind as he’s drowning in a truck.
But, to be fair, that one joke does make The President Show better at Trump jokes than anyone else, and Atamanuik’s Trump is never bad, even if he’s occasionally boring. I can’t say the same for Peter Grosz’s atrocious Mike Pence, though some of the other impersonations fare better. I think John Gemberling’s Steve Bannon, who enters the Oval Office by stumbling through the door, smashing it to pieces, is really strong. He does a great job of capturing Bannon’s whole “bloated corpse with three baggies of cocaine in his bowel” look and externalising the lunacy implicit in his ideology with apocalyptic ravings, though his best bit was probably when he had a coughing fit, pulled out a handkerchief with a Confederate flag on it, was told to put it away by Trump and Pence, and pulled out a second handkerchief with a swastika on it. Mario Cantone’s Anthony Scaramucci is pretty good, though it’s weird how much they’ve leaned on a man who was fired ten days after he was appointed. I’m undecided on whether Adam Pally is funny as Don Jr. or just handsome, but I certainly enjoy his visits, and James Adomian is as good as ever as Bernie, with his particular knack for playing on Sanders’ verbal tics (“Let me say this, and when I say that, what I mean is, I’m gonna say something”). But none of these characters appear that much, and certainly not enough to compensate for the limitations of Atamanuik’s Trump and the waste of Grosz’s Pence. A part of me suspects a better show could be made by just cutting out Trump and focusing on the members of administration, like how the original idea for The West Wing kept the president off-screen. But I think that misses the point.
There’s a reason the Trump administration can churn through so many people and more or less continue to function as expected, to the extent that more people have left Trump’s cabinet in just over a year than left Bush 43’s in his entire presidency. Practically speaking, the members of his administration are interchangeable parts in the machine of US politics, and it will chug along just the same whoever’s there. The individuals don’t matter, and the failure of Trump-based comedy over the past couple of years has less to do with Trump’s deficiencies as a subject than the focus on him or any individuals at all. The uncomfortable truth is that Trump himself, though a bizarre human being, is an unexceptional president. There’s been some appropriate outrage over his new nominee for Director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, because she oversaw a black site in Thailand under the Bush administration, where she tortured people and later oversaw the destruction of evidence of torture at her site and others. But John O. Brennan, Obama’s second CIA Director, was Deputy Executive Director of the CIA when the agency ordered that torture, tried to promote Haspel while CIA Director, and supports Haspel’s appointment even though he’s a vocal critic of Trump. Trump has increased drone strikes, but he’s only able to do so because Obama made the drone program virtually unrestricted and completely unaccountable so he could pursue what was essentially a campaign of indiscriminate murder of hundreds of civilians in other countries. His administration is full of ex-Goldman Sachs employees, but so was Obama’s, and so was Bush’s, and so was Clinton’s. Obama deported more people than any president in history and is currently on track to hold that record, despite an increase in arrests by ICE under Trump. Trump’s turnover rate is one of the only things about his presidency that’s really out of the ordinary apart from the personality of the man himself. Very little would be different if any other Republican, or even many Democrats, were in office.
When comedians ignore that larger context and just focus on Trump and those adjacent to him, it almost necessarily becomes insult comedy that just happens to be targeted at a politician, instead of political comedy with an actual perspective on the world. The President Show is the perfect example: it’s so generically anti-Trump that it’s given softball interviews to right-wing troll and NRA shill S. E. Cupp, multi-millionaire alternative medicine huckster Deepak Chopra and Guantanamo supporter Evan McMullin, just because they don’t like Trump. When it tried to cram some ideas on how to beat Trump into literally the last minute of its Christmas special, it was a mix of abstract gibberish about “getting more creative with civil disobedience” and “using the Constitution as a weapon” and a non-specific suggestion that the Democrats should “rally behind a coherent message that speaks to the working-class people [Trump] conned”. I mean, that is what the Democrats should do, but I have no idea what The President Show thinks that message should be. But that’s not terribly surprising for a show that chose to spend its entire first season indulging two liberal delusions about how Trump could be kicked out of office prior to 2020 – the Mueller investigation into collusion with Russia and his removal due to mental instability under the 25th Amendment – instead of offering any substantive political critique of his presidency.
Stephen Colbert’s roast of George Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner is still some of the best political comedy I’ve ever seen. At a time when people mostly just made fun of how Bush spoke, Colbert stood just feet away from him and delivered a scathing indictment of his presidency, especially his foreign policy (“I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least, and by these standards we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq”). And he didn’t limit his focus to Bush or members of administration, but made vicious cuts into the mainstream news media at a time when it had been shamefully deferential to one of the worst men to ever serve as President of the United States, particularly in its cheerleading of the Iraq War. He had something specific to say about both Bush and the context in which he was able to be such a terrible president and get away with everything he was doing.
For the same reason, my favourite piece of political comedy about the Trump era – maybe the only good political comedy about the Trump era so far – is Judah Friedlander’s comedy special America is the Greatest Country in the United States. Edited together from several shows performed at a club in New York in the first six months of 2017, Friedlander performs the show in the affected persona of an American exceptionalist with absurdist political positions (e.g. legalising heroin to make it easier to legalise pot) that he believes can solve all the world’s problems. He opens and closes the show by riffing on the “deficiencies” of audience member’s home nations in comparison to America, while the bulk of the middle is spent soliciting questions on his upcoming campaign for the presidency. In the first act, he asks why Europeans don’t tip waiters in restaurants, to which an audience member replies they have a better minimum wage. “No, sir, it’s because they have inferior waiters and waitresses,” Friedlander responds. “America has the most elite waitstaff on the planet. Plus we’re just a more generous country. We’re givers. That’s why we have military bases in over eighty different countries. We care.”
Obviously, there’s no shortage of political comedy criticising America, but most American comedians who tell jokes at their country’s expense reflexively soften their mockery with platitudes reaffirming to their audience that despite all their problems, America is still the greatest country in the world. I understand the rhetorical strategy, trying to make the criticism more palatable by serving it with a chaser of yee-haw patriotism. But there’s a difference between loving your country even while you acknowledge its flaws and trying to make criticism of your country stick while calling it the greatest country in the world. Friedlander’s comedy works because it doesn’t just smugly mock conservatives from a tenuous moral high ground, but also criticises the liberal strain of American exceptionalism, the “America is Already Great” of Obama and Clinton.
This is a vital comic critique to make because you can’t really understand the last election unless you understand why “Make America Great Again” resonated in a way that “we’re already the best, but we could make some minor improvements by tweaking the refundability threshold of the child tax credit” didn’t. The Pew Research Center found the number of Americans who believe America is the greatest country in the world declined from 38% to 28% between 2011 and 2014. It’s not hard to see why: in the years since the Great Recession, the rich got richer than ever before while everyone else got poorer, the biggest banks became bigger than ever and used bailout money to pay themselves bonuses while pensions were being slashed, and an opioid crisis killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. Nine million Americans lost their homes between 2010 and 2014, and not only did the “recovery” fail to reach them, but the Republicans and Democrats are teaming up to lay the foundations for another financial crisis by loosening bank regulations. That’s the context in which you should see the 2016 election, where Hillary Clinton used 9/11 to justify her close ties to Wall Street and flip-flopped on the wildly unpopular Trans-Pacific Partnership, seen as a successor to NAFTA, a trade deal whose proponents promised massive job gains, but actually caused massive losses. Her campaign leaned on celebrity endorsements and trotted out billionaires like Michael Bloomberg and Mark Cuban to make fun of Donald Trump for not being as rich as them at a time when the children of Flint, Michigan didn’t have safe drinking water because their governor raided public services to fund tax cuts for the wealthy.
Judah Friedlander mocks the notion that America has suddenly fallen under darkness. “We live in an oligarchy,” he says, “but with the humidity it feels like a dictatorship.” The problems he jokes about aren’t new, and they aren’t all the fault of the Republicans. He doesn’t just crack jokes about gun control (“I think if Jesus had been American, and had a gun, he’d still be alive today”), but also the liberal tendency to treat social problems like puzzles to be solved through clever tweaks to tax brackets instead of humanitarian crises to be met with radical change:
“I’m gonna solve the homeless crisis in this country. We’ve a lot of homeless in this country. And what else do we have a lot of in this country? Cars. Right? Young man, what do cars run on?”
“No, roads, actually, sir. Roads. Cars run on roads. And what do some roads have? Tollbooths. Little houses. We make the homeless full-time live-in tollbooth operators. They’re already good at asking for change. It’s a perfect fit. I just solved the homeless crisis in America.”
Or the limp “Resistance” to the Republican agenda:
“Well, who’s ready to join the rebellion and fight for democracy?”
“That’ll do it, yeah. That was just the energy level necessary to overthrow a dictatorship. I think some of that energy and a couple of new apps, and, uh, we’ll be just fine.”
America is the Greatest Country in the United States is far from perfect (there’s a lame “Mike Pence is gay” bit, for one), but it’s the only good political comedy about the Trump era because it doesn’t act like the current political moment is contained entirely in the person of Donald Trump, or even the Republican Party. Trump may be the punchline, but America itself is the joke. The more laser-focused that comedy becomes on Trump to the exclusion of the political context that birthed him, the less good it becomes. I don’t believe that comedy is a powerful tool of resistance the way some people do – after all, making fun of Trump didn’t stop him winning – but I think good satire can help change how people see the world in small ways that add up over time. I know I’m only as conscious of regulatory capture as I am because of that time John Oliver said telecom lobbyist Tom Wheeler’s appointment to the FCC was like hiring a dingo as a babysitter. Jokes like that stick in your brain in a way that even the best serious political commentary doesn’t and become something you habitually turn over in your mind. They can lay the foundations for a revolution in perspective or even just make you consider another way of looking at an issue whenever it comes up. Regardless, they have more power than even the most inventive joke about tiny fingers or whatever.
I hope more comedians choose to put down the orange spray-tan and pick up a point of view.