The tragedy of comedy in the Trump era
You’ll have heard recently that fearless satire of the government is alive and well in America, having been MIA for the entire presidency of Barack Obama. Comedians are speaking truth to power and holding nothing back, and we’re being asked to not just acknowledge but celebrate that. To commemorate a historic moment, let’s look at some examples of political comedy being produced in this brave new era. Afterwards we’ll discuss what the recurring theme might be.
(I’ve watched all of these clips through from beginning to end in the past but just couldn’t bring myself to do it this time. With each one, I’ll note how far I got. Keep a score for yourself and see how you do.)
Lena Dunham Sensual Pantsuit Anthem (how far I got: 23 seconds)
SNL cast singing to Obama (48 seconds)
More SNL, more singing, this time for Hillary (11 seconds. This one has 10 million views and 90k thumbs up on YouTube, which makes me want to jump out a window):
Broad city Hillary cameo (16 seconds):
Ok, before we go any further let’s take a detour and talk about Trump specifically. The hair, the “tan”, the raucous rallies, the acid-trip press conferences, the never-ending mutually contradictory lies, the utterly contemptible willingness (since becoming President) to reverse positions at the application of the slightest pressure – there is something about the Trump package that is uniquely worthy of mockery. All you have to do is glance at a picture of him and the Easter bunny side by side and you’ll see there is something comedic about Trump that was not so about other presidents, something uniquely worthy of mockery. So fine, go ahead. Mock. It would be a professional dereliction of duty for a comedian not to. But it can be hard for some people to laugh when they know the guns will never truly be pointed the other way.
A liberal response to this might be that SNL and other outlets were perfectly happy to criticise Obama. And it’s true you could pick examples, such as the Jon Stewart era Daily Show criticising the Obamacare roll-out.
But the underlying message of that criticism was always be that “our side” (the left, the Democrats) are essentially good people trying to do the right thing in the wrong way. It’s much harder to find examples of Clinton or Obama being criticised in the way Trump is, as an unremittingly evil figure, or without excuse as a president on whose watch evil things are done. The response to such a point would probably be that Trump is a uniquely evil figure, so what do you expect? Ok, fair enough. Barack Obama was at war for more of his presidency than any other president in US history. On his watch, the power of the IRS was turned against his policitical opponents. His administration was unprecedentedly hostile to whistleblowers and was in office as the US became a sort of surveillance state. Is there really there no way that stuff could be widely and regularly criticised by comedians without qualification? Apparently not, so for the near-decade of his presidency there was no substantial comedic critique of the government. But hey, Trump's in charge now, so comedy’s back! Isn’t that great?
It’s not too late for comedians to start reflecting critically on their own party. There’s a lot to criticise. Isn’t hysteria on the topic of Russian spying is worthy of mockery? The attitude of left-wing people to free speech on campuses, or the activities of Antifa? Are comedians going to start talking about those on a regular basis?
So, the clips. The two SNL sketches where the cast sing are the ones that really give the game away, because they aren’t even trying to be funny. It’s not just the case that when Obama and Clinton enter the room humour goes out he window. What we get is a sort of anti-comedy. Pratfalls and toilet humour are fine, but the central element of a more sophisticated humour sense is self-awareness. “Aren’t we going to look like cultists, singing to a portrait of Obama with vacant expressions on our faces like he’s chairman Mao?” Either the question wasn’t asked, or it was and they thought, nah, it’ll be great. Imagine being a professional comedian and thinking like that. But in the context of critcising Obama, Clinton and liberalism itself, its more helpful to see these people not as comedians, but as adherents to a faith. The central characteristic of all of the above clips is an earnest and humourless piety, and a desire to not merely be good, but to be seen to be good.
We’ve heard many times since Obama’s second victory that we all live in bubbles, which is true. But the media (including comedy) is the left wing bubble to end all bubbles. The atmosphere within the bubble acts not only to exclude dissenting opinion, it also creates a need to always appear more progressive than the most progressive people around you. Like the red queen in Alice in Wonderland, you have to run faster and faster to stay in the same place. Remember, everyone is watching. Should your faith waver, that weakness will be noted by the Commentary Industrial Complex, and you will be held to account.
Imagine asking the monks at the Catholic monastery to go down into the town and proselytise against the Church, or on behalf of Buddhism, or satanism. Now, in private, you might occasionally get an admission from them that “all faiths can be a path to a better life” or “there are good people amongst the adherents of every religion”. But to ask people who have lived their whole lives in the church to publicly announce that “in this instance our faith was wrong” or “on this matter, another faith is superior to my own” is simply too much. To the pious, to do so would be greater than the other sins mentioned here, the hypocrisy, lack of self-awareness, professional neglect; it would be blasphemy. And that’s all you need to know.