The Punching Bag: Humor in the time of Trump

by Brooks Riley

Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.Peter Ustinov

President Trump is no laughing matter. Paradoxically, he’s become just that, a side-splitting political earthquake triggering a tsunami of jokes and routines that fill the late-night air with barbs so sharp no ordinary ego might survive, the limits of humor now stretched way beyond the nagging of one’s mother-in-law, the Kardashians, the dating game, or the darndest things kids say, all ripe for a laugh or two in the past.

American comedy on TV has hummed along for years at the same apolitical level of mild, affectionate offense, with some notable exceptions like Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory or Chris Rock, who etched their humor with the acid ironies of racism, or Jon Stewart, a retiree from political comedy before his time.

Now we no longer laugh at what we used to laugh at, mainly ourselves and sometimes our culture: Now we roar at a man who borders dangerously on a joke—a man who, significantly, can’t take a joke. The more he can’t take a joke, the more we howl. When he doubles down, we double over.

The moment of truth, a memorable one in our early awareness of outsider Trump, came at the annual White House press dinner in 2011, a must for movers and shakers in Washington and wannabe candidates. When President Obama lobbed a few comic jabs in his direction, followed by Seth Meyers with a few more, the camera zoomed in on Trump. Instead of laughing at the jokes at his expense—something that might have made him just a teensy-weensy bit likeable—Trump sat stone-faced, wounded, angry. This should have been the first warning sign that this dark horse, whose quadrennial run for the White House was itself a running joke, would eke revenge on the man who mocked him, dragging a whole country down into the pathology of his grudges and vindictiveness as he goes about systematically dismantling not only Obama’s legacy but that of our founding fathers. We don’t have to ask ourselves why Trump refused to take part in this year’s White House Press dinner.

I think the scariest person in the world is the person with no sense of humor.Michael J. Fox

The average person laughs 17 times a day, these days perhaps more often. Laughing is not only therapeutic, it also acknowledges someone else’s comic accomplishment. Have you ever seen Trump laugh? Have you ever seen the seldom smile reach his eyes? Is that smirk all you remember? Is he the odd German who goes into the cellar to laugh?

A new rule comes to mind: He who can’t take a joke will inevitably become the butt of one, or two, or in the case of Trump, millions. It’s open season now, comedy laced with a cruelty matched only by Trump himself as he flailed about in a vicious, unfunny mockery of a disabled journalist. This is the payback. It’s no wonder he watches only the Fox channel. He doesn’t dare venture out into the rest of the broadcast world to dodge the barrages of humor coming at him. The nominal most powerful man on earth is in solitary, solitary channel syndrome, Fox being the only safe place anymore for the insatiably hungry ego. This may be why he keeps on campaigning long after he’s won: The diehard faithful are the only ones left who can give him a daily spread of approbation and adoration.

The history of comedy might now have a timeline demarcation: BT (before Trump) and AT (after Trump), one as decisive to comedy as the BC-AD line was to world history. The gloves are off. Comedy has changed, perhaps forever. It’s become potent, vicious, angry, bold and politicized—a nightly Schadenfreude festival with a single target. We need it now as we’ve never needed it before.

This is more than a payback. Comedy has become a way to survive the few odd years ahead, a balm against the outrage, the disappointment, the insanity, the disgust, the fear. It’s an antidote to the depression brought on by daily peccadillos and deep sin at the top leaching down into our subconscious. Even far from the US, no morning would be complete without Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Jimmy Kimmel, or Jimmy Fallon from the night before, or the weekly contributions of Bill Maher and John Oliver. While we ponder the president’s psyche, it’s our own psyches that are at stake. As we watch a carefully constructed world order crumble before our eyes, we don’t succumb to despair, or lapse into catatonic apathy. Instead, we feed on the daily dish of delectable take-downs delivered to our smart phones.

Comedy is the new opiate of the people, quite literally, due to the endogenous opioid peptides (the endorphins) that get released in our bodies when we laugh. Comedy is a legal painkiller that also happens to prove that freedom of speech is still alive, even if other aspects of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights are surprisingly fragile when tested by a would-be potentate. But like an opiate, comedy can lull us into inaction, endorphins making the present more palatable, alleviating the pain, but doing little to affect the source of that pain.

It may also be the only weapon we have at present. Demagogues don’t laugh, especially at themselves, witness Turkey’s President Erdogan stalking comedian Jan Böhmermann through the German courts for a nasty little ditty first seen on cable TV by a few hundred thousand at most.

In an open society, leaders accept the send-up as a given, sometimes even taking part in the jokes. Dictators hate being laughed at because humor interferes with their ability to rule by fear. The road from powerful to pathetic can be a short one, which is why humorists are repressed in totalitarian regimes. A leader who becomes the butt of jokes, can quickly turn from the almighty one into the absurd one. Don’t you ever wonder how things might have turned out if they’d laughed at Hitler in 1933?

The worry that Trump could go the way of Erdogan, Putin or Hitler is slim, however. That would require Machiavellian intelligence, or at least a canny understanding of the power grab. Still, he’s capable of inflicting damage—to our system, to our people, to our better selves. His ignorance and limited attention span coupled with that oft-cited ‘malignant narcissism’, constitute a new kind of danger, presaging a national downfall through incompetence laced with malice. All the world’s a stage: Trump knows how to strut on it, but he never learned the role and keeps dropping his lines or making them up.

Sitting or standing, nightly comedians have co-opted the checks and balances function that our exposed constitution seems no longer capable of doing. There’s tit for tat at work here. The more he rants and raves, or bumbles and stumbles, the louder the comic response. It’s almost as if comedians were the only ones keeping tabs on the iniquities being played out in plain sight. While serious journalists earnestly toil to uncover and investigate each new transgression or omission, comedians are consolidating them into nightly routines, leaving no stone unturned, no embarrassment ignored, no egregiousness unlisted, no stupidity unnoticed. Every sentence Trump utters gets deconstructed, analyzed and exposed for what it often is: disturbingly incoherent or unhinged. If Trump rouses his rabble against athletes who kneel during the national anthem, Stephen Colbert doesn’t shy from rallying his audience to boo the president in unison. Comedians are becoming the guardians of our sanity and our humanity, the unsung heroes of the opposition, members of an increasingly subversive club that never lets us forget or ignore what is happening to us or allow it to become the norm. Rising to the occasion, they are going far beyond the traditional limits of respectful ribbing into open warfare with a man who is attacking so many sacred values that have made the country great.

John Oliver, the pun-daddy of comic punditry, set a savage politicized tone in his show long before Trump became President, exposing corruption and grim realities even in obscure corners of our society. His didactic monologues, not just hilarious, reveal impressive investigative journalism. Seth Meyers’ shorter segment A Closer Look could be viewed as a sizzling nutshell offshoot of that Oliver scrutiny, spiced with brilliant gesture and a perfect ear for accents. Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah, galvanized, have transcended their troublesome ratings with edgy escalations, as has Bill Maher, with his angrier, brutal take-downs. While delivery and timing are essential, a comedian is only as good as his material. Trump is the biggest supplier of that, forklifting the stuff daily to awaiting poison pens. For the industry, it’s a bonanza, a windfall profit with dividends for all.

This may have to do for a while. At present, we are collectively like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. Glued to the spot, we can’t help but stare at the oncoming vehicle as it barrels toward us, locked into the freeze mode of the so-called ‘defense cascade’, a physiological parsing of bodily reactions to immediate danger.

There’s an odd connection between humor and fear that probably originates in the amygdala, a two-pronged ganglion deep in the limbic brain that plays good-cop-bad-cop with our emotional responses. I remember a particularly rough flight from Denver to Montrose years ago. The stewardess trying to serve the much-needed drinks was unable to move down the aisle due to the turbulence as we bobbed up and down the thermals leading up to the Rockies. As terrified as I was, I couldn’t stop laughing and dark-joking over our wild ride. I surprised myself. (There are similarities in cats, who purr when they’re content, but also purr when they’re afraid.) How is our current history any different? We seem unable to exercise fight or flight, only immobility or the freeze mode. We can’t leave the airplane in the air. We can’t leave the careening bus while Trump’s at the wheel. And so, we laugh.

What does it say about the state of America when the most powerful response to another awful gun massacre comes not from a politician or a public commentator but a late-night comic?‘ —John Cassidy The New Yorker

Sometimes we can’t laugh. Comedians have their no-fly zones, moments that are just too awful to joke about. Charlottesville and Las Vegas were such moments, bringing forth serious, even tearful commentary instead of tonic comic riffs. This is not new in the history of late-night entertainers, but it’s becoming more frequent, as issues and events escalate to an intensity that defies humor. Jimmy Kimmel, an affable, old-school stand-up host, was the last comedian we expected to turn moral outrage into stunning, thoughtful political protest, making headlines overnight and winning widespread respect for his sober assessments.

With journalism under attack by Trump and the Right, comedy is stepping up to the plate, becoming a prime player in the fight to get people’s attention with punchlines that may even surprise with no punchline at all. Comedy, as never before, is on the frontline of political commentary, with a salvation army of humorists here to provide for us in our hour of need. Call it the Fifth Estate, or the Fourth Estate’s secret weapon, a reality not lost on the venerable New York Times with its ongoing reports on the best of late-night.

There’s a symbiosis at work here. Because Trump makes every event all about him, comedians’ reactions to those events tend to be all about him (or his enablers in Congress or the White House). It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to realize that Trump has a one-track mind. He may be the only thing that gets his undivided attention, dragging us down with him into his limited field of vision. For Trump, running for President was not about making America great again, but about making Trump great again, and richer. Tragedies as dire as Puerto Rico or Las Vegas can’t distract him from the all-about-him syndrome, where empathy is for sissies and fixing global climate is for later when it’s too late.

The duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them. —Molière

Which could mean, the way to a man’s mind is through his funny bone. This might be true for the rest of us, but what of the man born without one?

Humor in the time of Trump is a triumph for our democracy. There’s nothing he can do to stop it and the message has plenty of messengers. Information is there for anyone who wants to know, as comedy takes on a pioneering new role in the dissemination of that information. Resistance takes many forms, and humor may turn out to be the most potent of all.

If we can be overcome with laughter in moments of stress or peril, it could be that on a macro level, our dependence on a daily shot of humor is just what the doctor ordered to ameliorate our real fears of a frightening future with an erratic egomaniac at the helm, especially when we see how easily a confrontation between two hard-wired, over-aged adolescents could turn into a global nightmare if it led to one or the other resorting to real weapons. Whatever happens, we’ll be laughing all the way to the brink.