Doc Ritchie surveys how comedians have treated Trump, one 'giant, bad joke'
Republicans are blaming President Obama for creating Donald Trump while others say he was created in a lab when a young real estate developer was bitten by a radioactive douchebag. – Conan O'Brien, American comedian
Ukraine, April, 2019: A comedian becomes president. Not only that, but the comedian who imitated a politician has now become a politician: the imitator has become the imitated. But why not? Do people think that because comedians are funny they cannot deal with serious subjects? And if a grotesque game show host can become president, then why not a comedian? Should comedians be politicians? Should politicians be comedians? Does politics make good comedy? Should comedy be political?
1. Donald Trump: Tragedy, Comedy Or Both?
Trump’s nothing like Hitler. There’s no way he could write a book. – Frankie Boyle.
Comedy has been around for over 2,500 years and has evolved in form but not necessarily content. It has always commented on human frailties, social life, sexual relations, bodily functions, excessive behaviour, power and politics, or their abuse. Greek Old Comedy was satirical, and playwrights named the names of powerful figures in their prologues or during the parabasis, a direct address to the audience before the second half of the play, a very early form of stand-up comedy. Roman playwrights who assimilated many of the Greeks' ideas were forbidden to make such bold statements, and their plays focused on domestic and street life. Allegory and satire was forbidden, and eventually comedy was usurped by large scale athletic or martial displays.
Greek tragedy seems more appropriate than comedy for our subject Donald Trump because tragic 'heroes' have a fatal flaw, a hamartia. Only Trump has several – arrogance, pride, greed, dishonesty, lust – which will eventually bring him down.
His large audience of opponents know this and are waiting to see it all fall down.
2. Fatal Flaws
The comedian who became Ukrainian president is Voldymyr Zelenesky and the gameshow host is Donald Trump. Despite one being a joker and the other being a joke, they have much in common. Both come from the entertainment industry; neither have political experience; both rebuff establishment norms; neither expected to win; both polarise opinion; neither are in stable geo-political situations; and both rely on social media, mistrusting mainstream news which Zelenesky calls 'old power' and Trump calls 'fake news'.
Zelenesky played a TV politician, leering into his future constituents' homes through their televisions, to entertain them. Then they voted him out of the television and into power. Trump is also a TV politician because he constructed himself on television and he both understands and mistrusts it as a medium. He watches the channels that flatter him when he is feeling weak, and has recently rambled unedited on Murdoch's Fox News for over half an hour. He has also called other right-wing radio shows.
He only watches those who criticise him when he is feeling belligerent and he prefers to be on the offensive. He is very offensive and abusive, and his chaotic tweets recently referred to MSNBC's Joe Scarborough (a former Republican politician) as 'Psycho Joe' and the main Democrat contender Joe Biden for being old, calling him 'Sleepy Joe.' Trump then referred to himself as a 'young person' despite the fact that he is only a couple of years younger than Biden. You hardly need satire when reality is ridiculous enough.
3. Satire Is Universal
Comedy at its best can inform or reflect the audience's opinions, or it can challenge them, and stand-up comedy in particular, whether an opening monologue on a TV show or at a comedy club, does this in a very live, pure form. It becomes a kind of reportage where the comedian brings dispatches back from the stranger regions of human behaviour, pointing out the absurdities of everyday life that many of us have experienced but not quite acknowledged, highlighting or making light of them. Satire is a universal counter-narrative because abuse of power, lies and corruption are also universal. In Kenya in 2017, Loi Awat, the (female) head writer of satire programme XYZ said that comedy...
....offers an alternative view of what’s happening … to talk about [issues], to highlight them, to bring them to people, make them think, make people talk about them. As Kenyans, we’ve been through some crazy political times, for the past 20 to 30 years, and especially the last 10.
Something American non-Trumpeteers will relate to. The comedian can discuss fears or anxieties and the audience's positive reaction confirms that they are shared opinions.
4. Trump v. Baldwin
In 2019, three performers in the States, Alec Baldwin, Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert had constructed successful comic counter-narratives to the dominant one that Trump and his right-wing media supporters have perpetuated. We will now look at how they represent Trump, and what this says about him.
Alec Baldwin's CV includes Glengarry Glen Ross, the sit-com 30 Rock and now a regular spot on Saturday Night Live (SNL) impersonating Trump. SNL is a well established peak-time programme that has helped the careers of dozens of writers, performers and producers. Trump himself once hosted a show, something which will probably not be repeated. Baldwin's first Trump sketches went viral and his weekly sketches became essential viewing for those in need of some anti-Trump sanity. He nails the exaggerated pout, myopic frown and unvarying costume, and only needs to slightly amplify Trump's already farcical monologues to make them funny rather than frightening.
Baldwin's 'Trump' is speaking at a press conference and the writers focus on several points: Trump's lies about his height and weight; the southern border wall 'crisis' that he keeps forgetting about; the Mueller report into Russian interference in the 2016 election; and Trump's possible impeachment. The week before the sketch, Trump claimed in a medical report that he was 6 foot 3 inches and 243lbs, which is clinically obese, however images of Trump next to a 6 foot 3 baseball player did not back this up. Baldwin's 'Trump' claims he is still '6 foot 7, 185lbs. Shredded!' then makes an appeal for the border wall in typical semi-literate, telegrammatic fashion: 'We need wall because wall works. Wall makes safe.' The phoney crisis at the southern border is conveyed via Trump's egocentricity:
… so you can all see why I have to fake this national emergency, right. I have to because I want to.
During one of Trump's spontaneous press conferences in the White House grounds, he suddenly used a rising inflection at the end of each statement which sounded both petulant and bizarre, and was something which the SNL writers could not leave uncommented:
… [then] the Mueller report will be released, crumbling my house of cards, then I can plead insanity, and do a few months in the puzzle factory, and my personal hell of playing president will finally be over.
What is interesting here is not just the way Baldwin captures the weird speech patterns but the way the SNL writers expose what many of us feel: that Trump is only pretending to be president to boost his business acumen, and that he really doesn't know what he is doing. Does Trump secretly think that amid the chaos he inevitably causes, 'What have I got myself into? And how do I get out of it?' What we do know is that he is under-impressed by Baldwin: “Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad.”
And to make matters even more ridiculous, Trump responded to a later SNL show featuring Baldwin as Trump and tweeted “Should Federal Election Commission and/or FCC look into this?” not realising that a) it was a repeat, and b) the chances of an inquiry were zero. As Trump only tweets what is really bothering him personally rather than the economy, GDP or infrastructure, it is clear that SNL got right into him on numerous occasions.
Television for Trump either validates him or is simply 'fake news', and he remains an avid watcher. He is also vain, and despite the pachyderm front he is remarkably sensitive, so the SNL sketches bothered him because Baldwin is an outstanding mimic and the SNL writers are top-deck, whilst Trump knew that he could never come back with anything better. Baldwin's Trump is now a regular fixture on SNL, watched by millions around the world.
5. Trump v. Maher
He sold himself to this country as a business genius. Turns out, he's a reverse billionaire. His economic value was minus $1.17 billion and Melania was like, 'tell me again why am I'm fucking this guy?' - Bill Maher.
In January, 2017, the weekend after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, Bill Maher began his opening monologue by saying....
Well, it’s day 7 in the war on facts … [exasperated laugh/weep] … What the fuck is going on?
....thus encapsulating the bemused despair of millions of anti-Trump Americans and a lot more of their extended global family members. Maher hosts a weekly satirical show where he interviews politicians and other politically astute guests, framing them with tart monologues in an easy laid-back style with well crafted gags that are smart and to the point. Maher's impression of Trump is nowhere near Baldwin's, but he has a devoted audience and even though his politics, and audience, are clearly to the (American) left, his interviews with far-right commentators like Ann Coulter are entertaining rather than unpleasantly confrontational. Maher's programme uses a blend of intelligent commentary, interviews and monologues and has focused on Trump for the most of the year, as have many other talk show hosts like Conan O’Brien, Seth Meyers, and Jimmy Kimmel.
Since 2016, Maher's opening monologues have captured an increasing sense of bemusement and horror and he is at his best when slightly perplexed by Trump's weirdness, and the audience relates to this via mutual exasperation because nothing like this has happened in American politics before. No one can quite believe that this bellicose tangerine conman perpetually lies, abuses and slanders, whilst the House Republicans spinelessly ignore and refuse to moderate his most obvious excesses.
Maher refers to the multiple investigations into Trump, his family, and his business associates and how he either ignores or counter-sues in any legal proceedings:
“It's not really normal that the president's son is subpoenaed … They want to ask questions about his meetings with the Russians and Don Junior's not having it … [big applause] … Yeah, that'll change things.”
Maher typically balances satire and reality: comedy however incisive is not enough and for Maher, even straight political comment seems comical:
So democrats voted this week to hold [Attorney General William] Barr in contempt … [applause] … shut up! It's not doing any good! (laughing)
If anything, laughter can lead to questioning, and the expression of dissent can lead us to agitate for political change.
6. Trump v Colbert and Streep
In January, 2017, at Hollywood's Golden Globes Awards, Meryl Streep made a speech that criticised Donald Trump without actually naming him. She cited the moment when Trump mocked a disabled reporter who had questioned him at a press conference, which was a minor infraction as far as Trump's multiple insults go, but one that epitomises his mean-tempered intolerance and bullying rhetoric. Trump was infuriated and instigated a Tweet tempest calling Streep 'one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood'. Yet this 'over-rated actress' starred in Bridges Of Madison County ($182m), The Hours ($108m) and Mama Mia ($144m) whose profits speak in the only language he really understands. Stephen Colbert picked up on it the following night on his show:
Look Mr Trump, you can refuse to release your taxes, you can call a ban on an entire religion, you can play footsy with a dictator, but calling Meryl Streep over-rated? NO!
But there may have been a deeper reason for Trump's flurry of tweets to this rather mild criticism: in June, 2016, Streep had performed as Trump at a Shakespeare in the Park do in New York with a spray tan, weird wig and grossly swollen stomach.
Trump remembers anyone who criticises him, and his default setting is to overreact, but when he responds to jokes or skits he appears bad-tempered or worse, humourless.
In the opening monologue of his talk-show (29/4/19) Colbert also joked about the Democratic Presidential candidates who could be opposing Trump in the 2020 election saying that.....
....a lot of establishment Democrats were ringing their hands about stopping Bernie Sanders, okay, they were afraid he's unelectable cos he's 77 years old. Well, enter a plucky, young, up and coming, a full 14 months younger than Bernie, former Vice President, Joe Biden!
Colbert intimates that Trump, Sanders and Biden share many obvious personal characteristics but there are also 20 other Democratic candidates who are neither white, male, heterosexual or septuagenarian. Regarding the ages of Democrat opponents, Trump claimed that 'I feel like a young man. I'm so young... I am a young vibrant man!' Colbert continued Trump's boast by adding that (in his grinding Trump voice):
I have a limited vocabulary, I'm wearing a diaper and everything I see I put in my mouth.
Colbert's criticism is well-founded: to have one rich white septuagenarian male compete with two others like him is a disappointingly narrow choice given the variety of the other Democratic candidates: people of colour, women, gay, and young.
Whereas Maher is confident, relaxed and easy, Colbert is twitchy and nervous, with nerdy glasses and camp delivery as he fiddles with the buttons on his slim-fit suit jacket.
7. Trump v. Jokes
We cannot expect comedy to change the world, but it does point out transgressions and it can seize the narrative in mainstream and social media, as Baldwin's first impression of Trump did. Comedians such as Baldwin, Colbert and Maher who supply a counter-narrative in an immediate, entertaining format, at peak time, to an audience that has grown beyond the physical borders of the USA via the internet. They also have the advantage of having their views validated by the live audience's responses. This indicates a number of things. When the comedian makes jokes about Trump the audience responds in several ways simultaneously:
- the joke puts 'Trump' into a humiliating position and the audiences' fear of him is temporarily reduced
- they enjoy the 'comic punishment' for his transgressions
- the audience as individuals are empowered and their moral/political superiority over Trump is validated, however temporary that may be
- and there is a recognition of solidarity between the other members of the live audience and the comedian (and production team) which the viewer enjoys via the screen.
8. Trump v. Social Media
Trump is easy to caricature and jokes about his physicality as well as his behaviour are comedy currency. They include his speech and vocabulary; his straw canopy barnet; his florid complexion and pout; his awkward stance and dangling salami arms. Trump is such a bizarre figure with his rubbery policies, over-sensitivity and paranoia that he makes Richard Nixon look straight. And many news commentators have compared the Trump presidency to Nixon – only Trump is much worse and heading for bigger trouble than Nixon ever faced.
Jokes about Trump's' physicality – his sulky pout, distended stomach, and baby hands – may undermine his self-image, but there is a risk that these obvious superficialities distract from more critical considerations about his ill-thought out policies, blazing rages, bullying, grudges and often incoherent outbursts on Twitter.
In the same way that we can recognise a song we hate within a few seconds of hearing it, we have also become attuned to Trump's voice. As soon as we hear him speak, with his truculent, soggy bottom lip and 'ner-ner-ne-ner-ner,' delivery, we know that a rambling, self-aggrandising and inconclusive speech will follow, with its usual malapropisms. But it is Trump's tweets that have a concrete reality because everyone can cut and paste them, retweet them and mock them.
For political activists, news junkies, and those subject to public transport delays; for bloggers, vloggers, and non-grabbers of pussies or elsewhere, social media can give us a voice in an instantaneous and wide-reaching medium. Poorly phrased messages or drunk and unwise declarations in the wee hours are hardly rare but for most of us, they are soon deleted or forgotten. But if you're slobbing out on the bed, surrounded by TV remotes and burger debris, and given to rash flurries of angry tweets late at night, it can be a digital disaster, especially if you are a paranoid, thin-skinned rhinoceros who harbours grudges and just happens to be the President of the United States.
Trump's tweets set fire to news channels, stand-up comedians and inspire even more tweets, especially when at stressful times he sends out dozens over a few hours. Simple mistakes like ‘unsecure borders,’ 'smocking gun,' or ‘the possibility of lasting peach,’ or referring to 'Adam Schitt' or his wife as 'Melanie.' Trump may have command over the English-speaking world, but this does not extend to the English language, as his Twitter howlers show.
Although criticising some of Trump's spelling mistakes may seem petty (because it is), it would be different if he hadn't claimed to be a 'stable genius,' or of having 'the best words,' or hadn't tried to smother the release of his school grades. One tweet-boast said that he had 'written many best-selling books' and was 'somewhat priding myself on my ability to write' but as with most things around Trump, it was a falsehood: his books were ghost-written and his 'priding' needed to be severely modified.
Of course, Trump can boast about how popular he is on social media, i.e., a lot more than in reality and various polls, but forgets that millions of people who follow him do not support him, especially journalists, bloggers and comedians hunting for new material.
9. Trump v. Himself
What do Trump's hair and a thong have in common? They both barely cover the asshole.
Trump criticises the media coverage that criticises him: 'fake news!' he exclaims with fake indignation. And he knows all about falsehood because he projects it physically, from deep-fried crispy comb-over, down to made-up bone spurs. Although jokes about people's appearance are both too easy and obvious, Trump is so blatantly self-constructed that his obesity, Tango man-tan and hairdo are justifiable targets as they symbolise his lack of self-control and ultra-vanity. Trump felt differently about other people's physicality when he mocked a reporter who has a visible disability which was as stupidly juvenile as it was unforgivably asinine.
The Shredded Wheat bouffant is dyed a sickly yellow then wrapped around his head in a vainly complex manner to conceal the fact he is bald. But the obvious comb-over is indicative of an older generation for whom follicular subterfuge was acceptable. On the campaign trail, his 'Make America Great Again' baseball cap was a bold signifier to deflect attention from his sticky bonce, whilst pulling in dollars.
If horses are measured in hands, Donald Trump must have the biggest horses in the world.
Trump’s boastful nature is most apparent when he discusses himself sexually. His (immigrant) wife, who is 24 years younger than him, tells us that he can still dominate the duvet. During the contest for presidential nomination Marco Rubio, a Republican rival, joked about Trump’s small hands, cranking out the tiresome ‘you know what they say about men with small hands?’ There was absolutely no way that Trump would keep shtum about such an insult, that flooded social and mainstream media to much amused approval. Trump came back with a scantily clad reference to his genitals, turning a molehill into a mountain:
Look at those hands. Are those small hands?… he referred to my hands [that] if they're small, something else is small. I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee it.
But surely it’s his small hands that make his penis seem bigger?
'Take a Tic Tac and grab them by the pussy’ is the closest thing to a plan Donald Trump has described this entire election.” - Samantha Bee.
Trump's hands, however tiny, have got him into bother and the aroma of brazen sexuality around Trump was highlighted by the ‘pussy-grabbing’ revelations, which Trumpeteers tried to pass off as ‘locker- room banter,’ as if proximity to jockstraps and shoulder pads somehow ameliorated misogynist aggression. As Jimmy Fallon pointed out:
Trump later tried to downplay the comments, saying it was just locker-room banter. People didn't know what was crazier, his excuse or the idea that Trump's ever been to a gym.
Trump attempted to either deflect or normalise presidential sexual assault by citing the misconduct of former president Bill Clinton, as if that made it all okay. His relative ambivalence towards casual molestation must surely give cause to wonder how many ‘pussies’ ‘The Donald’ had grabbed throughout his long career. The allegations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood gropers and the subsequent #MeToo campaign give this a moral dimension: does a joke about Trump and his appalling attitude make light of sexual abuse, or is the comedian exposing his elephantine sexism and an inherently sexist industry?
Bill Maher pointed out that Trump is fat, or, less delicately, that 'he's a fucking fat fuck!' and recently referred to Trump as 'built like a melting porta-potty.' Trump carries his bulk awkwardly, and has the self-consciousness of large people who suspect that they are in the way. His favourite foods are hamburgers and hot dogs. Even though he plays golf, he uses a buggy to move around.
For all of his bluster and bullying 'The Donald' is unravelling and his hamartia, greed, is being exposed. There are a dozen or so inquiries into his finances and business dealings and his fat-headed boasts about being a billionaire are being questioned after Michael Cohen, his fixer now in prison, revealed Trump inflated his assets to secure loans, and deflated them to avoid taxes. His 'Art Of The Deal' book (1980s) was ghostwritten, and did not include the fact that he lost $1.7 billion between 1985-94. He has declared himself bankrupt six times and used legal suits to delay court cases against him in his private business dealings, something he is now doing to slow down the inquiries into his taxes and business profits.
His failures are many: the Trump Foundation was closed down due to fiduciary inexactitude; his phoney Trump University was closed after multiple law suits; and as for Trump vodka? Trump steaks? Who would trust the opinion of a teetotaller whose favourite food is hot dogs? If all these inquiries come out before the 2020 election, Trump's hubris will be exposed and he will finally be seen in history as one giant, bad joke.
Doc Ritchie is the founding editor of Comedy Studies Journal and the author of The Idler & Dandy In Stage Comedy and Performing Live Comedy.