Like most of his White House predecessors, Donald Trump has often taken credit for the creation of jobs that had nothing to do with him.
However, there is one booming job category that Trump would rather not talk about, even though its growth had everything to do with him.
I speak of the Humor Industrial Complex. There’s certainly been no recession for that sector during his tenure in the White House. For humorists, Trump has been a one-man stimulus package, launching or boosting comedy careers, the gift that just kept on giving for late-night TV hosts, stand-up comedians, and sundry satirists in print and online.
Indeed, it was stand-up comic John Mulaney, not known for political material, who came up with the single most inspired analogy for the Trump presidency. “This guy being the president, it’s like there’s a horse loose in a hospital,” Mulaney cracked in “Kid Gorgeous at Radio City,” his 2018 Netflix special. “It’s never happened before. No one knows what the horse is going to do, least of all the horse.”
Well, I guess now we know. Recognizing that there was nothing remotely funny about Trump’s incitement of a mob who attacked the US Capitol last week, humorists have responded with a combination of fury and solemnity that matches this moment of national crisis — and that shows no sign of abating.
It’s not that jokes and punch lines have disappeared from the equation — after all, nothing takes the air out of a demagogue’s balloon better than mockery — but we seem to have entered a post-9/11-like period of gravity. Consider Monday night on CBS’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” when a livid Colbert denounced the “coordinated and planned attempt to terrorize, if not kill, our nation’s elected leaders,” then paused and pointed toward the camera. “And the prompter just says ‘Insert joke here,’” Colbert said, as the prompter was shown saying exactly that.
His voice laced with sarcasm, Colbert asked his offscreen producers: “Can we just get a really good joke there, super-topical, on point, but really funny, and heals the nation? Thank you.”
Healing the nation, if that’s even possible, will require a hefty dose of reality therapy, and prominent among those determined to give it to us are the people whose usual business is making us laugh. Of course, in many ways humorists have been sounding the alarm about Trump all along, especially the late-night TV hosts.
Because Trump’s malevolence has always gone hand-in-hand with his buffoonery, he has been a boon to what we might call the comedy of crisis. Satirists have spoken and written often of the threat he poses to democracy while also delivering cleverly incisive takes on his behavior, a combination that offered a measure of catharsis and a psychological bulwark against the daily madness.
They’re emphasizing the dead-serious aspects of our current quandary now. NBC’s Seth Meyers opened his “A Closer Look” segment on “Late Night” Monday as if he were a congressman announcing an article of impeachment: “The sitting president of the United States is the leader of a violent insurrectionist movement who incited a seditious mob of right-wing terrorists to ransack the Capitol and overthrow American democracy.” Meyers ended the segment by calling for “the immediate removal and prosecution of Donald Trump for sedition.”
Sarah Cooper, host of “Everything’s Fine,” a comedy sketch show on Netflix, tweeted: “The party of law and order wants to let the criminal go. And if there is more violence, we have them all on record saying it.” Last Friday, Sacha Baron Cohen of “Borat” fame ripped Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Dorsey’s own platform: “5 people are dead because of Trump’s election lies — lies you helped spread! How many more have to die before you ban Trump from Twitter?!” (Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account that same day.)
Even YouTube star Randy Rainbow, known for uproarious musical Trump parodies, shifted into an uncharacteristically earnest mode, tweeting: “Special thanks to everyone fighting to protect the American people from the president of the United States of America.”
In the past week, I’ve thought back to my interview last summer with Jon Stewart. When I asked if he wished he’d had Trump’s presidency to lampoon when he was still hosting “The Daily Show,” Stewart gave a mirthless laugh, then replied, drawing out the vowel in his first word: “Not at all. I would have preferred that no one else had that either.”
Plenty of humorists, not to mention average citizens, would doubtless second that motion, considering the civic trauma of the past week (and well before that). After Trump posted a scripted video the day after the riots in which he called for “healing and reconciliation,” Colbert told CBS viewers: “I’m not going to show you a word of his video, because he doesn’t mean a word of it.” Trump’s name is rendered as “T****” on Colbert’s show, and the host has avoided saying his name, referring to “the president” instead.
That title will soon be wrested from Trump’s hands, so it’s time to wonder: Whither comedy and satire after the curtain comes down on the Trump Follies? After all, there are only so many jokes you can make about Joe Biden’s advanced age or his even more advanced loquaciousness. Biden’s periodic detours into goofiness pale next to the antics of a soon-to-be-ex-White-House occupant whose permanent fixed address seems to be a little place called Alternate Reality.
But once the current crisis passes, it will probably still be possible to find satire-worthy material within the Trumpian orbit, and not just from him. Take, for example, the Trump enablers and apologists now trying to claw their way back to respectability — call it the rebirther movement — who are claiming, hilariously, that the president who incited the riot was somehow a different guy than he was before, even though he’s been indulging in violent rhetoric for years.
Given that many humorists lean left, it’s virtually certain they’ll be able to mine an even larger wealth of comic material from Fox News, which expanded its prime-time opinion programming this week. Don’t forget that Stewart, after making mincemeat of President George W. Bush from 2000 to 2008, intensified his focus on Fox News — or, as Stewart called it, “[Expletive] Mountain” — after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.
But there’s no question humorists will have a post-Trump vacuum to fill. He has been a veritable horn of plenty for late-night hosts like Colbert, Meyers, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, Bill Maher, and John Oliver. (Colbert co-created an animated series for Showtime about Trump, “Our Cartoon President,” that was based on a recurring bit from his CBS show.)
Without intending or wanting to, Trump also gave a big career boost to the clever likes of Washington Post political satirist Alexandra Petri, comedy writer-performer Amber Ruffin (“The Amber Ruffin Show,” on Peacock), and New Yorker magazine humorist Andy Borowitz (”The Borowitz Report”). For them and everyone else in the humor business, it’s been a constant race to keep up with the surreal facts of Trump’s actual words and actions; indeed, the headlines in “The Borowitz Report” or the Onion were not always that far removed from the ones in actual newspapers (which is why social media posts of links to stories about Trump often began with “Not the Onion” disclaimers).
In a development that clearly irritated Trump, Alec Baldwin enjoyed a post-”30 Rock” resurgence of visibility when he became a fixture on “Saturday Night Live” with impersonations of the president. But Baldwin’s portrayals of a babbling, unhinged president in “SNL”’s cold-open sketches also underscored the principal challenge for comedians: How to go further over the top than Trump himself did? How to caricature a caricature?
The answer Sarah Cooper came up with rested on a recognition that Trump’s own words often served as the best punch line. She began posting videos on TikTok and other online platforms of her lip-syncing along to recordings of the president’s ramblings and ravings. Cooper quickly became a social media sensation and landed her own show.
As for Randy Rainbow, he found a way to essentially cast Trump as a lead character in musical comedies. Rainbow used green-screen technology and excerpts from actual presidential interviews to make it appear that he was grilling Trump, a prelude to witty songs that fused Trump-specific lyrics with the melodies of familiar musicals. Last week’s offering was “Sedition,” to the tune of “Tradition,” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
On Monday, Rainbow sent out a tweet that served as a mordant reminder that humor’s specialty, the thing that gives it a vital role in dark days like these, is finding something funny in situations that are not funny at all: “I wish the horrifying assault on democracy would end so I could just get back to my devastating pandemic.”