I love comedy and comics. I love late night talk shows and stand-up specials. I get a genuine thrill watching comedians do ordinary things such as driving around in cars or baking pies. But recently, I stopped watching their political monologues and sketches. It’s not that comedy has gotten too political, it’s that politics has become too much like a comedy — a distressing thought given the amount of firepower at President Donald Trump’s finger tips.
In today’s political climate, in which vitriolic jokesters pose as serious political thinkers, Milo Yiannopoulos being a fine example, a new kind of comedy is needed in response. Plain and simple: The political-comedy news show isn’t suited for the Trump era. Satirical news got its start in a political climate far different from today’s. Under former presidents Bush and Obama, the sharpened joke could point out the hypocrisy behind our governmental institutions. Satire, as its great practitioner Jon Stewart described, was like a form of “sideline activism.” It used mockery to draw our attention to what needed fixing.
But given the current administration’s intention of discrediting any institution that gets in its way, more mockery further supports the president’s attacks on our democracy. What is needed is a political comedy that doesn’t meet the White House’s insults with more insults but stands apart from it.
The present cornucopia of comedians on television is indebted to the success of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” which set the standard for satirical news over the past 10 years. In its early years, the show marketed itself as “Fake News” somewhat proudly. Stewart began hosting in 1999 and raised its popularity over the course of the Bush presidency, thriving off of popular discontent with traditional journalism on television and the neoconservative administration.
In a 2014 interview, Stewart described the limits of his show, explaining that “satire isn’t journalism. … The tools we use are exaggeration, hyperbole, puns, imitation, ridicule. Sometimes they can cut through things in an easier way but generally in a more superficial way.”
Satirical news made a living off of questioning institutions that wanted our unquestioning support. The laughter lay in noticing the gap between what government was and what it said it was. Stewart’s tools of exaggeration, hyperbole and ridicule made laughter out of our dissatisfaction with the institutions of our democracy.
Trump’s administration has little respect for institutions. The president seeks to translate popular dissatisfaction with them into political support for himself alone. That gap, which helped satirical news get laughs, is the well from which Trump draws his support. Far from seeking to remedy popular dissatisfaction, Trump wants to further it for his own gain. And that truly is the essential difference between himself and the previous presidents.
With a White House intent on exploiting discontent, the hyperbole and ridicule in satirical news seem to only further the president’s agenda.
This is more or less the way I feel when I watch Stephen Colbert or Samantha Bee. I see a lot of the comedic devices, which once delighted me, only add to the mudslinging atmosphere. In today’s political climate, exaggeration and ridicule can easily go too far. Take, for instance, Colbert’s controversial Trump/Putin joke, which nearly ended in an FCC penalty. And on the opposite end, when comedians feel the need to break character and speak from the heart, as Jimmy Kimmel did during the health care debate, problems arise with the credibility of a comic-turned-activist.
What should television comedians do in the era of Trump? The onus on being funny will not go away. But the political comedian now more than ever has some responsibilities. The challenge under Trump is to avoid adding to the vitriol, the exaggerations, the distortions of the truth and the division. The goal remains to “cut through” it all, as Stewart said. And if that’s already difficult for traditional journalism, it may be more so for comedy.
When Milo’s clown show came to Berkeley, with all his crudeness and calumny, he was met by many, many serious and earnest voices — irrespective of your stance on the violence. I think it took a second time around for the city to find the right volume for its response, but we learned a valuable lesson in the process: Calmness may be the right way to cut through the chaos.
Political humor is at its best when it counters the powerful. But when the powerful are already a joke, then the counter is seriousness, sobriety and reflection. Satirical news may have grabbed the spotlight in the early aughts, but it’s time for sharp and incisive journalism to reassert itself in an era that needs it more than ever. Make candor the new comedy. Make thoughtful and earnest speech the answer to provocation.