Stand-up Comedians Regroup Against Trump’s Shade

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Filed under: Media Literacy, Parody, Political Challenges, Satire, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction

Satire has always been our front line of defense against the insanity of our so-called leaders. But with Trump’s alternative reality reaching such exalted new heights, comedians need new strategies.

As we approach the first summer of the Trump presidency, comics are realizing their job isn't figuring out the perfect way to skewer President Trump-their job is to find the humor that pushes us past him, his acrimony, and his chaos. If that's even possible.

Funny, How? Inside Stand-Up Comedy’s Donald Trump Problem
by Burt Helm
June 2, 2017

The absurd usually makes for great comedic fodder. But when the source of that ridiculousness is the man tasked with, you know, running the United States…is it still funny? Everyone from Jerrod Carmichael to Michael Che to Lena Dunham is trying to figure that out.

On a Monday night in January, people looking to escape the gloom and chaos of Donald Trump's first two weeks in office gathered at Brooklyn's Knitting Factory for Michael Che's Secret Show. Tickets to the special comedy event, which benefitted Planned Parenthood, went on sale five days after the inauguration and four days after the Women's March became one of the largest-scale protests in American history (also, three days after the birth of “alternative facts," two days after the President pushed false voter fraud rumors, and one day after the first reports of his impending refugee ban). The show sold out in under an hour. As soon as Cipha Sounds, a New York City-based DJ and comedian, took the stage and started spinning, heads in the crowd were bobbing, expectant smiles on their faces. "Out of the five fingers on your hand, which one do you feel represents your feelings toward Donald Trump?" asked Cipha, cranking the volume on CeeLo's "Fuck You."

"It's not about an agenda. It's more about bringing you guys a fun fucking show," Che said, welcoming the audience. He brought up a comedy Dream Team: Kevin Iso, Mike Birbiglia, Amy Schumer, Colin Quinn, Lena Dunham, Leslie Jones, John Mulaney, and Che's partner on Saturday Night Live's “Weekend Update,” Colin Jost. But this was not a night for liberals to forget their woes. None of the performers could finish his or her set without referencing the political climate. They went dark; they looked for bitter laughs.

"Tomorrow, he's going to pick a Supreme Court justice and it's going to be like, literally, the fucking bad guy from Mad Max," said Amy Schumer. "Since November you just find yourself Googling, ‘What do you do when someone who talks like a dictator takes over your country?'" said Mike Birbiglia. Lena Dunham told a story about Trump lewdly complimenting her friend when she was 12 (more on that later). In the same way Donald Trump had willed himself into the news cycle and then the White House, he had muscled his way into their acts, too.

"I'm sick of having to pay attention to all this shit," John Mulaney told the crowd. "That will be the lasting grievance I have, is that I can't zone out and stare at the wall, which is my greatest goddamn pleasure in life," he said. "That is an American right that has been taken away."

As the 45th president enters his fifth month in office, stand-up comedians continue to wrangle with the paradox that is President Donald Trump. He is an absurdist's dream: a braggadocious, self-pitying billionaire with a Donald Duck temper; our nation's punchline-in-chief. But Trump is not comedy gold. He's pyrite, a one-note, worn-out punchline-even children have the impression down. Mocking him can feel redundant: What parody could be more outlandish than Trump himself? He already makes gruff boasts alongside bespectacled Easter bunnies, and tweets words that are not actually words. And yet, ignoring Trump would be flagrantly tone deaf. As comic Bill Dawes puts it: "It's the orange elephant in the room."

While the "How to cover Trump" quandary has plagued the media ever since his election, it's caused at least as much consternation and doubt among stand-up comedians over the last six months, too. In a December Village Voice article titled "Comedians in the Age of Trump: Forget Your Stupid Toupee Jokes," New York-based comic Aparna Nancherla urged her colleagues to question how they went about "our quasi-contractual obligation as comedians to roast the powerful."

"The problem isn't that he's unmockable; it's that he's too dangerous to simply mock," wrote Nancherla. "How do we laugh at this world when it's run by a man who not only can't take a joke, but would be giddy at the prospect of taking away our right to make them at all?"

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