When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) dropped out of the 2016 Republican primary, Samantha Bee mourned. In early May of that year, Bee paid tribute to the eminently mockable presidential hopeful on her late-night TBS show, “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.” Pulling out an oversize book labeled “Cruz Thesaurus,” Bee let ’em rip, calling the Texas senator a “revival-tent Gollum”; “tentacle monster”; “half-melted Reagan dummy”; and “the junior senator from the uncanny valley,” to name a few.
Cruz’s face was a gold mine for Bee’s writing staff, and her audience roared whenever Bee dunked on him. She, and Cruz, are not alone: Criticizing political figures by poking fun at their personal appearance and physicality has been a mainstay of late-night comedy since “Saturday Night Live” opened its fourth-ever episode with Chevy Chase as a bumbling, stumbling Gerald Ford. These days, it’s not uncommon to see late-night hosts and comedians feign disgust at Stephen K. Bannon’s sallow complexion (Stephen Colbert), refer to Jeff Sessions as an elf (“Saturday Night Live”), or point out the resemblance between Mitch McConnell and an intimate part of a female chicken’s anatomy (Trevor Noah).
Over the past decade, comedy has faced a reckoning over the uneasy power dynamics and moral implications of such humor (e.g., the way late-night jokes about Monica Lewinsky’s appearance shaped her public persona). But there’s another layer to this issue: Donald Trump, today’s biggest political-comedy target, dished out one demeaning slur after another on the way to the Oval Office — such as disparaging his GOP primary opponent Carly Fiorina at a 2015 rally (“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”) — and recently referred to Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) as “Fat Jerry,” to name just a couple examples. When the president himself directly insults people’s looks in the gut-punch style of a stand-up comic, do late-night shows have license to do the same? And, perhaps most importantly: Are jokes of this kind even funny?
Elliott Kalan, a former head writer for “The Daily Show” under Jon Stewart, says the ideal joke is more substantive. “It’s rare that the situation ever comes up where it’s like, this is all good stuff about this person’s policies, but let’s dig deep and see if we can come up with a joke about their appearance,” he says. For the two-time Emmy winner, making fun of a person’s looks isn’t exactly off the table, but it shouldn’t become a crutch for writers of political comedy. “Certainly there was a point when it was very easy to come up with Chris Christie weight jokes, and we had to say, we’re not doing those.”
The tradition of skewering the appearance of public figures goes back to 1360 B.C., when an artist drew an unflattering caricature of King Tut’s father-in-law. Political cartoonists have been doing it for centuries, using aspects of politicians’ looks as metaphors for their personalities or policies. Days before the Republican National Convention in 1908, a cartoon by William Henry Walker graced the cover of Harper’s Weekly, showing the infamously heavy Republican presidential nominee William Howard Taft busting out of an ill-fitting army uniform — Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Rider outfit. But the butt of the joke wasn’t just Taft’s weight. Walker’s cartoon reflects criticism that Taft, Roosevelt’s secretary of war, obsequiously followed the president’s lead. At the bottom of the cartoon, Uncle Sam tuts, “Bill, you’d look so much better in your own clothes.”
There’s an echo of these early attacks in contemporary late-night comedy. According to Jeffrey P. Jones, a professor of entertainment and media studies at the University of Georgia and the executive director of the Peabody Awards, TV shows didn’t ridicule presidents until Chase’s infamous Ford sketches on SNL. As television turned campaigning into a kind of reality show, the physical attributes of political figures were increasingly offered up for scrutiny in unforgiving close-up in living rooms across America.
Johnny Carson went after Ronald Reagan’s jet-black hair so often that Nancy Reagan asked him to stop. In a backhanded sort of way, he did, clarifying to his audience that Reagan doesn’t dye his hair — “he bleaches his face.” And it wasn’t just comedians who cracked about leaders’ looks: Gerald Ford took aim not only at Reagan’s hair but his deeply tanned skin when he said of his onetime GOP primary challenger, “He doesn’t dye his hair — he’s just prematurely orange.”
Kalan recalls a favorite target of “The Daily Show,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). “He has a very Blanche DuBois way of talking, he has that Southern voice, and he uses it to feign outrage at things,” Kalan explains. “‘I do declare! I can’t believe it! Never have I ever seen!’ That I think is okay, because he’s using his voice as a political tool — he is pretending to be upset in a way that mirrors a character trope of Southern womanhood.” But, he adds, “There were times when our jokes would edge into, I think, implying he’s gay, and that’s not okay.”
(Representatives from the late-night shows “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” “SNL,” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” all declined to speak for this piece.)
These jokes go hand-in-hand with the way we view their targets. Studies show that we quickly form judgments about people based on even the most fleeting impressions of the way they look and talk, and that affects the way we evaluate political candidates. Robert Lichter, the director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, an organization that tracks late-night political humor, says that more late-night jokes about a politician — about both policies and personal traits — correlates with lower favorability ratings (though that doesn’t mean one causes the other).
Lichter adds that jokes can end up engaging the public in unintended ways. “They take people who don’t know much about politics and get them more interested,” he says.
J.R. Havlan, who wrote for both Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” says jokes that some might have perceived as too aggressive — like Stewart repeatedly comparing Mitch McConnell to a turtle — were driven by the writers’ real sense of anger at the targets of their ridicule. “We were offended by what they were doing, we were offended by decisions they made, things they said and bills they passed and ideas they had. We were quicker to be mean to them because in our minds, it was more justified. They deserved it, you know?”
Of course, until recently, white men dominated late-night writers rooms, making certain individuals and minority groups targets for cheap shots. In the 1990s, late-night hosts were notoriously savage in their treatment of women such as Anita Hill and Lewinsky; the latter was mercifully teased for both her looks and her sexual history. “Monica Lewinsky has gained back all the weight she lost last year,” Jay Leno quipped. “In fact, she told reporters she was even considering having her jaw wired shut, but then, nah — she didn’t want to give up her sex life.”
For Keisha Zollar, who wrote for Comedy Central’s “The Opposition With Jordan Klepper” and is now on the writing staff of “Busy Tonight,” referencing a political figure’s looks is often a kind of shorthand. “You’re introducing characters, points of view, how we feel about them,” she says. Still, she steers away from such jokes.
“Specifically, as a woman of color, my physical perception has been commented on,” Zollar says, which makes her want to avoid doing the same. “I love jokes that highlight somebody’s emotional attitude,” she says, citing one joke from “The Opposition” comparing Fox News host Laura Ingraham to “the woman who keeps asking for the manager at Pottery Barn.”
In 1976, Chevy Chase told Time magazine, “Ford is so inept that the quickest laugh is the cheapest laugh, and the cheapest laugh is the physical joke.” Today, some writers feel the opposite — that Trump’s flaws mean comedy should avoid what’s easy.
Kalan has no patience for quips about Trump’s orange skin or weird hair, since “there’s so much about his soul” that’s open to critique. “To talk about his appearance, it’s like, c’mon, what are we doing?” he says. “It’s one of those moments when you’re like, ‘Am I stooping to the same level as the president?’ ”