PHILADELPHIA — Everyone’s a comedian these days.
The third night at the Democratic National Convention included a Donald Trump impression from the vice-presidential nominee, a Funny or Die video featuring Gene Sperling cursing like a sailor, and a former mayor of New York channeling his inner Seinfeld.
“Trump says he wants to run the nation like he’s run his business — God help us!” riffed Michael Bloomberg, in a perfect sitcom patter. “I’m a New Yorker, and New Yorkers know a con when we see one!”
At some points this week, the Democratic convention seemed so geared for laughs that you might have listened for the rimshots. It started Monday night, when organizers deployed a couple of stand-up comedy veterans to contend with the noisily heckling Bernie Sanders supporters.
“This past year I’ve been feeling the Bern,” Sarah Silverman declared from the podium — and then, just as his fans started to roar: “Relax. I put some cream on it.”
The boos came quickly. But unlike the party establishment types who had preceded her on the stage, Silverman knew how to handle it: “Can I just say, to the Bernie or Bust people: You’re being ridiculous!” This awakened a lusty cheer from Hillary Clinton supporters — and an approving grin from Sen. Al Franken, a fellow “Saturday Night Live” alum.
“Listen to what you did,” he said. “This is the power of comedy.”
We have seen the power of comedy already in this election. Trump, a reality-TV star with no electoral or governing experience, managed to punch his way through the Republican field with something like an insult-comic’s routine. Sanders, meanwhile, emerged early as the candidate of choice for hipster comedians such as Silverman and Patton Oswalt — perhaps because he seemed to care so little about being funny or charming that it was funny and charming.
Comedy isn’t really Clinton’s style, despite her various efforts over the years to convince audiences that she has a sense of humor. But now we’re seeing some indication that her campaign hopes to deploy comic mockery in its attempt to deflate the Republican nominee.
On Tuesday night, actress Elizabeth Banks parodied Trump’s pro-wrestling-style entrance in Cleveland the previous week. (“The Trump campaign is so hard up for money I just bought that fog machine on eBay for 30 bucks,” she joked.) Ken Jeong of “The Hangover” movies starred in a video with economics guru Austan Goolsbee to rag on Trump’s foreign-made products. (“Holy Melania!” the comedian shrieked, upon hearing that Trump crystal barware is made in Slovenia.) And two young actresses took the stage this way:
“I’m Lena Dunham,” said the frequently naked creator-star of HBO’s “Girls,” “and according to Donald Trump, my body is probably a 2.”
“I’m America Ferrera,” said the Honduran American Emmy-winner, “and according to Donald Trump, I’m probably a rapist.”
The promise and the challenge of this tactic: Trump clearly chafes at mockery. But he’s been the butt of countless jokes over his career — and they have not only spurred his fame but also perhaps his current ambitions.
One oft-repeated origin story: In 2011, Donald Trump, then neck-deep in the conspiracy theory swamp of birtherism, attended the White House correspondents’ dinner and was so ravaged by President Obama’s stand-up routine that he decided to seek revenge by running for president himself.
Naturally, that’s an oversimplification. But a recent Buzzfeed article argued that decades of put-downs from “haters” (insiders, politicians, the entire island of Manhattan) motivated his quest for the presidency.
“He is a 70-year-old man with a chip on his shoulder as big as the understudy in a high school musical,” said Jon Lovett, a former Obama speechwriter who helped craft the barbs for that infamous dinner. “He’s on a lifelong mission to get respect, which is why it’s so effective to joke at his expense.”
Rag on an impulsive businessman long enough, and he might run for president. Rag on an impulsive candidate long enough, he might just fly off the handle. Clinton herself has needled his temperament, warning citizens that if someone gets “under his very thin skin” as president, he could start a nuclear war — a reminder to take these jokes seriously.
“If we can make people laugh at Donald Trump, I believe it will have a significant effect,” said Jon Macks, a former “Tonight Show” writer who has helped pen funny banquet speeches for the likes of Bill Clinton. “Because no one wants a clown for president.”
Trump may have given comedy writers plenty of fodder, from his iconic golden meringue of a hairdo to his old habit of pretending to be his own spokesman. And yet, Macks added: “How do you do a joke on a joke?”
“There are times for the comedy routine, but as far as ads go, I think the best move is to just use his own words against him,” Macks says.
This already appears to be part of the Democratic strategy. In one anti-Trump ad, women read back his greatest hits of misogynistic commentary; in another, children stare at TVs broadcasting his R-rated rhetoric and insults.
Thus far, the Democrats have largely relied on comedy surrogates. But following the norms of modern politics, Clinton will probably have to arm herself with a few zingers as well.
Consider the debates. Tens of millions of people will tune in for the prime-time events of the year, and many won’t be doing so to hear a 37-point economic plan. They’ll come for the cut-downs and snappy comebacks — the one-liners that can do more to forge or mend a public image than an hour-long sitdown with a network anchor.
In 1984, Ronald Reagan used self-deprecating wit to deal with questions about his age in a debate against Walter Mondale. “I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” the president quipped. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Even Mondale laughed at that one.
Clinton’s close friends say she’s a barrel of laughs, but she’s had a tough time showing it over the years. She has appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and “Broad City,” to some acclaim, but generally playing the straight man. And she often comes across as scripted — perhaps not surprising considering the vast number of strategists and staff scrambling behind the scenes for her every appearance.
Then again, Team Hillary does seem to be having fun with Trump already.
“He’s written a lot of books about business,” she said last month. “They all seem to end at Chapter 11.” Ba-da-bum.