The cries came as Donald Trump spoke about China’s economy before a crowd in Ashburn, Va.
A baby was interrupting the Republican presidential nominee. Trump immediately pivoted from currency devaluation to declare, “Don’t worry about that baby. I love babies! I hear that baby crying, I like it,” he said. “The mom’s running around, like . . . Don’t worry about it, you know? It’s young and beautiful and healthy, and that’s what we want.”
Trump continued talking, but more cries came minutes later. In a low voice, Trump said, “Actually, I was only kidding. You can get the baby out of here. That’s all right, don’t worry. I think she really believed me, that I love having a baby crying while I’m speaking!”
Wait, did Donald Trump just kick a baby out of a rally? He did say he was “only kidding” about being pro-crying-baby, so is he now serious about being anti-baby?
The episode spawned days of headlines proclaiming that Trump had ejected a baby. Except he hadn’t. It appears to have been an actual joke. And at the event, people were laughing when he said the baby should leave. Trump characterized the odd episode as the “dishonest media” lying about what he “jokingly” said.
It feels like a recurring feature of this campaign season: We simply can’t tell when the candidate is joking. At times it’s reminiscent of alt-comedy, when the punch line isn’t so obvious. And this uncertainty can allow Trump surrogates and supporters to portray a shocking statement, after the fact, as Trump “just joking.”
On Tuesday, Trump said that if Hillary Clinton “gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although, the Second Amendment people, maybe there is.”
Many interpreted the remark as Trump hinting that Clinton’s assassination was an option. Trump’s campaign insisted he wasn’t referring to assassination at all, but rather the voting power of gun-rights activists.
Such a joke, of course, isn’t necessarily an appropriate one. The cover of the New York Daily News proclaimed: “This isn’t a joke anymore.”
Telling a joke effectively, so that people know it’s a joke and laugh, involves several comedic principles. Chief among them: context.
“One thing that usually is present in most comedy is that you know it’s comedy,” says stand-up comedian Myq Kaplan. “There are certainly some anti-comedy and meta-comedy instances where that’s not the case, and like with pranks, where part of the goal sometimes is to deceive people.” But even with a traditional setup and punch line, “the whole context in which it’s contained is a comedy show,” where people are expecting to hear jokes — unlike at a political rally.
Tone and cadence amplify and can make or break a joke. Trump’s quips can come in the middle of his stump speeches or policy proposals, when it’s harder to detect the intended humor, especially since he uses sarcasm so often. For instance, he noted the aircraft flying above a June rally in New Hampshire and joked, “That could be a Mexican plane up there — they’re getting ready to attack,” spoofing his own negative rhetoric about Mexicans.
Comedian Judy Gold (who, like Kaplan, is not a Trump fan), has a simpler explanation for why the jokes don’t always work: “They’re not funny,” she says. “If you have to explain them, it’s not funny.”
Is it the audience’s responsibility to know whether a statement is a joke or not? Gold says no: “It’s always on the comedian.”
The crowd “came to the comedy club for one goal, to laugh, and it’s your job to make people laugh,” she says. Although there are rare instances in which it’s the audience’s fault, Gold says it’s generally like “blaming your car for needing an oil change.”
Kaplan put it this way: “It’s mostly the job of the comedian to make a joke that’s at least recognizable as a joke.”
Other politicians will deliver laugh lines within stump speeches that are more clearly jokes. “They’re self-deprecating,” Gold says. “When you think you’re the greatest thing that walked the face of the earth, you’re not funny.”
Persona and character are a big part of comedy. Some comics will establish a sweet demeanor, such as Sarah Silverman, only to shock audiences with a subversive, carefully crafted, outrageous statement.
But it’s difficult to achieve such a contrast with Trump, who has blown through political conventions by gaining popularity while making statements that would have been deemed campaign-ending in previous years. Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss was in part attributed to his “47 percent” remark that condescended to poorer Americans. When Trump announced his campaign, he unapologetically said Mexico was sending rapists across the border. That’s a high bar for shock in politics.
It’s gotten to the point where a fake transcript depicting Trump referencing a weapon from “Dragon Ball Z,” the Japanese anime television series, can fool people. Or when a Trump campaign spokeswoman’s televised statement about the Second Amendment line is questioned by reporters asking, “Is this real?”
Much of Trump’s appeal among supporters is the perception that he’s willing to be “politically incorrect” and not worry about offending others.
But if you take on emotionally charged topics that have a higher potential to hurt feelings, “it takes more work to make sure what you’re saying is interpreted the right way,” Kaplan says. “Certainly comedians and presidential candidates are and should be held to different standards. A comedian say can say all kinds of things, and if they’re skilled in presenting things — I’ve heard the most horrendous things and laughed at them. But they’re not running to be the people in charge of everything.”
It’s not that such material is off-limits, Gold says, citing her own jokes about the Holocaust. “The stakes are higher — the joke has to be even better.”
Many comics will poke fun at themselves or punch up by making the powerful the butt of the joke. But that’s tough to do if your image is premised on you being amazing at everything you do. You can end up punching down.
Take the November incident in which Trump mocked a New York Times reporter who has a disability. Trump faced immediate pushback, and video of the incident was used by a pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC to portray the Republican candidate as a bully. Trump, who later insisted he wasn’t imitating the reporter at all, said at the time he didn’t remember the man “despite having one of the all-time great memories.” The candidate also said in a statement that the Times “has become more and more irrelevant and rapidly becoming a total joke — sad!”
Sad? Wait — is he being sarcastic?