We’re in the middle of a big comedy boom, one that predated President Trump’s election and has been pushed along by forces that don’t have much to do with him at all.
But Trump in the White House has certainly impacted how some comedians approach their work. In the lead-up to November, a common refrain was that the unconventional campaign with an unconventional candidate — a flashy businessman turned reality TV star with no government experience — would be amazing for comedy.
Well — has it been? On TV, late-night shows going heavy on jokes at the expense of Trump, such as “Saturday Night Live” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” have enjoyed ratings boosts. And more news-driven comedy shows have gone on air.
As I interviewed performers about what it’s like to do comedy in 2017, the topic of politics would arise. While many comics made clear their opposition to Trump, I also asked them: Is Trump good for comedy? Has his presidency — and the polarization of America — made it easier or harder for you to practice your craft? Do audiences expect you to talk about it?
Roy Wood Jr. (stand-up comic, “The Daily Show” correspondent)
Wood says Trump “woke people on both sides of the aisle,” and it’s not a time for “passive people anymore.”
“With passion comes an elongated attention span,” he says. “I know dudes in the hood talking about environmentalism now because of Trump. Like there’s guys who I know for sure wouldn’t know anything talking about Paris — ‘Did you hear about the Paris agreement?’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? Is that a new sneaker?’”
“There are enough, different angles of approach” for comics doing political humor. With Obama in the White House “or an administration that’s not as wacky, it’s a bone carcass in the middle of the desert that everybody’s trying to pick a little punch line off of. The Trump administration is a f—ing beached whale that everybody can eat from,” he says.
Abbi Jacobson (comedian, “Broad City” co-creator)
“I’d rather not have to deal with it. The [‘Broad City’] episode we’re showing [at Comedy Central’s Clusterfest] deals with Trump and in a big way that we don’t really in any other episode as much. And I love what we did and love the choices we made in talking about what’s going on with him. I guess anything this big and like, world-changing in the political climate sadly is always really good for art in general,” she says. “That’s where the artists need to come in more. Like, if nothing bad is going on, what would art be talking about, kind of? I know it’s terrible to say, but a lot of the best art is talking about something that’s not necessarily the happiest of times.”
Ilana Glazer (comedian, “Broad City” co-creator)
“It is definitely unfortunate that it is so desperately necessary because I wish that the regular discourse included the ideals that are almost only okay in comedy because it’s like there’s this buckle of, it’s in the comedy realm so it’s not for real. But I wish that common discourse was as honest as the comedy discourse is.”
Michael Che (stand-up comic, SNL “Weekend Update” co-anchor)
“It’s terrible for comedy. Now you gotta dedicate 10 minutes about Trump. He’s in the elephant in the room and it makes for the same types of jokes all the time. When you talk about him, you’re pretty much saying the same things about him.”
To people who ask “why do you talk about him so much” on SNL’s “Weekend Update,” Che says, “Well, it’s a news segment and it’s hard not to.”
“We don’t even get to write our show until Thursday or Friday of ‘Weekend Update,’ and the crazy stuff he’s done Monday or Tuesday has become such a footnote by Saturday night,” Che says. “It’s harder because Trump is covered so closely and so deeply. … It’s a difficult time to make comedy that stands out. But it’s also an exciting time when you do find something that’s different or interesting or a take that’s fun — it feels special.”
(Disclosure: As a stand-up comic, I’ve opened for Michael Che.)
Ron Funches (stand-up comic, actor)
Funches says he never really did political satire in his act before. “If it’s people coming to my shows they usually know what I’m about, and so they’re not coming for that, they’re coming to escape that. And so I like to offer that … If I’m at like at the Comedy Store or the Improv, yes, sometimes I feel that I feel they’re like, ‘This guy doesn’t talk about what all the other comedians talk about.’ But I like that. I don’t want to talk about what all the other comedians are talking about. And I don’t want to use a bad thing to help me get successful … That doesn’t make me feel good.”
Phoebe Robinson (stand-up comic, podcast host for “Sooo Many White Guys” and “2 Dope Queens”)
“Well, obviously he’s not who I want to be president, so I really just keep trying to do comedy. I don’t think it’s made easier or more difficult. I’ve always kind of talked about feminist stuff in politics in my comedy, so that’s kind of just been business as usual,” she says.
“With ‘Sooo Many White Guys,’ I did want to have maybe more conversations with people that I don’t always agree with on stuff on Season 2 than I did on Season 1, and that was really cool. But outside of that, I’m still going to keep doing comedy and just trying to represent for people I feel like don’t get represented enough and also provide the space for people to represent for others.”
She says maybe she’d feel differently if she was an overtly political comic. “I’m always looking at it from the funny first and then if I can address issues, I do,” she says. “I don’t think we need a ton of comedians to become political pundits. I still want my comedy be, you know, a relief for people.”
Kyle Kinane (stand-up comic)
“You know what bums me out even more than, you know, his driving society down, is how lazy the comedy is around it. That’s what pisses me off, like — ‘Oh the orange one.’ Like remember how s—y the Republican conservative stuff was when every caricature of Obama had big ears and stuff, and how lazy that was? And you look like, this is s— comedy. Republicans suck at f—ing comedy and that’s how the left looks when they take the easiest joke. ‘Oh, he’s orange!’ Or ‘His hair is screwy!’ That’s lazy garbage comedy and it means nothing … There’s some good messages out there and that stuff’s just static that gets in the way. So that’s what annoys me more, is good comedians stooping to mediocre effort.”
Maria Bamford (stand-up comic, “Lady Dynamite” star)
Bamford says impersonations and jokes can show “the truth according to that person but also sometimes the truth of what everyone’s seeing.” But she still questions the extent of humor’s power to create change.
“There’s this comedian, Dwayne Kennedy, who said comedy’s never changed anything — there were slaves back in plantation days that did shows for their masters, and the masters would say ‘That’s funny! But not get-your-freedom funny,'” she says. “I don’t know? I don’t know how much power it has beyond make people not feel hopeless, or valuable, that I can take some action,” she adds. “I wrote my three postcards to John McCain today. I keep thinking, John McCain, he knows this is insane. If I keep sending him a postcard …”
Mike Birbiglia (stand-up comic, filmmaker)
Birbiglia actively tweets about politics and he pointed to a Bo Burnham tweet: “If you don’t want comedians weighing in on politics, don’t elect a joke.’”
“When you go on Twitter, how could you not want to talk about this? Twitter’s about the present, what’s happening — it literally says, ‘What’s going on?’ Well, this is what the f—‘s going on.”
But his act isn’t heavy on political humor. “It’s, by force, all of our full-time jobs to follow news and current events, and get involved, and so I feel like at least what I do, I try to make it about personal stuff and family. I’ve always in the background thought that I’ve sort of had one foot in that pool for a long time, but now I have both feet in, just because you’re not going to win that argument in your one-hour show, and if you are, you better spend the whole hour on it.”
He does point to a line in his current show referencing every state getting two senators. “That’s my way of being like, I’m paying attention. I’m not going to spend a long time on it but let’s make a note that Oklahoma has two senators and it’s a little silly because there ain’t no people there.”
T.J. Miller (stand-up comic, former “Silicon Valley” actor)
He says doing comedy in 2017 is a total “bummer,” but “luckily we have the weapon of satire.”
“Everybody’s trying to figure out how to talk about it, and that’s really tough,” he adds. “I just finished an HBO special, so instead of being able to stroll out and be like, ‘Here’s the funny things I thought about before this f—ing Armageddon and the burning of the American empire happening before our very eyes,’ it’s like, the worst.
“But part of the departure from ‘Silicon Valley’ is me being like, how can I help? You know truly there’s only one way. It is to distract and empower through narrative, but to talk directly to people. So yeah, I had to do more stand-up, and I needed four and a half more months of my time devoted to stand-up, not to being on a Mike Judge show that was a lightning bolt strike of good fortune and a great education … Then I talked to Ellen DeGeneres about this. She’s like, ‘I’m going back’ and she’s like, ‘I should call you, you know my jokes’ — because she’s my icon — ‘better than I do, and I like, have to go back and do stand-up.’ And I was like, f—ing tell me about it. I’m about to quit this TV show for the same reason.”
Jim Jefferies (stand-up comic, host of “The Jim Jefferies Show”)
He says Trump is bad for comedy. “Remember back to the George W. Bush era? You could go to a coffee shop and Starbucks would sell a book like ‘Bushisms.’ Everyone was doing it. The difference with comedians and the general public is that we’re meant to be funnier than the general public, and when you’ve got politicians giving material so easy that the general public is doing it, what’s the necessity of us anymore?”
Cole Bolton (editor-in-chief of the Onion)
“We’re contending with a world where there just a lot more people making political jokes,” from new TV shows to “a million people on Twitter who think they’re particularly funny right now because they get to make fun of the Trump administration.”
“I think we’re never out of material,” he says of satire. “The motto of the Onion is ‘Tu stultus est,’ which means ‘You are dumb.’ What we like to do here is indict everything in the world that we think is dumb. Everything ranging from like hypocrisy to greed to lying to corruption. It’s been like a surfeit of everything stupid recently. So that’s a blessing and a curse in that we were never at a loss to write about something. But we’re I think we’re a little fatigued about it.”
Abby Ohlheiser contributed to this report.