‘You should do a ‘Veep’ about Trump.”
“You should make an ‘In the Loop’ sequel about Brexit.”
“Have you ever thought of doing ‘The Death of Stalin,’ but about Paul Ryan?”
I get lots of requests to take my fictional TV and film projects and write versions of them responding to current events. My answer is inevitably “No!” What’s the point of fiction if it’s not somehow different from reality? Yes, it should bear a similarity, but don’t we go to it because it’s also a relief from the real world — a heightened, absurd, dramatic or amusing version of what’s happening in front of us? And I get paid to make things up, so ironically, by making my shows more real, I’d be committing fraud.
But reality has jumped the shark right now, and any attempt to present a fictional version of today’s events would never be as crazy as the real thing. The truth — in Washington, London or Moscow — is much more demented than fiction, signaling a full-on existential crisis for the comedy writer. No showrunner in his or her right mind would make their sitcom president urge his press secretary to go out on Day 1 of his administration and change the laws of math. If a hapless Sean Spicer character on a TV comedy had to spin photos showing a half-empty Mall into proof of the biggest inauguration crowd ever assembled, ever, period, President Trump would tweet that it was “unwatchable.”
Unwatchable comedy has come to Britain, too. Last year, Prime Minister Theresa May stood before her party conference and had a coughing fit while the letters in the slogan “Building a country that works for everyone” started falling off the screen behind her. If that had been presented to me as a script idea, I would have rejected it as too childish. It would have been a step up in maturity if the writers then suggested that the remaining letters should form the word “butt.”
When people say to me that the Trump White House is so like “Veep,” I take that as an insult to “Veep.” We hired experienced consultants to tell us what language political operatives use and to walk us through the rhythm and pace of their daily lives. The real White House tried to nominate for a lifetime judicial appointment someone who was unable to answer the most basic questions about how trials work. As a plot twist, that’s just too on the nose. On the HBO show, the creative team spends long days writing and rewriting to get four or five plotlines neatly dovetailing and dancing to a satisfying climax. In the Trump White House, there is no neat dovetailing and certainly no satisfying climax; the president says he’ll sign a spending bill, then tweets that he won’t sign it , signs it anyway, wants us to know he’s signed it so he tweets about signing it, but then tweets that he didn't like signing it and that he’ll never sign another one like it. That’s a terrible plotline. And also a signal that someone needs medical help.
Sometimes, Trump’s arbitrary and disjointed actions in the Oval Office accidentally align in such a way that if you squint, they could be taken to resemble a classic comedy storyline — just as a room full of an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters might one day happen to write “Hamlet.”
It nearly came together that way in the past couple of weeks. Trump had been teasing Andrew McCabe , the deputy director of the FBI, that he might be fired before his pension could kick in. For a while, it looked like we might be in for a masterpiece of comic plotting: Trump would wait till Jeff Sessions fired McCabe before firing Sessions, to replace him with an attorney general who would then fire Robert Mueller. It would have been the third act of a screwball comedy worthy of Preston Sturges. Instead, once Sessions did his bit, Trump forgot his lines and fired national security adviser H.R. McMaster. He also switched genres, since the arrival of John Bolton is more tragedy than comedy.
Trump came to Washington from the world of television, and he seems to think he’s still making it, though liberated now from any quality control that a professional creative team might have imposed. Perhaps the dissonant mixing of genres is deliberate, and Trump believes he’s producing some hybrid reality entertainment drama mixed with a suspense movie. He loves sudden disappearances, unforeseen plot twists and characters that look, as he reportedly said about members of his Cabinet, like they are straight out of “central casting.” (Only if you were casting a dystopian horror film.)
We are therefore encouraged to see Trump as primarily a showman, which makes it even harder for actual comedians to compete. If he says anything outrageous or racist, his press secretary appears the next morning and says he was just “making a joke.” Normally, we castigate the comedian if his or her jokes are no good, but Trump chooses to chastise his audience for just not getting it. And how will he answer for more momentous acts? After bombing North Korea, would the White House declare that it was “just a skit”?
As Trump acts like a professional clown whom we booked for a party four years long, the comedians who have the better take on current events are those such as John Oliver and Samantha Bee — who act like journalists. They just present the facts: “Look at this . . . and this . . . and then this happened.” The facts are so bizarre that all these comedians have to do is use their skill and judgment to find the best ones and line them up in a sequence for our entertainment. Facts become a gateway drug to hard-core political satire; with each edition of their shows, we snort a line of news and laugh our heads off.
As for me, 2018 is too ridiculous to make any funnier. My new movie, “The Death of Stalin,” looks at the Kremlin tussle in 1953 to find a successor once the Soviet dictator dies. My next movie is an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s “David Copperfield,” set in 1840, and I’m about to shoot a new HBO show taking place 40 years in the future. I seem to be avoiding the present day as much as I can. Maybe the only way to make any sense of the present is by refracting it through other times.
We can’t get away from it entirely, though: The present is, unfortunately, the only reality we have.